Public Service Renewal and the Challenge of 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
to the 8th National Managers Professional Development Forum

April 21st, 2008
Vancouver, Canada


Today, I appreciate the opportunity to meet, share some thoughts on the state of the Public Service of Canada, and hear from you. I particularly want to talk about public service renewal, the focus of the 15th Clerk's Annual Report to the Prime Minister on the Public Service, and my third. It is both a topic and a document that I would like managers and employees at all levels to read, and to discuss.

This is the second time I've had the opportunity to talk to the National Managers Forum --- the last time was a "virtual appearance" at your 2006 St. John's Forum, and I want to thank the organizers for the kind invitation to be here in person today in Vancouver.

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, feeling your pride in public service.

Let me start by quoting Thomas Friedman: "... 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 that there is a strong correlation between a country's competitiveness and prosperity and the quality of its public sector. And, this correlation holds whether the country is developing or developed; whether it is poor or rich.

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. It is an institution I've devoted my professional life to, and I'm proud to have been a public servant now for almost 32 years.

Yet, today, there seems to be increasing scepticism and negative rhetoric towards our public institutions in Canada, including the public service. Criticism of the public service is not new --- and it is not always without merit, but it is never easy for public servants. And, at the same time, we are facing the structural challenge of public service renewal.

Over the last number of years, I fear that we have allowed some misperceptions about the public service, from both inside and outside, to go unchallenged too long, and the challenge of public service renewal to go unanswered too long. Today, I would like to share with you the "misperceptions of the public service" that most concern me, and put these in the broader context of the renewal challenge we face.

In each of these public service misperceptions, there is a kernel of truth --- but people are all too quick to accept that the kernel is the whole story.

The reality is a public service that is neither perfect nor broken. The reality is a public service that is strongly rooted in public service values. The reality is a public service that, like the rest of Canada, is under constant pressure to adapt to an ever-changing world. The reality is a public service that has to embrace change, not the status quo, to live up to our potential to make a difference, to keep the public's confidence.

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, communicating like crazy, expanding "the change team", producing ongoing, visible wins, and then not letting up. And, it needs you. All of you have to help make public service renewal a reality.


1. Misperception number one is that the public service today is broken, that it is merely a pale shadow of its former self.

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 of you, reading negative stories in the press about public officials, elected and non-elected, have very mixed emotions as well. We all do.

Let's remember that the public service cannot be error free, no large organization can. We will make mistakes, be accountable for them and learn from them. But the vast majority of the time we will 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. And this has to start with senior public service leaders like myself.

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.

This public service is certainly different today, and needs to be, because the times have changed, Canadian society has changed, and public expectations for government have changed. Unfortunately, this reality is not well known.

2. Misperception number two is that a concerted focus on renewal is unnecessary. While the status quo has an undeniable attraction in any large organisation, it is rarely the best option, and it simply isn't an option in our case.

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".

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 public servants is over 44, executives is 51, and 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. Indeed, over 31% of our ADMs can retire now and almost 50% of executives will be able to retire by 2012.

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.

We will not be successful in attracting Canada's best scientists, lawyers, economists, or managers if we cling to a centralized, impersonal recruitment system. A system unfortunately characterized by slow bureaucratic hiring processes and offers of temporary, casual or term employment. And, we will not succeed in renewal if we do not better develop our workforce, and better manage our workplace.

But renewal is also an opportunity. It should provide 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.

3. This leads rather neatly to misperception number three, that the public service cannot compete for the best talent anymore. This is a key question: are we getting the best grads from our universities and our community colleges to consider careers in the public service?

The strongest potential recruitment tool for the public service is the unique nature of our work: what we offer is challenging work. It's about work which touches the lives of Canadians in meaningful ways. It's about the scope to engage on many different issues of public importance over the course of a career. It's about serving the public interest, not a company's interest. It's about 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 our current approaches. How we recruit has to change : 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 development, and then exercise this responsibility not delegate it.

When we personalize the recruitment process, when we cut the deadly staffing times that could discourage the most ardent potential recruit, 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.

And, once recruited, we have to provide our employees with a challenging variety of work experiences, with targeted development training and leadership skills, and with more supportive and flexible work-life balance that meets both the operational and professional needs of the public service, and the personal needs of highly qualified public servants.

And lastly, we have to sharpen our brand. I believe it has to be excellence --- no one wants to join or work in an average institution or company. Join us, we're excellent, is both a good recruitment slogan and a good retention motto.

4. This brings us to misperception number four, that the policy capacity of the public service is not what is used to be. For example, 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".

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 analytically rigorous, unbiased policy options and recommendations.

A second observation is that 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. And, such deployment of our policy capacity has produced much policy and service delivery progress in Canada in recent years.

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. And, good public service policy advice has helped governments achieve 11 consecutive years of fiscal surpluses, low inflation, corporate taxes that are very competitive with our major trading partners, infrastructure modernization, re-invigorated university-led research in Canada, made progress on child poverty alleviation and developed the Pacific Gateway. And the list goes on, as do the challenges.

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. Similarly, Canadian governments have successfully used "expert panels" for many, many decades on a wide variety of structural issues. 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, while the policy challenges of today are certainly no less complex than in years past, they are different. Our policy capacity has to be world class in new areas such as globalization, security, productivity, ageing, competitiveness, and climate change, and these policy needs should in part shape our renewal strategies.

5. The next misperception is that public servants are afraid to take risks, that risk aversion is a behaviourial characteristic of bureaucrats, that it is in our genes. The reality is not one of poor public servant 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 in 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.

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.

As I said in my 2008 Report to the Prime Minister on the Public Service: ..."We need a better balance between risk taking and accountability. This requires reducing the current web of rules that saps initiative and stifles innovation. Effective organizations have robust and effective risk management systems." And this means occasionally making mistakes as well as achieving success.

6. 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 is changing, and must continue to change. Last year we implemented a robust new performance management and evaluation system for Deputy Ministers and Associate Deputy Ministers that places a special emphasis on good people management. This year we will implement that with a greater focus on people management in the performance management system for all executives.

Last year we launched a new Advanced Leadership Program (ALP), with 25 participants, to help develop the senior public service leaders of the future. As well, we also implemented a new talent management approach to Assistant Deputy Ministers. We will expand it to other executive ranks beginning this year. Last year, much too belatedly, we required integrated human resource and business planning in all departments as a mandate commitment for Deputies and Departments. This year, we will deepen it.

This year, we will address the Prime Minister's Advisory Committee on the Public Service's recommendation to restructure the governance, roles and accountabilities for human resources management. We will also develop initiatives to strengthen performance management, including dealing with poor performance. There is nothing more damaging to morale and a healthy workplace than poor performance that is left unaddressed.

We also need to get serious about tackling the "back office of the government".This will be a major undertaking, and includes the imperative to: (i) improve our slow and inefficient staffing processes; (ii) modernize our pay system; (iii) give managers real-time financial and human resources information for effective management; (iv) develop an annual, on-line survey; and, (v) scale back the web-of-rules.

In short, we believe fervently that sound public sector management matters. So do you. There is a pragmatic, sustained focus on better management as part of Public Service renewal. We're targeting recruitment, development, planning, and enabling infrastructure. We're setting out, year after year, tangible renewal commitments. And, year after year, we're holding executives to account for delivering on them.

7. Misperception number seven is that public service renewal exercises never accomplish anything.

There is certainly no denying that we've had a number of public service reviews over the last 50 years. But this should also not be surprising. Consider how much the scope and scale of government in Canada has changed over this period. And consider how much the world around us has been transformed --- to paraphrase Tom Friedman: "... if renewal (like globalization) were a sport, it would be the 100 metre dash, over and over and over again."

While the rhetoric and expectations for many of these renewal exercises likely outstripped the results, the fact is 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 (less than 5% of executives were women in 1983, today it is 40%; equally, 2% of DMs in 1983 were women, today it is 38%), a more diverse workforce but not diverse enough, increased focus on service standards, 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 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 last misperception that I want to focus on, is that the public service is fundamentally out of touch with Canadians, the "they're from Venus, we're from Mars" syndrome. This troubles me greatly and I fundamentally disagree with it on many levels.

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 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.

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 the regions, and in this room.

While this is not a uniquely Canadian challenge, and exists in any large, diverse country, particularly those with federal structures of government, it does underscore the value of outreach activities across the country by senior public service leaders.

And 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, 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. It is in both of our interests. We need to interact, not disengage, 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. I would like to leave with you four thoughts on public service, public servants and renewal.

First, do we matter? Well, 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".

A strong validation of the important role our non-partisan public service plays in Canada. Also, a strong message that, to continue playing this role, to be excellent, relevant and respected, we have to embrace change and the urgency of renewal. The impetus for this renewal has to come from within.

Second, to whom do we matter? The answer is simple: to Canadians. 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.

Third, what about you and renewal? Well, part of successful renewal will require you to take ownership of it, and help find solutions that work. Get involved. --- Speak up. --- Make suggestions. --- Become part of renewal. --- Be a proud, committed public servant who makes a difference. As John F. Kennedy once asked: "If not us, who? If not now, when?"

And lastly, remember who you serve? You serve your fellow Canadians, and I believe you do it very well.

Thank you