The Public Service of Canada: Too Many Misperceptions

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Remarks by Kevin G. Lynch
Clerk of the Privy Council, Secretary to the Cabinet and Head of the Public Service

February 18th, 2008
Vancouver, Canada


One of the great privileges of being Clerk is having the opportunity of meeting with public servants all across our amazing country, hearing about what you do and why it matters, seeing first-hand your commitment to this work, and feeling your pride in public service.  Today, I appreciate the opportunity to meet, share some thoughts on the state of the Public Service of Canada and hear from you.  This is the first time a Clerk has ever had a “town hall” meeting of public servants in a region, and I want to thank the organizers for arranging this very special event in Vancouver.

Let me start by quoting Thomas Friedman (The Lexus and the Olive Tree; The World is Flat):  “… 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”.  He was articulating what extensive research at the World Bank and IMF has confirmed, that there is a strong correlation between a country's competitiveness and prosperity and the quality of its public sector.  Further, this correlation holds whether the country is developing or developed; poor or rich; African or Asian or European or Western Hemisphere.  In short, what you do, delivering public services, matters, and how you do it, matters even more.

I believe Canada has long been well served by a non-partisan, professional, competent public service.  Yet, today, there seems to be increasing scepticism and negative rhetoric towards our public institutions in Canada.  And this includes the public service.

Criticism of the public service is not new, and it is not always without merit.  Healthy institutions respond well to constructive criticism; dynamic organizations look forward not backwards.  But, I fear that we have allowed some misperceptions about the public service, from both inside and outside the public service, to go unchallenged too long.

Today, I would like to share with you my list of the “top misperceptions of the public service”.  In each, there is a kernel of truth in the misperception, but we are all too quick to accept that the kernel is the whole story.  For each, there are numerous public service “experts” who strenuously advance their individual views as articles of public faith.  With each, the reality is a more nuanced and  complex story, one based on a public service that is neither perfect nor broken, one strongly rooted in public service values, and one, like the rest of Canada, under constant pressure to adapt to an ever-changing world.

1.  The Public Service is broken, merely a pale shadow of its former self

Misperception number one is that the public service today is broken, that it is merely a pale shadow of its former self.  There are a number of different perspectives contributing to this notion.

Many in the public at large, inundated with mistakes and worse identified by the Gomery Commission, the Auditor General, parliamentary committees and journalists, have understandably generalized their legitimate concerns to the public service as a whole, and become sceptical or worse.  Some observers dismissively see the public service today as “the permanent custodian of perpetual problems”, a bureaucratic version of the movie Groundhog Day, rather than a source of new ideas, fresh perspectives and energy to deal with today's challenges.  There are some former colleagues who remember wistfully a realm of mandarins striding mightily across the land, and now perceive a domain of bureaucrats organizing interdepartmental meetings from sea to sea to sea.  And some public sector commentators engage in existential hand wringing that does little beyond depressing morale within the public service and depressing confidence about it without. 

The public service cannot be error free, no large organization can.  We will make mistakes, be accountable for them and learn from them.  We will also provide consistently good public services, day in and day out, to millions of Canadians, and occasionally do amazing things.  However, we need to do a better job at explaining the breadth and scope and importance of the work public servants do.  

The reality is that the Public Service of today is Canada's largest, most complex institution, with over 250,000 employees, more “lines of  business” than any Canadian private sector organization, more “points of service”, both nationally and internationally, and ongoing pressures to revamp our “product lines” in response to the demands of a changing world. 

For example, in the post 9-11 world, the public service has shifted towards strengthened border security, transportation security, national security, Arctic sovereignty and support for our active military engagement in Afghanistan.  In response to pressures of globalization, the public service has helped governments achieve 11 consecutive years of fiscal surpluses, steady and low inflation, corporate taxes that are very competitive with our major trading partners, and infrastructure modernization.  Innovations in research funding, long term fiscal support for health care and new, tax-based supports for low income families have re-invigorated university-led research in Canada, strengthened our health care system and made appreciable progress on child poverty alleviation.  Service quality standards, with measureable and transparent tracking, have been established in a number of areas and the results are encouraging. And the list goes on, as do the challenges.

Unfortunately, this reality is not well known.  There persists in Canada an all-too-common notion that nothing significant ever changes in public policy, that the public service is more obsessed with process than results, that economically Canada is continually falling behind other nations.  But this myth simply does not square with the remarkable transformations in Canada over the last 20 years, and the public service figured importantly in these transformations. This public service is certainly different today, and needs to be, because the times have changed, Canadian society has changed, the public policy “tool kit” has changed, and public expectations for government have changed including more accountability processes.

2. There is actually nothing much wrong with the Public Service --- we don't need renewal

Misperception number two is almost the mirror image, that there is actually nothing much wrong with the Public Service, and a concerted focus on renewal is unnecessary.  While the status quo has an undeniable allure in any large organization, the reality of public service demographics means that massive change is inevitable, and our stark choice is between “muddling though”, with real risks for the quality of the public service, or “managing for renewal”.

Within the public service, some would argue that we have experienced renewal exercises with depressing regularity over the decades, with little to show for the efforts.  Others would point out that the threat of a massive departure of the Baby Boomer generation has figured prominently in public service reform rhetoric for over a decade, and still does.  Still others, while accepting that generational change is finally coming, would sanguinely assert that a business-as-usual approach is more than adequate.

The public service today is entering the third major renewal period in its modern era.  During the war and immediately afterwards, the modern Canadian public service was created and recruited.  This admirable generation generally retired in the 1970s and was replaced through very active recruiting, a strong brand and buzz about public service and little competition from private sector alternatives.  We are now, more than 30 years onwards, facing the imminent retirement of this generation of public servants.  The challenge facing today's renewal of the public service is the strongest national labour market in over 35 years, many private sector competitors for the best-and-brightest graduating from our universities and colleges, a diminished public service brand, and less-than-stellar public service recruitment practices.

Beginning in the late-1990s, for the first time in our history, the public service had more employees over 45 than under (now approaching 60 per cent).  The demographics of ageing are even more pronounced in our executive ranks:  the average age of entry level executives is close to 48 and just two years less than the average age for all executives, while the average age of our assistant deputy ministers is just shy of 55, the age when many public servants are eligible for an unreduced pension. 

Given these demographic imperatives, the public service will need to recruit a large number of new knowledge workers over the next 5 years to simply replenish its ranks.  However, it will not be successful in attracting Canada's best scientists, lawyers, economists, administrators or managers if it clings to a centralized, impersonal, recruitment system where the vast majority of potential hirees are expected to be enticed by slow bureaucratic hiring processes and offers of temporary, casual or term employment rather than full time career prospects.  That is why we have instructed Deputy Ministers to increase their post-secondary recruitment in indeterminate positions to 3,000 this year, while reducing the excessive reliance on casual, temporary and term recruitment offers.

This demographically driven turnover, if managed properly, can be less a crisis than an opportunity. It provides the catalyst to engage the best of the next generation of Canadians in public service and, through this, reshape the public service to better reflect the diversity that is Canada and infuse it with new ideas and energy. And, while a focus on recruitment is necessary for renewal, it is not sufficient. We have to improve how we develop our workforce and manage our workplace. 

3. The Public Service cannot compete for the best talent anymore

This leads rather neatly to misperception number three, that the public service cannot compete for the best talent anymore.  For example, the Public Policy Forum argues that “a poorly defined public service brand combined with slow, inflexible human resources and recruitment processes represent a significant barrier to managing generational change”.  

The strongest potential recruitment tool for the public service is the unique nature of our work:  challenging work opportunities which touch the lives of Canadians in meaningful ways; a huge scope of work, with the opportunity to engage on many different issues of public importance over the course of a career; and, serving the public interest, with the values and commitment and personal and professional satisfaction that comes with making a difference to your community, your country, the world. 

But, to leverage this advantage, we have to fundamentally rethink most of our current recruitment approaches.  If highly qualified and motivated employees are the most important asset any organization can have in today's knowledge-driven world, then departments and their leadership must have the primary responsibility for recruitment, and then do the recruiting not delegate it.  When we invest senior executive time in recruitment, when we personalize the recruitment process, when we cut the deadly staffing times that could discourage the most ardent potential recruit, and when we recruit by marketing what we do and why it is important, rather than who we are and the competition poster number, we can and do attract truly excellent Canadians into the public service.

In short, we need a new recruiting model, one that better understands what motivates the best of today's recent graduates and makes sure that for them public service is a career that is consciously considered, not unconsciously rejected.  Indeed, our experience with our targeted recruitment programs has demonstrated that the lure of the public service work we do can trump more lucrative financial offers from the private sector.

And, once recruited, we need a better retention model as well.  We have to provide our employees with the challenging variety of work experiences which we have, with targeted development training and leadership skills, and with more supportive and flexible work-life balance that meets the operational and professional needs of the public service and the personal needs of highly qualified public servants.  As a first step, Deputy Ministers have been mandated to have learning plans in place by the end of this year for at least 90 per cent of their employees.

4. Public Service policy capacity is not what it used to be

This brings us to the related misperception, number four, that the policy capacity of the public service is not what is used to be.   Here again the Public Policy Forum frets that “policy capacity and agility in response to major challenges is diminishing; the public service is not effective at implementing policy ideas”.  Others point to the use of “expert panels” as de facto recognition by government of reduced public service policy capacity.  Still others, in a related vein, cite the emergence of think tanks providing alternative sources of policy advice as a “crowding out” of the public service policy capacity and influence.

First and foremost, it is useful to remind ourselves that public servants don't make policy decisions, elected governments do; the job of the public service is to provide governments with well researched, analytically rigorous, unbiased policy options and recommendations. 

A second observation is that, policy capacity has never been spread widely and equally across government departments, nor should it; rather, the public service needs to have the inherent capacity and flexibility to deploy policy resources to the most important issues and priorities of the day.  Successful deployment of policy capacity requires both “supply” and “demand”, and there is a question whether demand has become more of a constraint over a number of years.

Next, in my view, the public service should not have a monopoly in Canada on policy research and advice; the more independent, non-governmental think tanks doing high quality, analytic policy work in Canada the better for public understanding of the complexity of the public policy issues facing government.  Similarly, Canadian governments have successfully used “expert panels” for many, many decades on a wide variety of structural issues from various Royal Commissions, to numerous advisory committees, to many blue-ribbon panels.  A common theme among them was not weakness in public service policy capacity but the importance of broadly engaging Canadians on these important policy issues. 

And lastly, the policy challenges of today are no less significant or complex than in years past, they're just different. As the nature of the public policy challenges changes, so too must the policy expertise within government, and this is part of public service renewal.  The “big” public policy challenges of today and tomorrow, are not the same as those in decades past.  Policy capacity in Canada, both within and outside government, has to be world class in new areas such as globalization, security, productivity, ageing, competitiveness, and climate change. 

And this is part of public service renewal.  We need to build on our successful future policy leaders recruitment programs. Within the public service, we must improve the development of our policy capacity, particularly our ability to do horizontal research, to encourage “out of the box thinking”, and to establish global networks to stay abreast of leading policy thinking everywhere.  And, we must always resist the temptation of “short-termism”, and encourage medium-to-longer term policy thinking.

5. Public servants are afraid to take risks.

The next misperception is that public servants are afraid to take risks.  This view seems to imply that risk aversion is a behaviourial characteristic of bureaucrats, rather than a consequence of the “web-of-rules” that has grown up in recent years, stifling the initiative for risk taking.  

The reality is not one of poor attitudes but bad incentives.  We have mired public servants in a complex, and often conflicting, web-of-rules that encourages inaction over taking responsible risks, and discourages innovation in favour of the status quo.  This is amplified by a “gotcha” mentality in the press and at times in Parliament, where error free government, not risk management by government, has become the benchmark for success or failure.

Innovation in public policy thinking and public service delivery is not possible without risk taking, where success is not always guaranteed nor failure precluded.  Rigorous risk management systems, which allow for discretionary decision making based on clear objectives and criteria, have to replace our excessively prescriptive web of rules, which are almost “Dilbert-esque” in their complexity and application.

The government has committed to develop a strategy to address this web-of-rules, led by the Treasury Board.  The Blue Ribbon Panel on Grants and Contributions made many useful recommendations in this regard, and the government has indicated it will respond positively and comprehensively.  All good, but not enough.  Part of the solution lies with departments who sometimes create their own disincentives to innovation and risk adverse cultures.  More of the solution lies with attitudes towards risk taking in the public service by the public, press, Parliament, and government --- to take risks, employees need to know they are empowered to manage risk not avoid it;  to be innovative, means occasionally making mistakes as well as achieving successes.

6. The Public Service is not well managed.

Misperception six, that the public service is not well managed, is only partly a misperception.  For too long, effective management of people and resources has not had the priority and focus it deserves in the public service.  As Peter Drucker has wryly observed, “so much of that we call management consists of making it difficult for people to work”.  That must, and is, changing. 

We have started at the top, with a robust new performance management and evaluation system for Deputy Ministers and Associate Deputy Ministers, combined with regular and candid feedback.  This performance management system places a special emphasis on good people management and will be soon complemented by a greater focus on people management in the performance management system for all executives.  Further, the new Management Accountability Framework, or MAF, is now a key element of our management toolkit.  It provides a rigorous and quantitative assessment of how departments and agencies are being managed, and these MAF assessments are part of DMs' performance evaluations.

As part of management renewal, succession planning for senior executives is being implemented.  A new talent management approach to Assistant Deputy Ministers is now operational, and will be gradually expanded to other executive ranks.  We have launched a new Advanced Leadership Program (ALP), to help develop the senior public service leaders of the future.  More generally and much belatedly, we are integrating human resource and business planning in all departments.  Next, we have to tackle the “back office of the government” --- to improve our slow and inefficient human resource processes, to give managers real-time financial and human resources information for effective management, and to better employ technology to improve our internal productivity.

In short, we believe fervently that sound public sector management matters.  So do our employees.  We also believe a key element of sound public sector management is a relentless pursuit of excellence.  Average public services are not what Canadians want, and working in an average public service is not what excellent employees aspire to.

7. Public Service renewal exercises never accomplish anything.

Misperception number seven is that public service renewal exercises never accomplish anything.  The subtext to this is that we launch a new, highly hyped renewal agenda every 5-to-10 years, nothing ever changes and therefore why should any public servant get involved in public service renewal today, or expect much from it.

There is certainly no denying that we've had a number of public service reviews over the last 50 years, but it is also not surprising given how much the scope and scale of government in Canada has changed over this period, and the world around us has been transformed even more so.  Public service “renewal” basically started with the Glassco Commission in 1962, continued through the Lambert and d'Avignon Commissions of 1979, then moved on to PS 2000 in 1989, La Relève in 1997, and the Task Force on Modernizing Human Resource Management in 2001 and then today.  While expectations and rhetoric for some of these exercises likely outstripped the results, there is no mistaking the substantial changes which have taken place. 

The public service of 2008 is not the same public service I joined in 1976 --- consider, for example, the progress towards greater gender balance in senior management, a more diverse workforce, greater focus on service standards, more rigorous performance management and evaluation, and much greater transparency and public accountability to name a few. 

But renewal, in either the public or private sectors, is not about fixing something for all time but updating practices to the times.  Public service renewal is about keeping the institution of the public service dynamic, fresh and up-to-date.  Renewal is not about “fixing something for all time”; rather, it is about striving to ensure that what we do and how we do it is effective and relevant within the context of an ever-changing external environment.  That is the test of whether renewal exercises accomplish something.

8. The Public Service is out of touch with Canadians --- they're from Venus, we're from Mars.

The last misperception that I want to focus on, that the public service is fundamentally out of touch with Canadians, troubles me greatly.  This view is perhaps most starkly stated by the Public Policy Forum:  “Ottawa grows increasingly isolated while the country - and the world - becomes increasingly connected and interdependent… Two square miles surrounded by reality”.

At one level this criticism goes to the heart of the importance of a non-partisan, professional public service that both reflects and understands the diversity of Canada --- geographic, linguistic and ethnic, as well as the rapidly changing world we live in.  Clearly, part of the public service renewal is to better reflect and understand the diversity that is Canada.  But diverse perspectives mean that there is not always unanimity on the way forward, and sometimes when people say that Ottawa “is not connected” they mean they do not agree with the government`s decision on a specific matter. 

As well, while the federal government has a visible presence in virtually every community across the country, sometimes when people say that Ottawa “is not connected” they mean that the headquarters and senior executives of these departments are not in their community or province or region.  This perception may even be shared at times by public servants in a region, but it is certainly not uniquely Canadian and exists in any large, diverse country, particularly those with federal structures of government.  However, it does underscore the value of outreach activities across the country by senior public service leaders.  It equally makes the argument for consultation and engagement with various sectors in our society.

The value of outreach is something that I believe in, actively practiced as a deputy minister, and continue to do so as Clerk.  It is also now a requirement we have put in all Deputy Ministers' mandate letters. 

More broadly, this sense of a growing solitude between the public and private sectors, the “they're from Venus, we're from Mars” syndrome, is both real and wrong.  It is real in the sense it is happening, and wrong in that it is based on the false assumption that the two sectors have little in common and few areas for meaningful collaboration.  In this world of pervasive globalization and intense international competition, public and private sectors need to work more not less together to ensure we have business strategies and public policies that are designed to take advantage of Canada`s relative strengths, for the betterment of all Canadians.


Let me conclude where I began, and that is with the importance to Canadians of a non-partisan and excellent public service, and it needs to be both. 

As the 2007 Report of the Prime Minister's Advisory Committee on the Public Service stated:  “…a well-functioning and values-based public service is critical to the success of every country in today's complex and interconnected world.  As a national institution a high quality, merit-based Public Service is part of Canada's comparative advantage and a key to competitiveness in the global economy.  It also helps provide the foundation for sound democratic government”.

But to live up to our potential to make such a difference, the public service has to embrace change, not the status quo.  And successfully engineering change in large organizations is not easy, as John Kotter brilliantly points out in his seminal new book on change, “Our Iceberg is Melting”.  It requires creating a sense of urgency, pulling together a strong guiding team for change, developing the analytically based vision of this change, communicating like crazy, expanding “the change team”, producing some visible, early wins, and then not letting up.

In short, the impetus for renewal has to come from within, and it has to involve all of us.  The starting point for this change is the urgency of renewal for the public service to remain excellent, relevant, and respected.  Part of successful renewal is better public understanding of the important role the public service plays in the ongoing success that is Canada.  Part of that understanding is dispelling misperceptions about the public service.

Thank you