Making Public Service Renewal Real

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Remarks by the Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet at the 2006 APEX symposium

May 30, 2006
Ottawa, Ontario


Thank you for the invitation to the 2006 APEX symposium.

As public service executives we appreciate the role that APEX plays in fostering excellence in leadership. This year's Symposium "Investing in Canada: its People, its Government and its PublicThe 2006 APEX symposium Service" further reflects APEX's commitment to country and to the role of public service in Canada's future.

Let me thank, in particular, the organizers and the co-chairs, Judith LaRocque and Alan Nymark, for their efforts in planning an insightful agenda. Let me also offer Denise Amyot and Michel Smith best wishes in your new roles as President and Executive Director. I am sure that your leadership will contribute new energy to APEX.

I don't need to spend much time talking about how much has changed in Ottawa and across Canada over the past months. Since the January election, we have welcomed a new Prime Minister, a new Cabinet, a new agenda, new priorities, a new Budget and a new way of doing things.

What is both remarkable and unique is that in spite of the many adjustments, our task as public servants has remained largely unchanged. We continue to serve the Government, implement its agenda, provide the best possible policy advice, and ensure that the core business of government continues as before. This is the essence of Canadian public service.

And while we rarely take pause to think about ourselves as part of the "glue" that helps binds the country together, the fact of the matter is that the democratic values, the public service ethic, the competencies, the professionalism and non-partisanship that characterize the Canadian public service underpin its role as a fundamental national institution.

Upon becoming Clerk, one of the challenges that I set for myself was to get out of the Langevin Building and to connect with public servants -- on your turf, in your boardrooms, and in your regional offices. Over the past weeks, I have met with the ADM Forum, with four Regional Councils and with almost 20 departmental management teams. I have addressed the National Managers' Conference in St. John's. With APEX's support, I have held my first of what will be quarterly roundtables with executives. I have both appreciated, and benefited from, the candour and the insight.

The conversations have re-affirmed the critical role of today's public service executives. You run our programs and operations; you give shape to policy priorities; and you implement the government's agenda. You are the face of the federal government in cities and communities across Canada. You also shoulder the burden of implementing an ambitious management agenda. You are recruiting the next generation of public servants and leading the innovations so necessary for meeting this century's challenges.

And while there are days when the scope of reform and modernization seems overwhelming, we can all agree that fostering a healthy, dynamic public service does not happen on its own.

We are all familiar with the story of change. We live it everyday:

  • the mounting expectations for more services faster for the same tax dollar;
  • the accelerating technological shifts that offer new tools;
  • the interdependence among governments;
  • the convergence of sectors which are changing relationships and policy design; and
  • the societal and demographic changes that are re-shaping the face of Canada and its federal public service.

Keeping pace with change is essential to serving Canadians. I firmly believe that these times of change represent real prospects for renewal.

Today, I want to engage you, the executive cadre of the public service, in building the future of the federal public service - about making renewal real. Individually and collectively you have a critical role in shaping a national institution that needs to be distinguished by highly-engaged and highly-skilled people performing critical tasks with a professionalism and efficiency that rivals any organization, anywhere.

I am not referring to a new "master plan". Current realities call for a pragmatic, focussed and results-oriented approach. The objective is not to raise expectations but to achieve demonstrable and regular progress. I understand that initiatives already launched need time and our support to bear fruit. But, I also know that new impetus in certain areas is required.

Five areas of focus are on my list when talking about renewal:

  • Clarity around roles, responsibilities and accountabilities;
  • Teamwork;
  • The quest for excellence;
  • Leadership and a commitment to renewal of the public service; and
  • Capacity to think and plan for Canada's future.

Let me take each in turn.

Roles, Responsibilities and Accountabilities

The federal public service we have today has been built up over many years by strong policies, solid practices and excellent people. But regrettably, as a result of a few of unfortunate events in recent years, public service writ large has been the subject of criticism and declining trust. This worries Canadians. I know it concerns us even more.

In addressing public servants directly on March 23rd, the Prime Minister indicated both his commitment to a strong federal public service and his determination to rebuild public trust in the federal government's institutions. The tabling, on April 11, of the Federal Accountability Act outlines the Government's plan for a principles-based approach to clearer and stronger accountability-based government. The Treasury Board Secretariat will have the central role in revamping the rules and regulations to ensure consistency with these new principles.

On this point, let me underscore one thing - the goal of these efforts is to have a positive impact on the public service, not to increase the bureaucratic burden on officials. After all, rules and controls are not there to impede day-to-day operations nor stifle innovation but rather to provide assurances that departments and the federal government as a whole are well-managed and accountable.

Effective organizations also need clarity when it comes to mandates, roles and responsibilities. This is particularly true in the public sector where, as executives, we have all learned to manage with ambiguity. We accept this when it is externally driven, but are less willing when it is self-imposed. What we need to do is remind ourselves that we have considerable scope to reduce ambiguity by being clear about what we do, and how we do it.

Easy to say; however, many in this room would argue that the reality in the public service is too often overlapping mandates, unclear roles, fuzzy responsibilities and shared accountability. I understand these concerns. To be effective, departments need clear mandates, the responsibility and resources to achieve these mandates, and the clear understanding of being held to account for results.

Consider the role played by central agencies. Central agencies exist to provide context, coherence, co-ordination and challenge - the 4 "C"s. They set out the broad policy framework to guide how policy is developed. They set the fiscal framework within which the government operates. They set the accountability regime which shapes how the government performs. And, they set the human resource management framework based anchored on public service values and ethics.

In this context, the Privy Council Office establishes the priorities of the government and then should let departments do their jobs, based on those priorities and complemented by a rigorous challenge function. It serves no one's interest for central agencies to micro-manage or co-manage files. This is why secretariats and teams that existed in PCO to advance work on cities, aboriginal affairs, smart borders, official languages, smart regulation, policy research, science advice, regulatory affairs and regional communications have been re-assigned to those departments with the clear mandate to deliver in these areas. In so doing, we have shrunk the number of PCO secretariats considerably, reduced its overall size by about fifteen per cent and refocussed the efforts of the PCO secretariats on their core functions. Central agencies must add value, not layers, to the process of policy and decision making and government operations.

Another dimension of accountability relates to expenditure management. In Budget 2006, the government set in motion a review to be led by the Treasury Board which will lay the groundwork for a new expenditure management system. These efforts will be guided by a number of principles including:

  • Programs should focus on results and value for money;
  • Programs must be consistent with federal responsibilities; and
  • Those programs that no longer serve the purpose for which they were created need to be reconsidered.

As managers, we all have a role to play in supporting and implementing change around expenditure management. All of us expect to be measured by the results we achieve with the resources that have been allocated. We must never lose sight of this. There is a need to provide greater clarity about roles and priorities. In this regard, I believe mandate letters can be a powerful tool in helping improve line responsibility and accountability. These will become a regular feature of my relationship with Deputy Ministers and Associates.

A Culture of Teamwork

One of the most important elements of any successful organization is the ability to develop and foster a culture of teamwork. Amidst all of the competing demands for space at the Government's table, we must never lose sight of the fact that we are all on the same team and our successes are shared.

The new government puts a high premium on establishing a limited number of priorities, with a clear statement of purpose, well-defined objectives and clear time lines for implementation. The Government's priorities as outlined in the Speech from the Throne and carried through the Budget have significant implications for the public service. All of us will collectively support these priorities. This is the essence of teamwork.

In my 30 years of public service, some of the most rewarding experiences have come from participating in teams which are tackling major, cross-cutting issues of the day. It is now common practice that we create teams to manage key operations and tackle tough horizontal policy challenges. Teams are about the power of ideas, not about the idea of power. As a consequence, they are a vital source of knowledge and innovation.

Forging external networks is also vital to teamwork. This is why I have invited the Public Policy Forum to work with the management teams of the regional development agencies on a series of regional roundtables designed to help the senior policy community better understand the forces of change taking place across Canada. This outreach will help keep us attuned to trends and shifts. This kind of shared learning will strengthen our policy capacity and enhance teamwork.

Collaboration is essential across all ranks of the public service including at the most senior levels. Reflecting my desire to encourage teamwork and collective action at the Deputy Minister and Associate Deputy Minister level, the deputy ministerial committees are being revamped. The objective of these changes is pretty basic: an integrated and coordinated approach to both the management agenda and the policy agenda. There will be clear mandates for each committee, regular updates to the deputy ministerial community and more effective use of senior managers' time. We will introduce a new committee on Public Service Renewal. We will have Associate Deputy Ministers as vice-chairs on all of the committees to better involve the talents of the Associate community. The intended result is that both near and long term issues get the attention they deserve, and the sense of community and teamwork is enhanced.

The Quest for Excellence

Creating a high performing organization requires a relentless focus on ensuring a great work environment. A culture of teamwork is part of that. We also need to think about how well we do our work, and what benchmarks we set for ourselves. Here attitudes matter. We all ask ourselves the same basic questions: are we aiming daily for excellence in public policy and public service? Are we today as excellent as we can be?

I believe we should make excellence our quest. Excellence should be the benchmark by which we judge ourselves and the work we do. By setting a standard of excellence, by managing to this standard, by recognizing employees who do exceptional work, we will not only improve the pride of our employees in what they do, but also improve public esteem for public service and public servants. I need your help in deepening and entrenching excellence in the culture of the public service and the everyday work of public servants.

When employees are enthusiastic about where they work and engaged in what they do, obstacles seem smaller, difficult problems give way to innovative solutions and exceeding expectations happens with regularity.

In the private sector, the result would be a better bottom line. In the federal government, it means having an impact on the lives of Canadians - in short, making a difference is our bottom line.

Leadership and Renewal of the Public Service

The key drivers behind workplace satisfaction and engagement are perennial: effective leadership and a good match between employee skills and the mission of the organization.

Today's realities - ever more complex jobs, in an increasingly complex global economy, with ever more scrutiny - place a premium on focus, agility and engagement. It places a premium on leadership. Leadership that engages employees and clients, spots talent, rewards performance, sets the agenda, focusses energies, takes risks and acts as a role model.

One of our greatest leadership challenges in the public service is to look ahead and build for the future. Yes, the demographic challenges of an ageing public service are real. Who can deny that when the average age of an EX 1 is nearing 50 years of age; when the average age of Assistant Deputy Ministers is 53 years of age; and, when out of a pool of just over 250 ADMs, between 30 to 40 can and may retire annually over the coming years. The challenge of renewal is immediate.

But less well appreciated when we talk about the importance of renewal is the opportunity to attract and retain the nation's best and brightest. Many of you in this room - whether newly minted-EXs or 30 year veterans of the public service like me - know the challenge. This is why when it comes to recruitment, we need to re-double our efforts to sell the next generation of Canadians on making a difference through public service. Any notions of apathy or cynicism or lack of interest among young Canadians toward public service need to be dispelled.

We must recruit the best possible candidates from Canada's post-secondary institutions. We should be more open to mid-career candidates outside the federal public service. And as we recruit, we must never lose sight of the importance of ensuring that the team is deep and wide. Diversity matters. Good public policy is helped by a diversity of views - linguistically, geographically and culturally. We need to review our recruitment practices; we need to learn from departmental best practices, and we need more teamwork across the federal government. We need to know "where the jobs are" and "where they will be".

But as leaders, we know that recruitment is only the beginning of the story. New recruits and senior executives need better and more focussed learning and development plans and courses. I believe the Canada School of Public Service must become the centre of excellence for the training of federal public servants. It has been created to help direct the life-course of public service learning and management development; we need to realize its potential.

In a similar vein, I have noticed that opportunities for formal exchanges into and out of government have only peripherally been regarded as a strategic approach to leadership development. I want this mind-set to change. A new effort will be launched shortly to encourage two-way interchanges amongst senior public service executives and executives from the private and not-for-profit sectors, and levels of government. Assignments of all kinds help hone skills, open eyes and minds to different perspectives and offer vehicles to develop and deepen talent.

Thinking and Planning for Canada's Future

Lastly, a few words about the unique role of the public service in ensuring Canada is ready for the future.

Globalization and the knowledge revolution are realities today. They are fuelled by an incredible pace of technological change in information technologies. They are resulting in fundamental changes in the way we work and live. In such a fast paced world, countries like Canada with our relatively small and very open economy have to understand global trends, global issues, global opportunities better than our larger neighbours. We have to think globally to succeed domestically.

In this profoundly globalized world, success depends on agility and flexibility. It also depends on the ability to learn and adapt business strategies and government policies from others, to leverage policy ideas and to Canadianize best global practices. Our thinking and understanding needs to be as global as our economy is open and our society is diverse.

For public servants, it means thinking through what it will take to increase Canadian competitiveness and productivity growth on a sustained basis. Thinking about how to prepare to compete with the new economic giants - China and India - in the coming decades. It means asking whether we are prepared in the event of a new flu pandemic and knowing what prepared means in a global context. It means better understanding climate change and how we develop an effective Canadian approach. It means helping the government and Canadians by being ahead of the global curve.

Given all of this, it is not surprising then that Thomas Friedman, one of today's most notable commentators on the globalizing world said, in his book Lexus and the Olive Tree that, "In the globalization system . one of the most important and enduring competitive advantages that a country can have today is a lean, effective, honest civil service."

Conclusion

In conclusion, colleagues, it is an exciting time, and a rewarding time, to be a federal public servant. Now more than ever, we have the opportunity to play a key role in helping move Canada forward.

We have work to do together! We will be rethinking how we do business on an ongoing basis, trying to do it better each day. We will balance long-term policy development with addressing real-time practical needs, and do it together as a team. Through results, we enhance the image of the Public Service and assure Canadians that we know how to combine practical common sense with innovative thinking and a constant focus on excellence.

Moving forward, I want to continue to hear from you. I want to hear your views on the challenges and opportunities you see for the Public Service of Canada, and how we can strengthen its capacity to make an ongoing difference in our country's future.

It is because I believe in the value to Canada of a strong and effective public service that I accepted the Prime Minister's invitation to become Clerk. I want to say again, to you, that I take my responsibilities as head of the Public Service very seriously. With your support and help, we can make public service renewal a reality.