Master of Arts in Public Administration Society of Carleton University

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Remarks Carleton University School of Public Administration by the Clerk of the Privy Council
And Secretary to the Cabinet

March 09, 2007
Ottawa, Ontario


Thank you Susan (Phillips) for that warm welcome.

It is an honour for me to address the students and faculty of the Carleton School of Public Administration, which has trained so many for public service.  This is particularly so on the occasion of the Master of Arts in Public Administration Society's 10th Anniversary lecture.

One of the most enjoyable things about speaking at events such as this is that we all share a common belief, and that is, public service matters.  It matters to Canada, it matters to our quality of life as Canadians and it matters to Canada making a positive difference in the world.  A difference that is reflected in the men and women who are part of the Public Service of Canada, serving across Canada and around the world.

I believe the students, professors and practitioners who are with us tonight can fully agree that the democratic values, the ethic of serving the public good, the professionalism, non-partisanship and personal commitment that characterize the Public Service of Canada underpin its role as a fundamental national institution.

Indeed, both the International Monetary Fund and World Bank have clearly established that a professional public service is crucial to national success.  And, as Thomas Friedman, author of The World is Flat, has said: “one of the most important and enduring competitive advantages that a country can have is a lean, effective, honest civil service.”

The clear correlation between a strong, non-partisan public service and the successful economy and society that Canada has been able to build, is a fact that is often unrecognized and under-appreciated.  Quite simply, part of our success as a country has been, and will continue to be, linked to a professional public service that is dedicated to excellence.

Which is why, as head of the federal public service, I have put a priority on public service renewal.  Ensuring the public service meets the evolving needs of Canadians and Canadian society with excellence in policy development and service delivery is fundamental to our continued progress as a nation. 

But it is important to understand that public service renewal is not about a comprehensive initiative at a single point in time, nor is it about fixing something that is broken.  Rather it is about ensuring that the Public Service of Canada, an integral national institution that is made up of thousands of people serving Canadians at home and around the world, is ever changing, adapting, and benchmarking to best practice in public administration.

Therefore, renewal is, and must be, an ongoing process.  It's about ensuring the Canadian public service continually strives for excellence, responding to the shifting realities and challenges we face as a national institution, in an ever-changing world.

For a moment, I would like to take a step back and put the role of public servants, and why what we do matters, in a broader and, admittedly, starker contrast.  We live in a world where our national interest more and more intersects with international issues and events.  An interconnected world where the meaning and importance of public service often reaches far beyond our borders.  Take the example of Afghanistan.

Three months ago, I travelled to Afghanistan.  The purpose of my journey was twofold.  First, to see first hand the scope of the challenges faced by the Afghan people as they try to rebuild their shattered country and their capacity to address those challenges.  And second, to observe what impact on the ground Canada is having in terms of achieving the goals of security and development set out by the United Nations and NATO.

By seeing the will and determination of the Afghan people, who have so little, to rebuild a society gave me an even deeper appreciation of the importance of public service.  The nation building challenge that Afghans face elevates public service to a level we cannot imagine in Canada, a nation that is blessed with peace, order, and good government as well as prosperity.

It was also impossible not to be struck by the profound dedication and courage of the women and men of the Canadian Forces, Foreign Affairs, CIDA, the RCMP and others who are serving their country so well and are so committed to making a real difference in the lives of the Afghan people.  They understand how security, development and governance are inexorably linked to successfully fulfill their mission.  And, for me, they give even deeper meaning to the notion of public service.

It is because all of us in this room believe in the importance of public service that I want to talk about what we must do to maintain the quality and excellence of public service in Canada.  Specifically, I would like to touch on three things: the changing context for governing; some aspects of public administration reform; and, public service renewal.

The Changing Context of Governing

My starting point is the acknowledgement of a simple truth, and that is public administration does not exist in a vacuum.  Public administration must respond and adapt to evolving societal values, changing demographics and shifting economics, in short, the changing context of governing.

As students of public administration, you are well aware of the evolution of public administration in Canada, especially since the end of the Second World War.  From Glassco (1962) to Lambert (1979) to PS 2000 (1990) to Program Review (1994-95), governments and public service leaders have worked in partnership with academe, the private sector and civil society to respond to events that have changed the context for governing in Canada. 

In this regard, I would highlight a few examples of things that have fundamentally altered, and continue to alter, the context of governing in Canada since I joined the public service in the mid-1970s.


Let me start with globalization.  It has been argued that until the 1980s, a government's policy agenda, with few exceptions such as trade and international conflict, was largely determined by domestic concerns and interests.

We all know this is no longer the case. As national economies have become more interwoven through trade, investment and binding international treaties and agreements, globalization has effectively moved domestic public policy issues into the international arena, and vice-versa.  And whereas this might have initially been largely restricted to economic and security policies, it now includes a broad range of policy areas such as environmental protection, labour laws and human rights.

Among its many consequences, globalization has had a significant impact on the roles and responsibilities of departments – the structural machinery of public management.  For example, in the mid-1970s, the Department of Foreign Affairs was largely responsible for representing Canada's interests to the world. Thus, our management of international issues was effectively centralized – treated as a self-contained sector of government.  Today, most, if not all departments must have the capacity to ensure our domestic policies recognize the global reality of markets, maximize the benefit for Canada of this changing global reality and are consistent with our ever-increasing international obligations.

Societal values

Let me now turn to an example of where changes in societal values have had a profound impact on the conduct of public administration in Canada: transparency in government.

Until the mid-1970s, it has been argued that public administration was significantly conducted behind closed doors.  This, in part, reflected exceptionally high levels of public trust in government and a prevailing view that policy and program design was best left to the experts.

By the 1980s, it had become clear that Canadians were no longer content to be passive observers of how public policies are developed and then implemented.  The passing of the Access to Information Act in 1983 was a watershed in that it opened up our policy and administrative process to the public.  Greater public scrutiny came later through a more investigative media and the advent of ATIP specialists.

These developments coincided with a decline in the general deference to authority, which had been a broadly held characteristic of previous generations, and also a fairly significant decline in trust in government. We are certainly not alone in this regard --- the World Economic Forum has found that “trust in government” has declined by significant margins in most Western countries.

As a result, Canada, like most other western democracies, has had to modify its public administration practices to respond to public demands for greater accountability and transparency.  And this has been a good and healthy development.


Next, and it almost seems trite to say it, technology has been among the most significant determinants of change in public administration practices over the last few decades.  I won't spend long on this point, in part because it will underscore my age, but in the mid-1970s when I joined the Government of Canada, micro-computers and the internet were more in the realm of science fiction than in government offices.

Inside government today, there is a computer in every office and our degree of connectedness with other public servants, and access to global networks of information is impressive.  We now have the information infrastructure to allow large numbers of public servants to work on horizontal policy or service delivery projects in a way that would have been unthinkable just 20 years ago.  While this provides the potential for exponential improvements in the way we operate and deliver services to Canadians, we have yet to come close to fully realizing this potential.

These three examples hopefully suffice to make the obvious point:  the only constant is change.  And with this change comes new challenges and opportunities for the public sector.  Public administration must evolve if we are to stay ahead of the curve.  To do so means taking a pragmatic, results-oriented approach, while reinforcing the underpinning values of accountability, fairness and transparency.

Public Administration Modernization

I would like to turn now to the government's focused approach to modernizing public administration.  As I'm sure you are aware, the current government came into power with a stated mandate to rebuild confidence in government and in government institutions.

The centrepiece of this is the Federal Accountability Act, which was given Royal Assent on December 12, 2006.  This Act and its accompanying Action Plan, include legislative measures and policy proposals to enhance governmental accountability.  While we could discuss any of these at length, there are two particular initiatives that I would like to focus on: the statutory codification of deputy heads as Accounting Officers; and second, the steps being taken to untangle the so-called “web of rules”.  While distinct in nature, they are good examples of how public administration continues to adapt and evolve. 

Accounting Officers

As many of you will know, the designation of deputy heads as “Accounting Officers” has garnered media attention recently.  While Deputy Ministers have always appeared before parliamentary committees on behalf of their Ministers, the Federal Accountability Act establishes a statutory duty to do so to answer questions regarding a specified range of management responsibilities.

There have been calls to establish an Accounting Officer in Canada for some time.  It was a recommendation of the Lambert Commission in 1979, academics have long explored the issue in depth, and, more recently, Mr. Justice Gomery examined the concept.
The FAA explicitly states that the framework in which the Accounting Officer operates will continue to be ministerial responsibility and accountability to Parliament.  To do otherwise would serve to further muddle the lines of accountability for public management, which is exactly the problem that the Federal Accountability Act seeks to resolve.  What this means is that Accounting Officers are accountable before parliamentary committees, but not accountable to them.  Ministers alone remain accountable to Parliament for all actions of the executive, including those relating to management.

As the Prime Minister stated in his December 14, 2006 open letter: “as the legislation also makes clear, the responsibilities of accounting officers are exercised within the framework of ministerial responsibility and accountability to Parliament, which will remain unchanged.  In other words, the fundamental accountability between a Minister and Parliament and between a Minister and his or her Deputy Minister has not been altered in any way.”

While some have argued for an approach based on the view that the public service should have a sphere of authority in administration matters independent of Ministers, and therefore that deputies should have a personal accountability to Parliament, I believe this misses the fundamental point of the Westminster system of public administration.  In our system, the role of the public service is to provide advice and operational support to the government of the day; it does not exercise authority independently of the government.  Any other approach would both undercut the authority of Ministers and the non-partisan nature of the public service.  In this regard, the Prime Minister noted that “…this would not be an appropriate role for the Public Service and is not one that is sought by public servants.”

In this way, the Canadian Accounting Officer parallels the Accounting Officer in the United Kingdom, which is also based on a principle of answerability rather than accountability to Parliament.  The mechanism for handling disagreements over departmental administration between a deputy and a Minister is, however, somewhat different.  Under the FAA, in the event of a disagreement over management issues, the Canadian Accounting Officer must seek written guidance from the Secretary of the Treasury Board and, if the matter remains unresolved, the Minister must then refer the matter to the Treasury Board for a written decision, which is then provided to the Auditor General.  The Canadian approach is aimed at preventing and resolving disputes, while providing appropriate documentation and transparency. 

Web of rules

The second example of public administration reform that I would like to discuss is the initiative aimed at tackling the “web of rules” and the “tangle of red tape” that surround government operations.

Since the 1960s, concerns have been voiced about the restrictive nature of the command and control style of public administration and the need to afford managers more flexibility in the delivery of programs and services to Canadians.  This was the basis of the Glassco Commission's call to “let the managers manage” in 1962.  And so they did. 

Over time, however, concerns were raised about whether there was adequate accountability to accompany the scope of delegation.  These concerns were exacerbated by a series of managerial and other failures over the last decade which garnered significant media coverage and thrust public management into the spotlight.  Against this backdrop, the reflexive response of the system to each new failure was to impose a myriad of new rules in an attempt to achieve oversight. 

The result has become what looks like an inflexible web of prescriptive rules rather than a principle-based approach to risk management.  For example, the proliferation of rules on grants and contributions meant that, in one case, an organization was obliged to submit a 75-page application and commit to quarterly reporting simply to receive a $5000 federal grant.  And the cumulative effect has been greater and greater caution and risk aversion by our front-line managers, and greater and greater frustration from our clients.

As the recent Report of the Independent Blue Ribbon Panel on Grant and Contribution Programs so succinctly notes:

“The present culture of over-control does nothing to strengthen accountability.  Indeed, the sheer complexity of the current ‘web of rules' serves only to confuse accountability and frustrate managers and recipients alike.  More rules do not make better rules, and no amount of central regulation will forestall all wrongdoing, or prevent people from making mistakes.  Rather, the task is to control the risks of error through a modern and streamlined system of risk management.  Accountability is strengthened when compliance rules make sense and are established at a level that corresponds to risk and need.”

The objective in tackling the web-of-rules must be to restore balance between oversight and flexibility, and remove unproductive restrictions that prevent public servants from managing for results rather than simply managing by rules. 

It entails a system-wide review of existing rules, a principles-based approach to streamlining management policies, and putting risk management front-and-centre.  The Blue Ribbon Panel concluded that, “not only is it possible to simplify administration while strengthening accountability, it is absolutely necessary to do the first in order to ensure the latter.”

Public Service Renewal

Let me conclude with a few words on public service renewal.  For me, the question is how do we ensure that Canada continues to have a strong public service, one geared to excellence and non-partisanship, in the years and decades ahead? 

The challenge of public service renewal is a very real one.  Like the Canadian population, we are ageing, but at a faster rate.  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 should do things.  Like everyone, we face the strongest national labour market in over 30 years, with many career options for Canada's best and brightest. 

At the same time, we are experiencing the changing context for governing.  As part of this, there is a shift in public expectations towards more accountability, better management of tax dollars and improved core public services.  And, with all this, the “public service brand” is probably less clear and less positive in the public's mind than in decades past.

To drive focussed, pragmatic and ongoing renewal, the Prime Minister has established an Advisory Committee on the Public Service and I have created a DM Committee on Public Service Renewal.  Public Service renewal is now a key priority of all deputy ministers, and their senior management teams.  And we will use the Clerk's Annual Report to the Prime Minister and Parliament to set out clearly the objectives, the deliverables and the results for ongoing public service renewal,  year-by-year.


To conclude, as integral to renewal today as it has been in the past, is the need to maintain an open dialogue with all of our partners - the public, public administration theorists, private sector colleagues, public servants at all ranks and classifications, and of course the public servants of tomorrow.  In other words, stakeholders like the people in this room.

Public administration schools, such as Carleton's, are uniquely situated to help develop our next generation of public sector leaders, who must be prepared not only for the ongoing challenges of public policy, but also the ongoing challenges of public administration modernization.  In this vein, however, we would benefit from a greater focus in Canada's schools of public administration and public policy on public sector management and human resources issues.

Finally, like my colleagues, 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.  And I believe the Canadian public equally has a stake in this endeavour, as it is they who benefit most from an excellent public service.

Thank you.