McMaster-Ottawa Alumni Fall Speaker Series

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Remarks by the Clerk of the Privy Council
And Secretary to the Cabinet

Ottawa, Ontario
October 26, 2006


Many thanks, Peter (George), for that extremely kind and generous introduction.

I would also like to express my appreciation to Eme Onuoha, who extended the invitation, on behalf of the McMaster Ottawa Alumni, to speak today and who, along with many others, organized today's event. It is a real honour, and I thank you all.

Like many of you in the room, I am a career public servant. Like all of you here today, McMaster University helped prepare me for my present career. And McMaster does this job very well.

Rooted strongly in a middle-class industrial community, McMaster exemplifies the best values of our Canadian public university system - strong undergraduate teaching; focussed areas of innovation and excellence in graduate studies and research; a sense that students and faculty are part of an integrated learning community; and, imparting in students the ambition to take on the world and change it, and giving them the educational toolkit to do so.

Clearly, McMaster has benefited from talented students, as everyone here today so amply demonstrates. But McMaster also has benefited from strong leadership, and never more so than under the presidency of Peter George. Peter has not only led the ongoing transformation of McMaster to meet the changing needs of its students, faculty, community and country, he has also been a leader among university presidents in shaping the public debate on higher education in Canada. McMaster is very fortunate to have a person of Peter's intellect, vision, and dedication at the helm.

And alumni events like today are important - not for the wisdom of my speech I can assure you, but for the opportunity to remind ourselves of the crucial role universities play in the growth and success of our country. It is our universities that produce our knowledge workers, train our leaders, and create much of our intellectual capital. They are key institutions in their communities and regions, and taken together, are a crucial part of the national infrastructure of a knowledge-based economy and society in the 21st century.

And therefore universities must be key participants in the discussions about the important public policy challenges facing Canada and most other advanced countries - how do we maintain our competitiveness, improve our productivity, respond to our demographic trends, and increase our standards of living over the next decade in an increasingly globalized world, whose growth in increasingly propelled by China, India and Brazil.

In this context, there are a number of key issues:

  • What is the role of research and development, innovation, and highly qualified personnel in tackling these economic challenges?
  • Are we at the leading edges of research and development in the technologies that will help transform the Canadian economy?
  • Are we commercializing our research to turn ideas into wealth and jobs?
  • Why does our private sector research effort lag so far behind public sector funded research efforts in Canada?
  • Overall, how can the university community contribute to answering these questions, and addressing these challenges for Canadians?

But today it is another institution I would like to speak to you about..the Public Service of Canada, and the importance of a strong, professional, non-partisan public service to a country's success. I think that it is a subject that's too often taken for granted, and too little discussed in a country with a proud tradition of public service - whether it be the military, the civil service, or elected public office.

Let me focus my comments on four broad points:

  • First, public policy matters to a country's success in this globalized world;
  • Second, public service matters to a nation's performance;
  • Third, public service renewal matters, to ensure we have a public service in the future that reflects excellence and leadership; and
  • Fourth, university and private sector engagement matters, both for public policy and public service.

Public policy matters

First, public policy matters. For all countries, big and small, globalization and the knowledge revolution are the realities of today. They are fundamentally changing the way we work, live and interact.

But globalization does not preordain a country's economic, social and security outcomes: while they may be significantly influenced by these complex global influences, the strength of public policies and public institutions matter greatly.

In today's global environment, countries like ours, which are relatively small and very open, have to understand global trends, global issues and global opportunities better than our larger neighbours.

Canadian success will depend on our agility and flexibility; our capacity to learn from others; our ability to Canadianize best global practices; and our willingness to implement the right public policies at the right time. We have to think globally to succeed domestically.

In that context, it is useful to reflect back over the last twenty-five to thirty years, and consider the extent to which Canadian public policy has helped shape the present while globalization was changing the international context. It is also useful to reflect on how universities helped shape these public policy debates and outcomes.

Let me give you three specific examples, which speak for themselves:

  1. At the start of the 1980s, the federal deficit was over 4% of the gross domestic product; debt was skyrocketing; federal spending was more than 17% of the economy; taxes were rising; and the Canada Pension Plan / Québec Pension Plan was in deficit. Today, the federal budget is balanced (9th consecutive); debt is being repaid ($81 billion); government spending is 13% of the economy; taxes are falling; and the national pension system is actuarially sound (for 70 years). 

  2. Twenty-five years ago, Canada was a $1/4 trillion (U.S.) economy with a chronic current account deficit; rapidly rising foreign indebtedness; heavy regulation; high and variable inflation; and a large productivity gap with the United States. Today, we are a $1 ¼ trillion (U.S) economy, an integral part of NAFTA, with a current account surplus and a lower foreign indebtedness than the U.S. and inflation targets that have given us over a decade of low and stable inflation, and low interest rates. But, the productivity gap still constrains us. 

  3. As the 1980s began, security concerns related to the Cold War and terrorism was not a global concern, and our spending on defence and security was on a long-term decline. Today, the Cold War is over; international terrorism is our key security challenge; defence and security budgets are rising; Canadian women and men are fighting in Afghanistan; and a secure and efficient Canada-U.S. border is a key policy issue.

Public Service Matters

The general point that emerges from these examples is that public policy can have a profound effect on a country's present and future prospects. And this is the key reason why public service matters - experience from around the world shows there is a close correlation between good public policy and an excellent public service.

In his book The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Thomas Friedman argues that "in the globalization of the most important and enduring competitive advantages that a country can have today is a lean, effective, honest civil service". In other words, public service matters, and an effective, efficient, accountable public service can be part of a country's comparative advantage.

This has certainly been Canada's experience. The fact of the matter is that the democratic values, the ethic of serving the public good, the professionalism, non-partisanship and commitment that characterize the Public Service of Canada underpins its role as a fundamental national institution.

Public service renewal matters

This brings me to the challenge of public service renewal, which is a very real one. Consider, for example:

  • Like the Canadian population, we are ageing, and at a faster rate in the public service.
  • Like the Canadian workforce, the public service is becoming more diverse, but we need to better reflect the growing diversity of Canada.
  • Like all employers, we are experiencing the changing nature of work as technology is fundamentally altering how we do things. Like everyone, we face the strongest national labour market in over thirty years, with many career options for Canada's best and brightest.
  • At the same time, we are uniquely facing an ongoing shift in public expectations for public service, with more accountability, better management of tax dollars and improved core public services at the top of their list. 

  • And, with all this, the "public service brand" is probably less clear and perhaps less positive in the public's mind than in decades past.

In this broader Canadian context, the demographics of the federal public service are ever more daunting. Today, 50% of public servants are in the fourty-five to sixty-four age cohort. And the ageing of the public service is more prevalent in executive ranks, with the average age of Assistant Deputy Ministers now fifty-three years, and the average age for all executives is over fifty.

Before anyone is driven to despair about tackling the challenge of labour force renewal, public service has a strong advantage - it offers an incomparable range of fascinating and meaningful jobs, and the prospect of multiple careers, all within the same institution. Our "value proposition" is: "there are no careers like it".

For example, the federal public service is Canada's largest employer, with 230,000 employees; Canada's most national employer, with over 1,600 points of service across Canada; Canada's most multi-skilled workforce, with more occupational disciplines than any other employer; and, Canada's most international employer, with a presence in 115 countries around the world. This scale and scope provide unparalleled opportunities for different careers in different areas, all within the federal public service. That's why many in this room joined government - to make a difference.

To be successful, our approach to renewal has to be targeted, pragmatic, and results-oriented. We need to:

  • rethink our recruitment model; the Public Service of Canada cannot be a passive recruiter of talent;

  • rethink our development model; to manage for excellence and focus on leadership; 

  • rethink the jobs-for-life and one-size-fits-all model; to encourage more interchanges with the private sector; more mid-career and end-of-first-career recruitment; and, 
  • rethink the public service brand; focus on excellence, unique careers and the opportunity to make a difference for your country.

Private sector support matters

Let me turn for a moment to how important engagement by both the university sector and the private sector is to the development of public policy and to a strong public service.

First, good public policy development needs a diversity of voices, both academic and business, in addition to a strong policy capacity within government. When Canadian business and policy thinkers from universities have come forward with clear and well-articulated views, with demonstrated expertise on specific policy issues, and engaged government on a sustained basis, impressive progress has been made. As the world becomes ever more complex, this is even more essential.

Secondly, public service renewal can benefit significantly from support from those outside government. We would benefit from more interchanges with the private sector and universities, to broaden our perspectives and help develop our next generation of leaders.

Third, strong, globally excellent institutions.both of higher learning and of public service, are essential to Canada's success.

As Prime Minister Harper said recently in a speech to the Economic Club of New York, Canada is a stable and positive force for good in this world, and it intends to be a player. That's a positive challenge for all of us.

To realize this potential, we need to think more globally, but do so rooted in our Canadian values and economic strengths. We need to be more focused, more agile, more flexible, and more knowledge-based.


To conclude a speech that is almost as long as it seems, Canadians should expect nothing less than excellence in their public service, and we should accept nothing less from ourselves. The best and brightest don't want to work for an average organization, and average public policy will not propel Canada to the front ranks of nations. We need to rebrand public service around excellence.

I believe in public service, and feel strongly that all of us have a stake in ensuring that our public service is strong, vibrant and dynamic, both now and in the years to come. The Canadian public equally has a stake in this endeavour, as it is they who benefit from an excellent public service. And it can't be a passive stake.

A former Irish Prime Minister once famously said, when asked about the Irish economic miracle, "sure, it works in practice, but we're not sure it works in theory!" Well, to paraphrase poorly, good public policy and a strong public service work together in both theory and practice, and Canada is proof positive.

Thank you.