David Zussman’s Off and Running

I’ve just read Off and Running, David Zussman’s new book about electoral transitions in the Government of Canada, published by University of Toronto Press as part of the Institute of Public Administration of Canada’s series on public management and governance. By electoral transitions, I mean the changes that result from a general election, whether the governing party is re-elected or replaced by the opposition. Zussman’s book is, without doubt, the definitive work in this field, and it deserves high praise.

Zussman was the head of the transition team for Jean Chretien’s three governments (elected in 1993, 1997, and 2000) and could have written a monograph, and probably a book, on the basis of his experience alone. It is to his credit that he went beyond that to interview people associated with the Clark, Mulroney, Campbell, and Harper transitions. That they were willing to cooperate makes the point that planning and managing a transition is an important type of tradecraft with Canadian government. It is to their credit that these professionals, regardless of their politics, were willing to share tradecraft with one another and, thanks to this book, with the interested reader. Some of the anecdotes provided – set off in text boxes – are fascinating (such as the transition from addressing the party leader by first name to “Prime Minister”).

Another strength of Off and Running is that it takes a comprehensive life-cycle approach to transition, starting with the small transition teams appointed by party leaders several months before an election and doing their work confidentially, moving through the high profile activity of the team just before and after the election, to the completion of the transition phase during the first few months of a government’s mandate. It tells the complete story.

Off and Running is comprehensive in other ways, for example in Zussman’s frequent references to transition tradecraft in our nearby comparators, the US and the UK. In addition, Zussman has included a variety of documentary materials, such as his own briefing notes and outlines of the 1993 transition book his team prepared for Jean Chretien and the 2006 transition book Derek Burney’s team prepared for Stephen Harper.

Finally, Zussman goes beyond description to prescription for participants in the process to systemic prescription, recommending that the Harper Government rethink its restrictions on public servants during the election period, such as not making public speeches, participating in international meetings, or meeting with leaders of opposition parties.

A few final observations:

Zussman included the vetting questionnaire posed to potential ministers in 1993, which included a question about drug or alcohol abuse. It’s good to know that, if answered truthfully, it would have disqualified Rob Ford.

More and more, faculty in business schools are writing articles not books. Public management faculty, however, continue to write books. I’m glad Zussman produced a book, rather than a series of articles. His message was so wide-ranging and comprehensive that a book was the appropriate approach.

Zussman remarks that senior public servants are expected to interact with their new minister in the official language of the minister’s choice. Consistent with this practice, when he has included documents in French, he has chosen not to translate them. I think it’s a reasonable expectation that his readers should be able to handle this (and, if they can’t, there is always Google translate).

Zussman uses endnotes for referencing. I prefer in-text references that permit me to see immediately whom he is referencing and give me the option to look at the reference list to find out more. I find it inconvenient to read the text and keep flipping to the back to check references for points I found fascinating, of which there were many.

My overall and enthusiastic conclusion is that this is a superb work and a major contribution to the study of government in Canada that will be of interest to scholars, students, and practitioners. It is a must-read for both Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau this summer!


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