Revitalizing a vital institution – Canadian Government Executive

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May 7, 2012

Revitalizing a vital institution

CGE Vol.13 No.7 September 2007

“If the Public Service, as a core national institution, does not renew itself for future as well as current service to the government and people of Canada, it risks becoming less relevant, less useful and less respected as the years go by. If we do not commit ourselves to a continuing process of renewal, the Public Service will not remain a creative national institution, central to the governance and development of our country.”
– Kevin Lynch, Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to Cabinet, Annual Report to the Prime Minister on the Public Service of Canada, 2007

A high-quality public service is essential to economic competitiveness and quality of life. Public service is a vital national institution. The public service faces imposing challenges, both longstanding and emerging (see sidebar).

In the face of these trends and challenges, how do we ensure that Canada’s public service remains “fit for purpose?” This requires a forward-looking vision of government and its public service that manages the challenges and offers a context within which to make future choices and trade-offs. To this end, the Public Policy Forum has begun a major year-long study and cross-country consultation. Initial results suggest that the government and its public service need to be:

  •      Relevant: focused on issues of national interest and able to design framework policies and implement programs that are firmly rooted in the public interest and that fully integrate social, economic and environmental objectives.
  •      Connected and networked: working and sharing information and power with all levels of government – and with Canadians – to articulate national priorities and to devise and fund mechanisms that will deliver results that Canadians want in areas such as learning, health, sustainable environments, diversity and intergenerational change.
  •      Partnered: engaged with private enterprise, the not-for-profit sector and other levels of government who are best able to deliver services and implement programs and policies, with minimal overlap or duplication of effort.
  •      Agile: with a human resources system that has the flexibility to hire, train and deploy staff quickly from one area to another within and across departments, links performance more closely with rewards, and takes advantage of exchanges between governments and with partners in the private and not-for-profit sectors.
  •      Citizen-focused: emphasizing collaboration and consultation by engaging individuals, sectors and other levels of government in decisions which affect them while remaining responsive to emerging and changing needs; operating through a set of integrated and interdependent networks, rather than command-and-control hierarchies; and communicating and delivering service through the channels Canadians prefer and in language they understand.
  •      Values-infused: enjoying the respect and trust of Canadians because it conducts its business in a way that is transparent, values-based, outcomes-oriented and accountable to the public it serves.
  •      Accountable: defining processes with a maximum degree of flexibility allowing for discretion rather than attempting to create iron-clad rules to cover every possible instance while exercising the kind of leadership that reflects Canadians’ values and priorities.

Through a series of roundtable discussions held in seven cities the Forum spoke with Canadians representing a range of backgrounds, experiences and perspectives, asking their thoughts, their vision of government and public service. While many shared our vision, they also noted that the public service continues to face challenges with respect to achieving it. Broadly speaking, six conclusions emerged from the roundtables:

1.     There is no guarantee that public service will remain relevant if it cannot adapt to 21st century realities.
2.     Ottawa grows increasingly isolated while the country – and the world – becomes increasingly connected and interdependent.
3.     There must be more focus on performance, value for taxpayer dollars, quality service and the achievement of meaningful outcomes for Canadians.
4.     The accountability-driven “web of rules” is creating a culture with plenty of fear and little innovation.
5.     A poorly defined public service brand combined with slow, inflexible human resource and recruitment processes represent a significant barrier to managing generational change.
6.     Without effective, sustained, committed senior leadership from politicians and public servants, the public service will continue to “muddle through” significant organizational and institutional challenges.

Why does this matter? As leadership analyst Jim Collins notes in Good to Great, building organizations requires a direct and honest assessment of strengths and weaknesses. It requires a clear and well-communicated vision of what you want the organization to become. It requires identifying key elements for success and putting them front and centre.

Public service reform is, in large measure, about leadership – a partnership of political and public service leaders. Political leaders need to understand and openly promote the role and values of public service. They need to actively debate the quality and performance of the public service. They need to provide modern legislation to govern public service activities while providing a respectful audience for public service advice – advice that, while supporting the government of the day, reflects the public interest through its emphasis on forward-looking, Canada-wide and evidence-based counsel.

Public service leadership needs to recognize its obligation to share in the broad and complex accountability exercised by political leaders. It requires the continued application of core values, such as “speaking truth to power.” Leading change requires greater visibility on the part of public service leaders with Parliamentarians, partners, stakeholders, media and citizens. The public service needs to consistently demonstrate its capacity to generate big ideas – ideas that reflect strong expertise and knowledge while demonstrating the ability to connect and partner across departments, sectors, regions and countries. This ability to generate policy must be matched by an ability to effectively implement programs and services, while being good stewards.

The Forum believes that the relationship between politicians and public servants is a central factor in achieving change. Excessive command and control, ministerial distrust, deteriorating decorum and treatment of public servants in Parliament and a continuing emphasis on “blame and shame” have real implications for public service behaviour. Conversely, politicians complain about public servants ducking their responsibilities, denying them information and usurping their role. Exploring this complex relationship and confronting these issues is a significant part of our study.

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