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

 Governance for the 21st Century Conference

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Willson House
Meech Lake, Quebec
April 22, 1998


 Let me begin by offering my warmest welcome to you all and a special word of thanks to those of you who have come a long distance to participate in this conference.

A conference such as this one is a gift and a learning experience of the highest order.

It is a gift because over the next three (3) days, we will be away from the daily pressures of our respective offices. We will have the chance to discuss, to exchange and to reflect without interruption about the trends which may shape our agendas in the years to come.

It is a learning opportunity because over the next three (3) days, we will teach and learn from each other.

Some of us are serving in elected office. Some have been the architects of major public sector reform, others are senior advisers to their government on the role of the state in our respective countries.

We will put all this expertise to good use. We have a lot in common. We share common values within the Commonwealth and we share a common commitment to serving the public good and the collective interest. At the same time, we are very different. Our countries vary widely in geography, history, social and economic conditions, political forces, and cultural traditions.

The strength of this kind of conference, is its diversity. Over the coming days, we should not expect an agreement on a single model for public sector reforms but we can aspire to gain insights from one another’s experience. We could identify principles which may guide our actions in the future. We could identify new ideas that we want to try on, secure in the knowledge that we are not alone.

I would like to start off our discussion by putting forward some observations of general application and describe for you some of the characteristics of Canada, which have influenced the approach we have taken toward public sector reform. And finally, briefly sketch for you the "Canadian model" of public sector reform.

I. Common Issues, Different Approaches

1. As we come to the end of the 20th century and look toward the 21st, the importance of the role of the state being recognized again:

Not so long ago much of the international thinking on development focussed on economic or technical issues. In some quarters the state was seen as an obstacle to development, not the solution. Some believed that the way toward development and economic prosperity was to free market forces and limit government to the most minimalist role.

You will remember that in the 70's, some academists of great reputation were predicting the end of the nation state.

Today, we are taking a much more balanced view and we are rediscovering the importance of the role of the state and of public sector institutions to ensure a well performing economy and a well performing society. In a global environment, countries with a peaceful society, modern infrastructure, world class workforce with a government able to invest in people and in research and development have significant comparative advantage in attracting investment needed to prosper.

Safe streets, safe neighbourhoods, clean air, clean water, good schools, world class learning institutions, and modern health care are of primary importance in the competition to attract and retain talent in a global environment. In a knowledge economy and society, comparative advantages are not inherited, they are created. Knowledge and skills take sustained investment in education and training and in modern communications infrastructure.

All of these factors imply a key strategic role on the part of government and government institutions.

 2. Over the last decade we have discovered that the countries that have benefitted from both a strong democracy and a strong market economy have out-performed all others.

In this context, the role of government and public sector reforms have very different meaning in our respective countries depending on the political history, stage of development, economic circumstances and cultural traditions. We share the same goal but we are different and our approach must be different.

 Some countries have neither a well functioning democracy nor a well functioning market economy. These countries have generally suffered from a chronically low standard of living because they do not have the conditions necessary for either state institutions or a market economy to flourish. For these countries, the challenge is to build both sets of institutions at the same time...A most difficult challenge.

Some countries have had a tradition of strong centralized states but with no or little market economy. The challenge there is not to dismantle the old state to allow the market economy to flourish. The challenge is to create a new state able to provide the legal and regulatory regimes essential for a market economy to flourish.

Some countries have had a tradition of strong private markets but a very weak state. Without the proper check or balances these countries often suffer from poor quality of life, weak environmental controls or human rights violations. Public sector reforms in this case means building democratic and public sector institutions that will discipline the market forces and ensure that collective interest as well as individual interests can be pursued at the same time.

Finally, some countries have benefitted for the past 100 years of strong private sector and strong public sector. It is the case of most of the industrialized countries. In these countries, the challenge turns around realigning roles while continuing to reap the benefits of a balanced approach. Believe me, this is a much easier task than those I referred to before.

 3. Whatever the circumstances might be in our respective countries, the state and public sector institutions can only play their role if they can rely on qualified and competent human resources.

There again the goal is the same but our circumstances are very different.

Some countries are fighting to eliminate corruption at all levels of government. Others are struggling to establish a professional public service free of patronage and of the effect of a spoiled system. Others have had a long tradition for a professional non-partisan public service but they are plagued by outdated rules, procedures and red tape.

Whatever our circumstances we all have a lot of work to do to ensure that the public sector employees will continue to have the competence, the knowledge and the experience to serve citizens and their elected representatives in the future.

 II. The Context for Reform in Canada

Let me now turn to my own country and describe some of the factors which have influenced our approach to public sector reforms.

First, Canada is a federation, not a unitary state. It is comprised of ten provinces and 2 (shortly 3) territories. It is the world’s most highly decentralized large democracy. State powers are divided by the constitution between the federal and provincial governments, federal-provincial tensions are a part of the reality of our political life. All major public policy issues must be considered through the lens of federal-provincial relations.

Second, Canada was created through the coming together of three (3) nations -- anglophones who live throughout Canada including in the province of Quebec, francophones who live mainly, but not exclusively in Quebec and native peoples, who also live throughout Canada. Debates over national unity and identity have been part of the Canadian reality since before Confederation.

Third, Canada has a population of 30 million people, spread over the second largest national land mass in the world which touches on three (3) oceans.

Fourth, Canada is highly diverse. Regional diversity is a major factor. Moreover, Canada is culturally and linguistically diverse. You all know that English and French are Canada’s two official languages. But how many of you know that Chinese is Canada’s third language? Canada came of age through successive move of immigrants.

Fifth, Canada has a mixed economy. While Canadians expressed dissatisfaction with the cost of government, Canadians did not demand withdrawal of government nor a purely market-based approach.

Sixth, public sector reforms in Canada began 10 years before a fiscal crisis which peaked in 1993. After a decade of efforts, a social consensus emerged about the need to take action to eliminate the deficit and realign the role of government.

Canadians wanted:

  • good government but affordable government;

  • high ethical standards for both elected and political officials;

  • better government -- higher quality, more effective, more accountable, seamless between levels of government and between the Parliament;

  • Canadians wanted greater citizen participation (citizens want to reclaim their institutions).

The linkages among these factors have shaped the "Canadian model" of reform.

 III. The Canadian Model of Public Sector Reform

Let me 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.

1. The Canadian model of public sector 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 in Canada is not to make public sector services more attractive to potential private sector buyers. The purpose of reform in Canada is to provide affordable government and a more modern public service.

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

It recognizes that for the public interest to be well served, government does not need to do it all. Instead, government must build on the strengths of others - the private sector, the voluntary and not-for-profit sectors, and citizens themselves. There must be a constant flow of transfer from the public sector in Canada as society is able to take on new responsibilities.

3. 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. 

4. 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 examples of integrated services among departments and agencies, integrated services among governments, and an increased use of information technology to connect Canadians and their communities, giving them access to the knowledge currently in the hands of three (3) levels of government. We have rejected the notion that "one size fits all" in public service management. Instead, we are trying to encourage experimentation and the emergence of a diversity of institutional models.

On the policy side, one can now find a government-wide network of the policy units located 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 with 40 external research organizations and they are planning to hold their first national conference in the fall of 1998. Policy work is alive and well in the Public Service of Canada.

5. Finally, the Canadian model requires strong leadership from both elected and appointed officials.

Here again, the story of reform in the Public Service of Canada has differed from other countries. In the UK, 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 carry out the difficult task of implementation.


So let me try to sum up:

  • Every country is different and must define its own course of action for public sector reform one that is suitable to its situation and circumstances.

  • While the approaches are different, the objective is the same: to better serve citizens and their elected representatives. We can, therefore, learn from each others’ experiences.

  • Canada has adopted a model of reform that was suited to its particular circumstances. Today, we are proud of what we have accomplished. The results are there for all to see -- a major realignment of role and a balanced budget. This was achieved while maintaining a strong economic performance and preserving a quality of life that is among the best in the world.

Public sector reforms and public sector management is an art -- It is the art of tailoring one’s approach to the particulars of our society’s circumstances to achieve the collective interest. Canada has a contribution to make toward the modernization of public service management.

I hope that this overview will be useful to our deliberations and look forward to our discussions.