The Lynch pin

Ottawa's top bureaucrat deserves our thanks for his years of public service to Canada

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The Gazette, Sunday, June 28, 2009

The clerk of the Privy Council, if he is to succeed in the role as head of the public service, needs not only to master the system but to be in command of it. He also needs to make his political masters look good, while being the soul of discretion in doing so. And he needs to be good at crisis management, because in the twin central agencies of the Prime Minister's Office and PCO, which share space in the Langevin Block, there is hardly a day that passes without a crisis.

Say hello to Kevin Lynch, as well as farewell. At 59, he is stepping down Tuesday after 31/2 years on the job. He is going to spend the summer with his wife renovating their cottage in his native Cape Breton, and then give a series of lectures on public policy in Australia in the fall.

"I hope to remain interested in public policy," Lynch said the other day in a rare interview.

Public policy innovation has been the great passion of his career - the Canada Research Chairs at universities across the country, for example, were created while he was deputy minister of industry and continued while he was deputy at finance.

The chairs might be his proudest achievement, in that they represent a permanent brain gain in a country known for its innovation deficit. But Lynch is also proud of Canada's 12-year virtuous cycle of surpluses and paying down debt that enabled new program spending such as the research chairs.

Four years ago, while he was Canadian delegate to the International Monetary Fund, he told a Washington symposium on comparative fiscal frameworks how Canada went from worst to first in the G7. It was a dazzling performance, a tour de force he repeated in March in a keynote address to a conference on leadership in crisis organized by the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.

Managing through the current economic crisis, he said, was "the civilian equivalent of the fog of war." The list of great clerks of PCO of the last half century is a very short one - Paul Tellier under Brian Mulroney and Gordon Robertson under Lester Pearson, to which can now be added the name of Lynch under Stephen Harper.

"Kevin has done an outstanding job in an extremely challenging environment," says Derek Burney, himself a leading figure of Ottawa's mandarin class, who once served in the Langevin as head of Mulroney's PMO and was co-chair of the transition team that had Lynch at the top of a short list of three recommended to Harper's incoming government in 2006.

Hard-working? It goes without saying. Lights burning late in his third-floor office over the PM's in the Langevin? More nights than not. The joke around the Lynch house was they always knew when it was Sunday because he didn't wear a suit to the office.

Smartest guy in the room? Absolutely, and perhaps that got to be a problem with Harper, the other smartest guy in the room. Where Harper once took his calls during lunch, Lynch's access to the PM was increasingly limited over the last year by Harper's new chief of staff, Guy Giorno, unlike under his predecessor Ian Brodie, a much more collegial figure.

Which is not to say that Lynch's close management style didn't make him enemies in cabinet, who didn't appreciate calls from the clerk telling them the PM wanted this or that.

"King Kevin," one senior minister often sneered. But it was the current crowd of Queen's Park alumni around Harper who insisted on last fall's budget update, which provoked the parliamentary crisis that nearly toppled the second Harper government only six weeks after its re-election.

The PCO wasn't consulted on that, and Lynch didn't care who knew it, though he was left to steer the government to the safe harbour of prorogation and January's redemptive budget.

Quite apart from the challenges of running the bureaucracy in a minority House, Lynch had to face the constant suspicions of the Conservatives of the public service. "Kevin had a huge challenge," says Burney, "just trying to establish trust and mutual respect." Lynch's successor, Wayne Wouters, who has been secretary of the Treasury Board, was also short-listed for clerk in 2006. Where Lynch was pure policy wonk, Wouters is more of an operations guy, and part of his role will be to move infrastructure money out the door. But the PMO won't find him any more of a pushover than Lynch.

"More amiable," says one member of Ottawa's permanent class, "but no more malleable." As for Lynch, his reward is membership in the Privy Council - the Hon. Kevin Lynch, PC. By tradition, the outgoing clerk also receives a painting of the Langevin.

A great public servant is leaving the stage. He deserves the thanks not just of the government and the public service, but of the country he has served so well.

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