Home > Uncategorized > Speaking Truth to Power – the Resignation of Munir Sheikh

Speaking Truth to Power – the Resignation of Munir Sheikh

Remember the Yes Minister series? The British sitcom from the 80s placed a comedic twist on the often sensative relationship between senior public servants and elected officials. While the show was a comedy, the real life implications of this “special relationship” are not as amusing. Case in point: the resignation of Statistics Canada Chief Statistician Munir Sheikh.

In academia, students of public administration are taught of the concept “speaking truth to power”. This phrase expresses one of the most fundamental obligations as a public servant, which is to provide information and honest – and fearless – advice to your superiors. It is not about telling people what they want to hear, but rather what they need to hear. What the facts demonstrate, rather than what one’s opinion is. This is the difference between career bureaucrats and career politicians – the absense of political considerations when making decisions. Bureaucrats make decisions based on the public interest, while politicians balance public interest with the specific interests of their base (those that vote for them).

Decades of debate and scores of academmic literature have still not resolved the core question: how far should public servants go in defending the public interest – resign? go to the media? refuse to implement Ministerial decisions? The reason this debate is never solved is because in the end, its a personal decision.

The Globe and Mail summarized Mr. Sheikh’s dilemma as:
In the Privy Council Office, Mr. Sheikh led cost-cutting exercises for the entire government; he is no shrinking violet in the face of a tough challenge. By resigning, he essentially stated that the government’s extreme, unreasonable demands on the census simply could not be reconciled with his other professional responsibilities.

There is a certain level of respect that must be afforded to Mr. Sheikh. It takes an incredible amount of courage to do what he did. The message it sends and principles it upholds should be a source of inspiration to students of public administration today. When governments around the world look to improve the management of government or implement new policy, they turn to public administrators for advice. The effective functioning of democratic government rests on the principle of a non-partisan public service that serves the public interest. Anytime this principle is threatened, so is our democracy.

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