APEX Symposium 2002, "The Intermestic Challenge"

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Notes for an Address by Alex Himelfarb Clerk of the Privy Council, Secretary to the Cabinet and Head of the Public Service

Ottawa, Ontario
June 5, 2002


Thank you very much, Claire. And thank you, Michel.

You know, it's been in my calendar for some time that I would be standing here on this stage this morning with Claire speaking to all of you. But I had expected to be doing that as symposium co-chair rather than as Clerk of the Privy Council.

What a surprise for everyone! What a surprise for me! It is a bit frightening, intimidating - incredible, really. But there you have it, I'm here as the Clerk. Wow!

My friends know that I have never read a written speech, but my colleagues at the Privy Council Office have explained to me that things are different now that I am Clerk. One must be prudent. I must be prudent.

And I have an excellent, well-written speech here in my hands, but it is for another day.

I'm just going to talk to you for a few minutes. It's been a crazy few weeks. It's been a crazy few months.

It's sort of hard to be a public servant, don't you find? I mean, think about it. September 11th turned everything upside down. It changed everybody's perceptions of the world, of trust in the future, and of trust in government. And public servants in almost every department couldn't think a lot about it, they had to act - to secure airports, to take care of stranded passengers, to secure borders, to work co-operatively with the United States, to find new ways of doing business on top of their workloads. And I think we did it really well.

On top of that, we've had recurrent controversies around administration of programs, most recently sponsorship, and mistakes have been revealed. These issues hurt us deeply because there's no group that takes greater pride in their integrity, no group that takes greater pride in their values, than public servants.

The values and integrity of the public service have been, are, and will continue to be a source of huge comparative advantage to Canada. I know it's tough, but together we'll fix the mistakes and continue to assure Canadians that we are the best in the world.

And of course, we've discovered how volatile and exciting the world of politics is.

I was going to say "Holy shit!" but I know that's exactly what my colleagues at Privy Council were worried about. So I won't say that because it's totally inappropriate. And I want it on the record that I didn't say that.

But these are exciting times and I don't need this kind of excitement!

It creates stresses. It creates stresses in the departments that are affected. It creates stresses in public service right through the system but it's also an occasion to focus on what gives us greater pride and what we're best at as a non-partisan professional public service.

This is a time for us to achieve a great deal. This is a time for us to focus on our core values, to reaffirm those values: integrity and excellence in everything we do; respect for people, citizens, employees, colleagues, elected officials; embracing diversity as a source of strength; linguistic duality (I'll return to this); and adaptability. If we can't embrace change and lead it, at the very least we've got to adapt to it, but at the same time protect those institutions that make Canada distinct and strong.

This is a time for us to return to the skills that we're best at: rigorous policy analysis, creative policy options, innovative service delivery, effective resource management always focussed on value for money, fearless advice, loyal implementation. This is what we're good at. And we've got a real opportunity - in fact an obligation - to turn to that, to re-affirm our commitments, to go to what we've been paid for, to go to what we're hired for, to go to what attracted us to public service.

This is a time for us to remind ourselves of the Canadian values and principles that we're charged to uphold: pluralistic democracy; federalism; multiculturalism; linguistic duality; the special place of Aboriginal people; freedom and the inherent equality of all individuals; peace, order and good government; openness to the world; and whatever the "intermestic challenge" means.

You know, we're good at a lot of things but making up words we're no good at. "Horizontality?" "Intermestic?" Hello?

This is a time for us to turn to one another, to depend on each other, to rely on each other but also to talk straight to one another.

You know, I was talking to new entrants to the executive cadre yesterday, and it occurs to me that we have one foot in the past and one foot in the future. We shouldn't be surprised that there are some tensions and ambiguity and sometimes even contradictory messages. And you know, you've both been told and have told others: go fast, slow down. Be entrepreneurial, don't take risks. Take risks, don't make mistakes. Be wild, be careful. Be creative, don't say anything out of the box. And you know, you sometimes feel that inside of you and the only way that we get through this is with straight talk.

Principle number one: mistakes are bad. I don't know where we got this notion that mistakes are a good thing. It's not like we say, "Hey! He made a mistake! All right!"

Second principle: mistakes vary. Some mistakes are really profound. Mistakes of ethics, violations of the law; they're unacceptable. Other mistakes are inevitable. They're not good but they're inevitable and our job is to learn from them.

Taking risks is okay if the risks are okay. Taking risks that are not okay: not okay. We've got to get clear and straight with each other, figure out which risks are okay. Don't lay it on employees to take the risk and make the mistake. Work it through.

Our values have to be more powerful than hierarchy, our honesty has to be better than our rhetoric. This is a time for us to talk straight and work together, lean on each other, depend on each other.

You know, in terms of the values, I've been criticized as being a bit over the top about Canada. I wear Canada on my sleeve. My department was sick of my pro-Canada speeches. And for me, Canada is not a flag or a symbol or issue of an identity, it is a place where people can be who they choose to be, identify with multiple groups, truly have a deep freedom. And that's based on a set on core principles that we uphold.

You know, somebody told me a couple of weeks ago, I was the first immigrant clerk and I thought, "man, there is a Canadian way." That's fabulous. I take unbelievable pride in that.

We have to get back to the core values. We have to internalize them and I don't think there's anything wrong with having some passion about them, passion about Canada, passion about public service, passion about people. I think that's okay.

It's also the time for us to deepen our understanding of accountability. There is unbelievable transparency right now and all kinds of talk about accountability. And accountability is a good thing, it's how we uphold the public trust, how we serve the public trust, how we serve the public interest in a pluralistic democracy.

It's also true that, while we can delegate authority, the people in this room, including me, cannot delegate accountability. Accountability is not "delegatable." We keep it. We hold that. We delegate authority and then we make sure when we delegate authority that the framework within which the person is going to work is clear, that they have the knowledge and tools to get the job done, and that we stand behind our employees and that we take the hit because accountability is not delegatable.

It means that we report to Canadians on our progress. Accountability is not a bad thing - we have a lot of progress to report on. It means that we report to Canadians when we have failed or made mistakes and tell them the actions we've taken to remedy that, to adjust our course.

Accountability is a good thing. We don't duck it. We're proud of it, it's part of public service, it's part of what gives us pride. So this is a time to turn back to accountability as a positive force for democracy, as way of building trust. And accountability is not about blame. It's about responsibility, but it's not about blame.

This is a time to be very careful about hypocrisy and what we say. And every time I talk about linguistic duality, I have a shudder of discomfort, not because my belief system isn't committed to this as a fundamental strength in Canada, but sometimes my mouth lets me down.

It is important that we, as senior public servants, model the government's commitment to the equality of status and use of both official languages, and respect employees' rights to work in the language of their choice.

Not only must we show that we take the government's obligation seriously, but moreover that it can work. Canadians can interact with the Government of Canada in either official language. Public service employees can interact with their managers in either official language.

We are not yet doing enough on this score. I am not yet doing enough on this score. That is why official languages are a corporate priority again this year - for us and particularly for me.

There is much we can do. We can each work harder to improve our own second language skills. And as public service executives, we can do a great deal in our departments and branches to make our public service more bilingual.

We can make more language training available earlier in our employees' careers. We can work to make our employees feel free to express themselves in their language of choice. And we can help staff who want to maintain their second language ability between tests by encouraging the use of second language skills in both professional and social activities in the workplace. When French and English are heard daily in the workplace, people feel encouraged to practise their second language.

Obviously, my plan starts with me. My French will improve; guaranteed.

I am bilingual. My body is bilingual. My ears are bilingual. My heart is bilingual. It's just my mouth that lets me down.

So leadership by example means it starts with me. I promise, it starts with me.

Straight talk. Turn to one another. Re-affirm our values. Re-affirm our commitment to results, to Canadians, to accountability. It's not a bad recipe.

We have a chance to create an extraordinarily exciting policy, management and service agenda. We have an obligation to do it. Canadians are demanding it of us.

This is a time for us to be creative, to get past hierarchy, to make sure hierarchy doesn't become a barrier to dialogue, to make sure that departmental lines don't get in the way of collaboration, to make sure that government lines don't get in the way of collaboration, to build partnership.

In the fall, we will have an agenda. That agenda will include a real commitment to Canadians on the highest ethical standards, because they raised the bar. The bar has been raised throughout the world, and why shouldn't we be the first to raise the bar as a public service?

Our agenda includes human resources reform. I have read articles saying, "Oh no! Mel is gone, Alex is here! HR reform is dead." It is very much alive, but it might just be different.

But it's a commitment. We want this to be the best place to work. We have excellent people and we want them to be able to realize their excellence. We need to attract more excellent people for the future. We need to be permeable, mobile, exciting and we need to be infused - in everything institutionally and in every behaviour - with the values that make us the best.

We'll have HR reform and we'll have health reform and we'll have an innovation agenda and we'll have a skills and learning agenda and we'll reach out to Aboriginal people and we'll reach out to poor people and we'll make sure every kid has a good start in life. There's an enormous agenda there and we'll make it concrete, relevant to Canadians, and focussed on the future.

We'll give elected officials the most exciting options they've ever seen. They'll have choices they've never had before and we'll be very happy together.

You know, I think every day what a privilege it is to be a public servant. I feel that more today than I did when I first arrived 20 years ago. I'm sometimes in a room with decision makers and I keep wondering, "Will they notice me or will they ask me to leave? How did I get here?" What a joy, what a privilege. And that's true for all of us. We can make this happen.

This is a time to remember how fine it is to be a public servant.

Thank you very much.