"A Modern Public Service for the Knowledge Economy and Society"

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Notes for an Address by 
Mel Cappe 
Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet

to the
Institute of Public Administration of Canada (IPAC)
Annual Conference 
Edmonton, Alberta
 May 7, 2001

Check Against Delivery


  • Good afternoon. It is a pleasure to be here in Edmonton today and to once again speak to IPAC's Annual Conference.
  • IPAC is, of course, an important organization in the life of those who are interested in the questions facing public administration in Canada today.
  • In fact, IPAC's slogan "dedicated to excellence in public administration" is what I want to focus on today.
  • Not surprisingly, IPAC has once again chosen a pretty compelling topic for this year's conference - one that I'm glad to add my own thoughts to.
  • In Canada, we take a lot of things for granted, including having high-quality, non-partisan public services.
  • But we shouldn't.
  • We should celebrate our public services and the fact that they are an essential part of the strength, innovation and excellence of this country.
  • We have the luxury of taking some things for granted, but this is not the case for all countries. For several countries in the Americas, for example, stamping out corruption is their number one priority.
  • As public servants, we have an obligation and responsibility to demand excellence - to be the best public service in the world.
  • So, jumping off from your focus on the E-Frontier, as your conference title says, I am going to make a few points today.
  • One is that governments face new policy, program and service delivery challenges that require public servants at all levels to be up to speed on the transformations reshaping our society and economy and to be responsive to them.
  • My second point is that strong, representative and modern public services are critical to ensuring our success as a country and the success of each individual in the knowledge economy and society.
  • We need public services in which people continuously aim to be innovative and achieve excellence in all they do.
  • To get there, we must build a culture of excellence and demand excellence from ourselves and from those around us.
  • To expand on that point, I want to comment on what we are doing in the Public Service of Canada to make the transformation to a modern public service - one that is focussed on people, innovation and excellence.
  • Finally, when we talk about E-Government, we must remember that technology is the easy part - the challenge is to focus on people.
  • Which leads me to my key message for you today.
  • People are central to building a modern public service and to ensuring that Canada remains at the forefront of the E-Frontier, able to continue serving Canadians with excellence in the knowledge economy and society.


Responding to a Time of Transformation

  • I want to start my comments on the transformations we see around us by saying that I have a healthy respect for what modern technologies can do in government.
  • I have been a supporter of the transformation to E-Government, even while being quite clear on the challenges we face and the issues that have to be resolved.
  • In fact, not long ago, after a speech I gave on the subject, I was granted the title of "e-clerk" by Reg Alcock, Member of Parliament for Winnipeg South.
  • Of course, I don't claim to be a techno guru - although, I am the first Clerk to have a computer on my desk and I know how to use it.
  • I come by that ability honestly.
  • After all, my mother is called "E-granny" by her grandchildren because of how adept she is with e-mail.
  • Before I go on, I want to distinguish the Government of Canada's Government On-Line (GOL) initiative from E-Government.
  • GOL is about using information and communications technology to improve services and access to them.
  • E-Government is about the changing relationship between government and citizens.
  • The challenge for all of us will be to think through how that relationship is changing and the implications for representative democracy.
  • But the ability to work with technology is just part of dealing with the opportunities and demands of a world that is becoming increasingly interconnected and defined by speed, innovation and complexity.
  • A world with changes that require faster, more comprehensive responses.
  • Changes that trigger the kinds of policy and program issues that we increasingly deal with, ones that are horizontal in nature and require approaches involving many departments and many partners.
  • The reality is that we cannot fulfil our role of supporting Ministers well if we are not in touch with this changing world.
  • And that is not even counting the entire issue of electronic service delivery.
  • Canadians expect a different approach to service delivery. They are looking for a more convenient way of interacting with government.
  • Those of you who filed your taxes through the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency's NetFile service in the past few weeks have a first-hand sense of how far we've come in a very short time.
  • So, fulfilling our commitment to provide high quality services to Canadians also demands that we understand what can be done with today's technologies.
  • But let me make a distinction. While we can learn from the private sector in the area of electronic service delivery, I do not believe that we should be more business-like. We should be more government-like. Afterall, we are held to a higher standard than the private sector when it comes to issues such as privacy, security and accountability.

A Modern Public Service

  • These actions and this understanding of a changing environment are not just about fulfilling certain roles, of course, they are about maintaining and improving quality of life for Canadians.
  • They are examples of why an innovative and excellent public service matters.
  • The Government of Canada recognized the importance of the Public Service in meeting its goals very clearly in its most recent Speech from the Throne, when it stated:
  • "to assist the Government in fulfilling its responsibilities, Canada must have a public service distinguished by excellence and equipped with the skills for the knowledge economy and society."
  • That was a major commitment and an important recognition of our challenge - ensuring that, at a time of looming change, we think about the kind of public service we want to build and how we will fill it with the best possible people, as those with gray in their hair retire.
  • So, what should a modern public service look like? Not just for us in the Government of Canada, but at all levels of government.
  • It is a public service:
  • that is as diverse and inclusive as the communities it serves, whether for all of Canada, for a province or for a municipality;
  • that embraces continuous learning and liberates the potential of its people;
  • that is brimming with ideas - with leaders at all levels that challenge themselves and others to do better;
  • where people work in teams and networks, breaking down barriers;
  • that is dynamic and adaptive, flexible and responsive;
  • that values, encourages and rewards excellence and innovation;
  • that is risk smart - where people take risks, but know what risks to take - and gets results for Canadians.
  • that uses technology in innovative ways to better serve Canadians; and
  • that the best and brightest want to join and where people see real prospects for enriching careers and the opportunity to "make a difference".
  • But that list is not enough - what I just listed could be true for any organization that provides services to the public.
  • You know that many organizations in the private sector are responding to competitive pressures in similar ways.
  • Pressures from customers, from stakeholders, pressure to attract the best possible people to work there.
  • So what's special about government here?
  • What's special is that we have to infuse all this work with our public service values; we have to focus on what is special about the public sector every step of the way.
  • So, when we work in teams and break down barriers to collaboration, we do so in ways that respect the democratic values of our Westminster parliamentary democracy, such as accountability of ministers.
  • When we make decisions, we respect the interest of citizens in the best use of public funds.
  • It means that we consider a multitude of public interests and focus on the public good, not our own personal interests.
  • It means that we don't just look for ways to use new technologies to improve what we do, but we fully take into account the issues such as privacy and security that matter so deeply to Canadians and to elected officials.
  • In short, a modern public service is a people-centred organization that is distinguished by the same commitment to excellence and innovation that we see in leading organizations in the private sector and also by a commitment to the values that make us unique.
  • We need that kind of modern public service to become an E-Government.
  • Where the "E" stands for "E-nabled" and what we enable is the creativity of our people, grounded in the skills, mind sets and leadership approaches for a knowledge economy and society.
  • In fact, our success in realizing the potential of E-Government will depend far more on our people than on our technologies.
  • E-Government is perhaps one of the most cogent reasons for modernizing how we manage the people of the public service.
  • In a time when we face a looming wave of retirements and we need an evolving mix of skills and abilities among our workforce to provide high quality advice to ministers and service to Canadians, we can't get to where we want to go without some major changes in human resources management.
  • So we are pushing to achieve excellence and innovation in how we manage the people side of our work.

Modernizing the Public Service of Canada

  • The Prime Minister put that commitment to excellence very clearly in his reply to the Speech from the Throne.
  • "An activist government requires a first class public service. I am proud of our public service. The government will take all the steps necessary to ensure that we continue to have the talent necessary for a public service that is committed to excellence."
  • That underlined the priority that the Government attaches to modernizing the Public Service of Canada, a priority that we are approaching in two ways.
  • First, there is the work we are doing to modernize within the existing framework of rules.
  • We are focussing on recruitment, retention and learning.
  • One of our major goals is to increase the diversity and representativeness of the public service.
  • Because diversity is valuable to a public service - it is part of being truly innovative.
  • In a land as diverse as Canada is today, we consistently develop better policies, programs and services by ensuring that we are drawing on the widest range of views and backgrounds in our society.
  • It is part of showing that not only are our doors open to all Canadians, but that they are open because we value what each individual brings to the job from his or her own life.
  • We want to attract bright, motivated and diverse young women and men.
  • We want them to join the Public Service to get valuable experience and we hope that many of them will want to stay for a career.
  • And we are breaking down some of the traditionally slow recruitment processes.
  • We have been pushing our departments to take full advantage of the flexibility that already exists in our systems to do more to recruit people and to create opportunities for them.
  • But that's not sufficient, if we want the strongest possible public service.
  • In my 8th Annual Report to the Prime Minister, I signalled the need to move from an "incremental approach to reform to a more fundamental reform of the legislative framework for human resources management in the Public Service."
  • Since I know that most of you are not federal employees, I'll tell you that is code for "our human resources legislation is out of step with today's environment".
  • The E-Frontier challenges us to modernize our institutions and our governance.

Modernizing our Legislative Framework

  • And now we have started a process to deal with a legislative framework that's some 35 years old.
  • A framework that was created in an era when it was believed the best way to ensure that managers respected the merit principle was through detailed rules and procedures.
  • That era is gone. The demand to respect competence and merit is not gone, but the existing rules-based approach is out of sync with E-Government and the knowledge economy and society.
  • The Prime Minister announced the creation of the Task Force on Modernizing Human Resources Management in the Public Service in early April.
  • The mandate of the Task Force is to recommend a modern policy, legislative and institutional framework for the management of human resources.
  • I won't go into a lot of detail about this process but I do want to make a few points that may be relevant to most of you.
  • The work of the Task Force will be guided by the values of merit, non-partisanship, representativeness and competence.
  • It will be oriented to moving more authority into the hands of managers at all levels, along with the expectation that they live up to our values.
  • Most importantly, this work has to take place within 18 months.
  • That speed is in no small measure an indication of the Government's commitment to getting a new framework in place.
  • It also recognizes that we have a wealth of studies and initiatives over time that have looked at how we manage human resources in government.
  • In fact, I've described three of those studies throughout time this way.
  • First, we had the Glassco Royal Commission back in 1962, which said -- "Let managers manage".
  • Later, we had the Lambert Royal Commission back in 1979, which said -- "Make managers manage".
  • Most recently, we had the Auditor General who said a few months ago -- "Please . . . manage!"
  • Bureaucracies had to be rules-based in the past. But today, they have to be results-based, flexible and accountable. The move to E-Government requires us to be innovative.

Why Modernization Matters

  • But let me come back to an important question.
  • Why does modernizing public services really matter?
  • At one level, you could argue that we don't have to be overly concerned about excellence or innovation.
  • After all, we don't have straightforward competitors to worry about.
  • But Canadians demand excellence and we owe it to them.
  • To do otherwise is to risk falling away from relevance.
  • Public services can slowly become detached from the real priorities of citizens and of their society and economy.
  • The result - the quality of services to Canadians and of policy advice to Ministers would be less than they should.
  • Indeed, there is a real argument to be made that a hidebound public service harms social, political and economic development, simply because government choices are less effective than they could have been.
  • In a time when many key issues facing our country require strategic public sector involvement and choices, we can't afford anything less than the best in our public service.
  • And I think there is real reason for optimism on that front.
  • Most of us went into the public sector because we were interested in the kinds of issues and activities that happen there.
  • We wanted to make a difference to our communities, our provinces and our country.
  • Like many of you, I didn't really expect to stay on permanently, when I joined Treasury Board Secretariat at the start of my career in the mid-1970s.
  • But I did because the work is interesting, the people are fascinating, the challenges are there, and I have been able to do fulfilling things.
  • The whole move to E-Government is part of the same commitment to excellence and innovation that has driven many of our careers.
  • It offers some compelling opportunities to do things in new ways and to do some things better than ever.
  • The whole drive to bring our human resource management approaches in line with the world of the 21st century is part of the same commitment.
  • It is all part of building an environment that attracts the best people possible.
  • It is part of building an environment that offers challenges and opportunities to contribute to building excellence.
  • It is an environment in which E-Government is not just Electronic Government, or Enabled Government, it is Excellent Government, too.


  • Let me wrap up.
  • As I said at the outset of my remarks today.
  • People are central to building a modern public service and to ensuring that Canada remains at the forefront of the E-Frontier, able to continue serving Canadians with excellence and innovation in the knowledge economy and society.
  • But reaching the state we need for a modern public service is more than just a question of having a more modern approach to human resources issues, it is really about the work of government and how that work takes place.
  • That is why a focus on excellence and innovation are so central to becoming a modern public service - that is, an E-Government capable of meeting the challenges of the E-Frontier.
  • We are committed to building a working environment and working relationships that enable us to be open to lots of new ideas and to new ways of seeing and dealing with the issues.
  • We want to attract, keep and foster the kind of people who can think outside the box and work with the transformation of E-Government in Canada. They will be the ones who help us tap the power of new ideas, new partnerships and new technologies to link people, ideas and options.
  • Those of you who are researchers and academics can help add to what we are doing.
  • I challenge you to do more work in the area of E-Government.
  • On E-Government alone, all kinds of policy issues are emerging - particularly related to citizen engagement, governance, accountability, privacy and security - that we must address.
  • Almost every policy field and organization is being profoundly affected by technology, and government is not immune.
  • The real challenge of E-Government is that we just don't know what is possible. That means we need to be flexible, able to adapt and we must start thinking ahead and planning for the transformation.
  • What is clear is that E-Government is about transformation - it will transform how public servants work, relate to each other, do business and engage citizens and other partners.
  • Becoming a modern E-Government is the future and we all have a role to play in helping define that future so that Canada and Canadiens are the real beneficiaries.

Thank you.