First Annual Master of Public Administration Banquet

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Notes for an Address by
Jocelyne Bourgon
Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet

Carleton University
Ottawa, Ontario
March 13, 1998


Thank you for your invitation.

I warmly welcome the opportunity to join you tonight. In anticipation of this evening, I had a brief conversation with Dean Alan Maslove. By the end of our discussion I was left with three questions:

  • Will the public sector matter as much in the future? Is it not a bit passé?

  • In what condition would you find the Public Service of Canada if you were to join it today?

  • What kind of career can a public servant expect in the future?

I have decided to use them as the basis of my speech tonight.

1. Is the public sector passé?

After 15 years of downsizing, after 15 years of debate about the need for less government, I understand why one could be left with the impression that nothing much exciting will be left for government to do in the future.

I don’t share that view. In fact I believe that government and public sector institutions are about to be the centre of a lot of attention. Let me tell you why.

During the last decade we have discovered that democracy working together with a market economy is the uncontested model of societal organization. Nobody knows how to run a successful economy other than through a market economic system. It is the most efficient way to use scarce resources. Nobody knows a better way to provide a peaceful society and to ensure social cohesion than through a democratic system. It is the most efficient way to pursue the collective interest.

Countries, such as Canada, that benefited from both systems have outperformed all others. For these countries it is not a matter of one sector triumphing over the other, it is a matter of balance between

  • The market economy and its supporting private sector institutions, providing wealth, growth and rising real wages

  • Democracy and its supporting public sector institutions providing the legal framework for a peaceful life, the pooling of resources to meet collective needs and the environment that allows the market economy to flourish

We have heard a lot about the changing nature of the market economy in a global economy. Prepare yourself. We are about to hear a lot about the importance of democracy and of the public sector in a well-performing society in a global environment. The World Bank, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have all started to note the importance of governance. This is just the beginning.

In a global environment, countries with a peaceful society, modern infrastructure, world class workforce, and a government able and prepared to invest in people and in research and development will have significant comparative advantage in attracting investment.

Safe streets, safe neighbourhoods, clean air, clean water, good schools, world class learning institutions, and modern health care will be of primary importance in the competition for talent in a global environment.

In a knowledge economy and society, comparative advantages are not inherited, they are created. Knowledge and skills do not just exist, they take sustained investment in education and training and in modern communications infrastructure.

All of this leads toward a key role for government and government institutions.

So let me answer the first question. Whatever the new century may hold for us, we can be sure that government and public sector institutions will have a key role to play. The debate about "less government" is over. We will now see a debate about the role of government in a well-performing society -- the role of government -- in providing Canada and Canadians with comparative advantages in the competition for investment and talent in a global environment.

We are entering an exciting period of time in the life of the public sector in Canada and elsewhere.

2. In what condition would you find the Public Service of Canada, if you were to join it today?

You are all convinced by now that the public sector will continue to have a key role to play in the future. But, what would you find if you were to join the Public Service of Canada today? Is the public service a rigid, bureaucratic institution full of demoralized, aging, cynical, underpaid, public servants?

I want to answer by paying tribute to the people who currently serve in the Public Service of Canada. They have overseen the most fundamental realignment of role in the public sector of Canada since World War II. They have downsized the Public Service of Canada as a percentage of the gross domestic product (GDP) to its lowest level since 1945-50. And they have done it well. In the process, they have also undertaken to modernize service delivery, strengthen policy capacity and rejuvenate the institution.

They will have paid a high personal price to achieve these results but there is no doubt that they will leave behind a better institution than the one they inherited.

You are students of public administration. You have studied the "UK model of public sector reform", the "New Zealand approach", the "Australian initiatives". Each country faces similar challenges and each is responding in its own way.

But how much do you know about the "Canadian model" of public service reform? How much do you know about the reforms that have taken place in the Public Service of Canada over the last four or five years? I would like to introduce you to the "Canadian model" of public service reform by summarizing its philosophical underpinnings and guiding principles.

None of the principles is uniquely Canadian, but taken together, they amount to an approach sufficiently different from any other country to warrant some attention.

The Canadian model of public service reform recognizes the importance of affordable government, but rejects the philosophy that less government is synonymous with better government.

It is an important principle. It means that the purpose of public sector reform is not to make public sector services more attractive to potential private sector buyers. The purpose of reform in the Public Service of Canada is to provide affordable government and a more modern public service.

The Canadian model of public service reform recognizes the importance of partnership and strategic alliances.

For the public interest to be well served, government does not need to do it all. Instead, government must build on the strength of others - the private sector, the voluntary and not-for-profit sectors and citizens themselves.

Today, in every department you can find all types of partnership arrangements, each one different, each one building bridges among sectors to achieve a common goal. That was not the case, even just a few years ago.

The Canadian model reaffirms the importance of citizens well beyond their role as customers and clients.

Put simply, this means that the public sector should not be run like a business. The Public Service of Canada must be run in a manner consistent with public sector values and principles. As you know, some people in government -- in the public service and in the academic community -- have taken a very different view.

The public sector, like the private sector, is committed to quality of service and to efficiency gains, but for public sector reasons. Efficiency, because each dollar saved can be applied either to providing more service to Canadians or to reducing their tax burden. Quality, out of respect for those we serve.

Canadian public sector reform has given equal weight to strengthening policy capacity and modernizing service delivery.

I am particularly proud of the progress to date in this area.

Today in the Public service of Canada, on the service side, one can find integrated services among departments and agencies, Integrated services among governments, and Increased use of information technology, connecting Canadians and their communities, giving them access to the knowledge currently in the hands of three levels of government.

On the policy side, one can now find a government-wide network of the policy units in 30 federal departments and agencies. They have a shared work program covering issues such as growth, human development, social cohesion, global challenges and adjustment to a knowledge-based society. Their initial findings have been discussed by 300 policy analysts across government and with 40 external research organizations. This is progress. The network is now planning to hold a national conference in the fall of 1998. Policy work is alive and well in the Public Service of Canada.

Most of the efforts of public service reform in other countries have focused on service delivery. In fact some of my colleagues in other countries worry about the future of their public service. They fear that the public service role in their country could be limited to implementing decisions but could be devoid of the essential element of non-partisan public service -- a strong policy capacity and a solid challenge function.

The Canadian model requires strong leadership from both elected and appointed officials.

Here again, the story of reform in the Public Service of Canada in the recent past has been different from other countries. In the U.K., Australia and New Zealand, public service reforms were the result of strong political leadership. In our case, the approach was one of shared leadership -- political leadership to realign the role of government to ensure balance and to stay the course; public service leadership to bring forward creative options, to make feasible what is desirable, and to ensure smooth implementation.

So let me now answer the second question. Those who join the Public Service of Canada in the years to come will find an institution that has just completed the most profound realignment of role in years and shows signs of fatigue from the effort; but a strong, and resilient institution, experimenting and exploring new ways of doing things. An institution resolutely turned to the task ahead -- to help prepare Canada and Canadians for the new millennium.

3. What kind of career can a public servant expect in the future?

Contrary to what some may think, there is no shortage of highly qualified people who aspire to a career in the Public Service of Canada.

In fact, the situation is almost the reverse. Many young, highly qualified and enthusiastic graduates wanted to join even during the most difficult period of downsizing. We have had thousands of applicants for competitions to staff as few as 40 professional positions. The problem was never to attract new recruits but to create openings at the same time as we were downsizing.

This period is now over and every department has been asked to prepare a recruitment strategy to meet their future needs.

If we did not have problems attracting people, we certainly had problems retaining highly qualified public servants at the top of their profession. Many among those who left wanted to stay but, after seven years of salary freeze, they simply could not afford it. These problems are not resolved yet, but we are making progress. For one, the salary freeze is over, seven collective agreements have been signed and compensation for executives has recently been adjusted.

As well, the generation that entered the public service during the 1960's is now eligible for retirement some 30 percent of executives could retire by the year 2000, 70 percent by 2005. The public service is about to enter a phase of intense activity to recruit and promote. For the next 10 years, career opportunities will be very good in the Public Service of Canada.

Against this backdrop, a career in the public service will remain a career committed to serving Canada and Canadians, their democratic institutions and the collective interest. Some twenty five years after joining the public service, I still believe that no other career could give you the bread, the diversity, the complexity and the excitement of a public sector career. This is not changing.

But some aspects of a career in the public service are changing. Let me mention a few.

A whole of government approach.

You may have noticed that the Government of Canada changed the name of its Cabinet committees after the last election. The Cabinet Committee on Economy Policy became the Cabinet Committee on the Economic Union of Canada. The Cabinet Committee on Social Policy became the Cabinet Committee on the Social Union of Canada. What you cannot possibly know is that, more and more frequently, these two committees meet jointly. What does it mean?

It means that the lines between economic and social policies are disappearing and that a "a whole-of-government approach" is becoming the only way to shape a proper policy response. In practice it means that a department can no longer develop a policy proposal even in consultation with others. Rather, policy proposals must be shaped right from the start by a multidisciplinary team of policy analysts coming from several departments.

Public servants and public sector managers will increasingly need a diversity of knowledge and experience. And the organization will have to provide them with the opportunities to diversify their career.

The Public Service of Canada is becoming a matrix of vertical and horizontal organizations.

The public service is a vertical organization through the delegation of authority from Parliament to ministers, to Deputy Ministers and down the line. But on top of this vertical structure, there is a horizontal accountability structure. Let me give you two recent examples. The work on climate change is lead by an Assistant Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food reporting to the Deputy Ministers of Environment and Natural Resources. The ADM has a task force of people from four to five different departments. The task force reports to two ministers who co-chair a co-ordinating committee of ministers.

The negotiations with the provinces on renewal of the social union of Canada are lead by an ADM of the Treasury Board Secretariat and the team members come from everywhere. The team reports to the Minister of Justice, as chair of the 13 minister Cabinet committee on the Social Union.

Career wise, this means that public servants must work well in teams and they must be able to use formal and informal authority. They will sometimes lead and sometimes follow the leads of others. In all cases, they contribute and bring added value.

The public service is a knowledge-based organization. It must also become a learning organization.

"Cliché", some would say. I disagree.

The public service was once composed of a lot of support staff, many blue collar workers, some professionals and a few managers. Now, we have fewer blue collar workers, our support staff are experts in information technology, our professionals are knowledge workers, and we have a fair-size executive category. The employees own the most important resource of the organization - their know-how and their ability to innovate. With all the power in the world, managers cannot command and control creativity and innovation. This calls for a different approach to management in order to get the best out of everyone and to obtain results. It calls for a different approach to human resources management.


Let me conclude. Democracy and its supporting public sector institutions are essential to a well-performing society. In a global environment, government will play a key strategic role in creating the comparative advantages of a nation in the competition for talent and investment. The Public Service of Canada has undergone the most profound realignment of role since the 1950s. In the process it has also improved its service delivery and strengthened its policy capacity. A career in the public service is one dedicated to the service of the collective interest. To join means to be confronted by challenges of great complexity, to work with men and women equally talented and committed, to learn and to be given the chance to make a difference beyond the reach of most.

Public service speaks to one’s soul. Management speaks to one’s heart. If both resonate for you, a career in the public service might be for you.