Remarks by Mr. Mel Cappe 
to the 
Institute of Public Administration of Canada

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August 28, 2000 

Check Against Delivery


  • Good morning.
  • First, let me thank Jocelyne Bourgon for her kind introduction.
  • And let me welcome all of you to Ottawa and to this conference. When the organizers asked me to offer a few opening remarks on governance in the 21st century they also pointed out that I had 15 minutes to work with.
  • But, I have to admit that I don't think I can even identify, let alone solve, all the challenges of governance for you in a 15 minute talk. Besides, if I did, what would the other speakers be left to do for the rest of this conference?
  • The theme of this year's conference is timely: "Making History: Governance in the 21st Century".
  • So today, I would like to present you with a few ideas about the nature and pace of change, and leave you with one key message - the importance of being able to adapt and meet the governance challenges of the 21st century.
  • The 20th century was one of tremendous progress and change - throughout which our governance systems have adapted successfully.
  • Some of the fundamental changes of the last 100 years include:
  • From the Wright Brothers to putting a man on the moon - this happened in 70 years
  • From discovery of penicillin to mapping of human genome - this happened in 70 years
  • From Edison to the Internet in 100 years
  • As we look forward, we must ask ourselves whether our governance systems will continue to have the capacity to adapt to the speed and complexity of change in the 21st century. I believe we have an opportunity to "make history".

The Tensions that Influence our Choices

  • In my speeches, I like to offer stories from my own experience and I like to quote great minds. I'll get to the stories later, but first a quote from a great mind -- Yogi Berra. He once said, "The future ain't what it used to be."
  • I quote him because not so long ago, people could try to predict the future by drawing a straight line from the past through to the present. For example, governments had become increasingly important, not just as providers of services or in operating key institutions, but throughout Canada's social and economic life. So, draw a straight line and you have more of the same.
  • Only Yogi was right; the future ain't what it used to be.
  • We operate in an environment where we have to take into account what other governments in other countries and other jurisdictions do. Citizens have clearer expectations about what they want from government and how they want that role played and their services delivered. We are building more and more partnerships with the private and voluntary sectors.
  • So what does all that mean to governance? Clearly, the very nature of governance is changing. And this means there is no nice straight line into the future for any institution, including government.
  • Every four years, we have a summer Olympics. Athletes train in the time between. But in the "governance Olympics", we face continuous, not discrete challenges.
  • So as we limber up to make history in the 21st century "governance Olympics", what are the hurdles on the way to a flexible, adaptable approach to governance?
1. Uniformity / Uniqueness
  • One is deciding how much like the rest of the world we want to be, and how unique we want to be and can be -- uniformity versus uniqueness.
  • To hear some people talk, our culture is cruising to a world of sameness: one homogenous lump.
  • That is not just a question of every radio around the world playing The Backstreet Boys over and over, it extends to theories and trends in government and public administration. Ideas and practices, best or otherwise, are moving around more freely than ever. And sometimes, people like to pick up on the practices of elsewhere just because they seem so new and so much part of an international trend.
  • On the other hand, we see increasing resistance to that apparent uniformity. Policy debates increasingly include positions based on preserving, at all costs, what are perceived as unique national, regional or local features "just because".
  • So, our governance hurdle is to stay open to new ideas without necessarily rejecting our traditions. As part of that, I am proud to say that we need to recognize that we have a good track record of finding a middle way, a "Canadian way" to get things done in this country both in terms of governance and in terms of public policy more generally.
2. Rules / Flexibility
  • Our second hurdle is how to manage the shift away from rigid rules-based decision-making towards more flexible decision-making based on shared objectives and values. And how to manage it without rejecting the basic point of the rules.
  • Once we had laws and regulations over economic activities that lasted for a long time without major change. But now the rapid pace of change in the economy and in business life means that governance models for economic activities have to respect the speed of change and the global nature of many business activities.
  • The hurdle here is to create an operating and legal climate that is predictable for all players and for the citizens who expect us to ensure basic safeguards in how our economy operates, while permitting Canadian business to evolve to make the most of new opportunities at home and around the world.
  • We face the same hurdle in our own operations. Our programs were once governed by rules that were explicit and detailed. But that often did not work well. Citizens complained because they felt they had to jump through hoops to get assistance. Our staff complained that they spent more time crossing "t"s and dotting "I"s than achieving results. Our challenge has been to create that flexibility and focus on results, while ensuring that decisions are made for the right reasons with the right attention to getting the best value for the money we spend.
  • I don't have to point out that this is a critical challenge if we want to build confidence among citizens that we are doing the right things in the right ways -- that we are respecting the public interest.
3. Fast / Slow
  • Our third hurdle is determining how fast we can and should go. And all governments have problems with this tension - at least as far as many citizens, businesses and other stakeholders are concerned who want something done now, not later, regardless of the potential consequences on others.
  • A lot of this tension comes down to a basic difference between the public and private sectors and that is the acceptability of failure. In businesses, failure can be acceptable. In fact, to look at the experience of many dot.coms it has a bizarre cachet. But even in the more traditional businesses that make products, leaders know that most new products put on the market fail and even the old ones will be yanked if sales flag.
  • We don't have the same luxury in public policy.
  • As much as we talk about taking risks, and we are less risk-averse than ever, the public tolerance for policy failure is pretty low.
  • We owe a duty to the public interest.
  • Ministers, let alone Parliamentarians, tend not to say, "We'll all laugh about this someday."
  • So I've suggested that this fast-slow hurdle has to be jumped a different way. Instead of Bill Gates' call for "Business at the speed of thought" our goal should be "Government at the speed of public interest." That reminds us that time is of the essence but it is not the essence itself. We still need to think through options that we offer to Ministers. We still need to consider factors such as the equity implications of choices and the impacts on all parties.
4. Powerlessness / Empowerment
  • A fourth hurdle -- and we've already gone well over a hundred metres here -- is about power. Who has the power to get things done in our organizations? Who has the power to get things done in our society?
  • Here the direction is quite clear. Our governance models have to be built around promoting citizen empowerment. This means consultation that is more than just listening to a preordained agenda. It means thinking through concepts such as E-democracy, but not disintermediating elected representatives.
  • It means considering how our laws and regulations either vest authority in the hands of people and institutions or how they move that authority to government or others. Increasingly it means an expanded role for government as a source of information and tools, and as an assurer.
  • Let me point out what that has meant in terms of our environmental policies. Years ago, the focus of environmental policy-making was strict laws, strict limits. And these worked as far as they could. However, with new technologies we are more and more able to put information and tools on-line that people can use to take action on environmental issues in their own communities. They have the power and leverage to get things done that are simply beyond the pale of legislation.
  • Today, our focus is on regulating for performance and outcomes instead of inputs, and new technologies can help us to do this.
5. Hierarchy / Flattening
  • That same issue of empowerment for citizens is followed quickly by the next governance hurdle: having organizations and employees that have enough flexibility to get things done.
  • There is a legitimate tension between having a hierarchy, so that decisions are made effectively and in line with our democratic system, and having flat organizations that give people on the front-lines the capacity to respond to local or individual needs. But this tension is not confined to our organizational boundaries. If we really want responsive governments that are citizen-centred in reality, then we have to listen to what Canadians have clearly told us.
  • Citizens want us to focus on what works for them, which can mean networks and more flexible structures that break down silos. They want governments to work to ensure that there is no wrong door when it comes to service, and they want governments to work together and with other partners to identify best approaches to policy when it comes to issues such as the needs of children or building a more competitive economy.
6. Economic / Social / Cultural / Environmental
  • The flexibility that we need in 21st century governance goes well past how we design our structures. It goes right to how we integrate our thinking on public issues. We have to bring together our economic, social, cultural and environmental policies.
  • Not so long ago, governance models reflected the nice simple world of neat little boxes. This order of government did this and that one did that. You had economic policy. You had social policy. Things were compartmentalized. There was no integration.
  • The challenge in the 21st century will be to integrate all our policies, while articulating the bigger picture. We are already seeing many signs in this direction. For example, our environmental policies have to reflect what we know about the economy, our economic policies have to reflect what we want our environment and society to be like, our social policies have to reflect a sound economy for all citizens - and all have to reflect the importance of a thriving culture.
  • In turn, integration has important implications for responsibility and accountability.
7. International / Domestic
  • The next hurdle I want to mention is how our governance models must increasingly adapt to the internationalization of issues. The Government of Canada has always had to take into account international issues and factors. But once that was largely up to a small number of departments. The rest focussed on the world within our borders. Now, I would bet that there is not one department without international exposure.
  • Today, we need to become "fonctionnaires sans frontières" to address this challenge.
8. Stability / Change
  • The final hurdle that I want to mention is perhaps the least significant now. That is the thirst for stability and the force for change. When I was appointed Deputy Minister at Environment Canada, I arrived with the intention of bringing stability to the department.
  • A few months later, the Government announced Program Review.
  • There may be no such thing as stability any more. Indeed, we appear to be living in a world of continuous change. Therefore, in our race for gold in the governance olympics, we may be continuously faced with new hurdles, just as we think we've hit an open, flat stretch of track.

The Governable and the Ungovernable

  • Now, if all those governance hurdles weren't challenging enough, even the course itself keeps changing. We are constantly being pressed to reconsider what is governable and what has simply become ungovernable -- at least by the conventional means.
  • I want to emphasize this because when I read the brochure for this conference, I saw the suggestion that the focus of the past few years has been on improved service delivery and modernizing the public service - but not on governance.
  • Well, you were right about the focuses on service and our public service. But I don't agree on the governance issue -- at least at the federal level. We have spent most of the last decade rethinking what our role is and how we can get results.
  • The old governance model of watertight compartments would never have enabled us to test more integrated, intergovernmental approaches to fundamental Canadian issues. We would never have addressed the needs of children by moving to a cooperative National Children's Agenda that has explicit room for communities and the voluntary sector.
  • The old model would have been completely incapable of dealing with the reality of the Internet, which is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Governments all over the world have learned that they lack the ability to exercise laws and controls on something as elusive as the World Wide Web.
  • And that change has opened the door to new approaches to governance in support of traditional policy objectives, but approaches that are sometimes outside the purview of governments altogether.
  • Let me give you an interesting example. There have been a lot of concerns raised about pornography and gambling over the Internet. Certainly, there are things a government can do about sites that are located in their countries. But not all countries have the capacity or will to do anything. Moreover, a site can move almost instantaneously from one jurisdiction to another.
  • So, is there no governance option at all? Perhaps there is, with an international private sector process underway now to address both pornography and gambling issues. What is interesting and maybe a taste of things to come is that the process explicitly does not include governments.
  • Some people will see this as the thin edge of the wedge in which governments become less and less capable of carrying out traditional roles in any governance model. Others may see it as a wake-up call, that we cannot take our functions as a given, that we have to be open to identifying and addressing those areas in which our citizens expect action and in which we can mobilize to get that action - in whatever way works best.

Values, Our Anchor Now and in the Future

  • So, is that it? Is the future governance one long race, always trying to catch up with change? Always trying to prove that we have something to offer?
  • Hardly. No matter what happens, people will expect their governments to take a leading role in helping to articulate public choices and facilitating, when not actually taking, the action to respond. They expect us to roll with change but not to be mindlessly driven by it.
  • There are two factors that will enable us to define and act on governance models that are flexible, adaptable and effective. The first is a renewed commitment to four key public service values.
  • I firmly believe in the importance of a professional, non-partisan, representative, national and bilingual public service to the health and strength of our society and our economy. I also realize that the people in the public service routinely face challenging questions, precisely because of the pace of change now. They face questions as they do their work to support their ministers, whom Canadians have entrusted with the public interest. They face questions as they deal with the public, partners and with other people in the public service.
  • I strongly believe that four key public service values have to serve as the anchor for all our decisions. They certainly guide our governance choices.
  • First, are our democratic values. We have to realize that we are here to help ministers under law and the Constitution to serve the common good. We have to be guided by an essential appreciation for the rule of law and our system of government as well as the public interest.
  • Second are our professional values. This means really trying to do a good job for the many ways in which people are citizens. That means objective, impartial service to the person who comes into our offices or visits our website. It means choices that respect the interests of the taxpayer. It means a focus on policies, programs and services that generate the best results possible.
  • Getting those results in practice comes through a continued commitment to excellence, and merit. It means objective and impartial advice to Ministers.
  • Third are our ethical values. We want government to continue to be known as a place where our actions are guided by honesty and integrity. We want people to recognize that our choices and advise are directed at the common good not our own personal advantage.
  • Fourth are our people values. We must always strive to be reasonable, fair and respectful of individuals and of citizen rights. As part of that, our people values have to demonstrate that we respect the diversity of this society.
  • I have stressed the importance of values because they are the foundation of good decisions in all that a government does. Good governance without sound values is simply inconceivable to me.

People, our Only Sure Solution

  • But values do not exist in a vacuum. And this brings me to my final point this morning.
  • Values exist through the choices of people. So, talking governance without talking about the central place of public employees who embody those values is like talking transportation without talking about the central place of energy.
  • People will decide how flexible and adaptable our governance models will be. People will decide how clearly we express and apply our values. People will make the difference between governments that are relevant and those that get left behind because they would not change or did not do so wisely.
  • People issues are at the core of my management agenda in the Federal Public Service and the same is true for many of my colleagues in public organizations across Canada. We are looking to the future and looking for the people who will take us there.
  • Now, I could talk on this issue for a lot longer than 15 minutes, but I just want to make a few, short points. Over the next decade, the federal public service faces a generational transition unlike any before. Those of you with graying hair, who had the good fortune to come into the labour market the last time that governments did a lot of hiring are already gearing up for mass retirement parties. And that is on top of the gaps that we already have in our workforce.
  • To position us for success and relevance in the 21st century, I have championed a government-wide commitment to recruitment, retention and learning. We need to attract people who see our workplaces as ones in which they can make a contribution. We need to identify the issues that cause us to lose some people of all ages, so we can retain and build on their skills and commitment. Finally, we need to make a much stronger evolution towards being an organization that promotes learning.
  • Most departments are already deeply engaged in actions on all three priorities. We are identifying what we can do across the government to expand on those initiatives. And all of this will help us get the kinds of people who can work with flexibility and a strong sense of unifying values.


  • There are two possible conclusions I could wrap up with today.
  • One is that we can commend ourselves on how well we have adapted so far.
  • We have applied technology to speed up our processes, communications and service delivery.
  • We have amended the constitution five times.
  • We have created the new territory of Nunavut.
  • We have made policy changes to meet citizen demands (i.e. parental leave).

We can legitimately claim that we have "made history".

  • The other conclusion I could give is that, if one of us here had fallen asleep 25 years ago and woke up in the year 2000, he or she might remark that things look much the same as they did in 1975, with only a little bit of high tech peppered in to mask the stale flavour.
  • I suspect there is an element of truth in both. This is perhaps the true measure of success. We have not strayed to the extremes. We have neither turned things upside down and inside out, nor have we shied away from change. We are looking ahead but are sticking to our core public service values for guidance.
  • The question then is, whether our governance structures will continue to evolve and adapt.
  • The governance Olympics are already underway in Canada - whether people realize it or not, the race is on.
  • I suspect that you are among those people who recognize what we have to do. You genuinely have the opportunity to make history through your own efforts, through creative thinking, anchored in values. The result of your commitment to innovation and flexibility will be a legacy of governance that does what it can and should, well.
  • I challenge you to use this conference, not just to discuss observations and theories, but also to be critical, reflective and active.
  • Ask yourselves, will you be able to adapt for the 21st Century?
  • If you fell asleep today and woke up in 25 years, would you recognize governance in the 21st Century?
  • Remember "He who thinks by the inch and talks by the yard deserves to be kicked by the foot." Think big thoughts and be prepared to act.
  • Best wishes for a successful conference. Thank you.