Perceptions and Realities of Public Service

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

March 2009
Chandigarh, India


Today, I appreciate the opportunity to share some thoughts on the state of the Public Service of Canada, and hear from you about the Public Service of India. We share many things --- the Commonwealth, our Parliamentary democracies, our federal systems of government, our legal code and the importance our public services play in our Westminster-style governments.

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 public servants do, delivering public services, matters; and how they do it, matters even more. I believe Canada has long been well served by a non-partisan, professional, competent public service. I'm sure you feel the same about India.

Yet, today, there seems to be some scepticism towards public service. Criticism of the public service is not new, and it is not always without merit, but when it is based on misperceptions, it cannot go unchallenged.

Today, I would like to share with you both some perceptions and realities of public service in Canada, and highlight several areas where, at least in Canada, there is a gap between perceptions and reality.

First the reality. The reality in Canada is a public service that is certainly not perfect, but is in no way broken. A public service that is strongly rooted in the values of serving the public in a non-partisan, professional manner. A public service that, like the rest of Canada, is under constant pressure to embrace change, not the status quo, to live up to our potential to make a difference. Now some perceptions.

Perceptions and Reality

1. Perception number one is that the public service today is less efficient and effective than it once was, some would say a shadow of its former self.

Many in the public at large, reading negative stories in the press about public officials, elected and non-elected, have very mixed emotions about public service.

The reality is 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 truth of the matter is that most of the time, we will provide good public services, day in and day out, to millions of Canadians, and occasionally do amazing things.

We need to do a better job at explaining the breadth, scope and complexity of public service in Canada. The reality is that the public service 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 from its former self, because it needs to be, to reflect how much the world has changed.

2. Perception number two is the complete opposite, that the status quo is fine, no need for change.

Demographics and the increased complexity of our work are driving the need for change.

For the first time in our history, the public service has 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, our assistant deputy ministers is just shy of 55, the age when many public servants are eligible for an unreduced pension. Indeed, almost 50% of executives and 25% of all public servants will be able to retire by 2012.

This is our demographic reality. But it 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 perception number three, that the public service cannot compete for the best talent anymore.

The reality is that we can recruit and retain the-best-and-brightest to public service but only as long as we remember our strength. The strongest argument for a public service career is the unique nature of what we do and why it matters.

What we offer is challenging work. Work which touches the lives of Canadians in meaningful ways. Work whose scope engages a broad range of issues of public importance over the course of a career. Work that serves the the public interest, not a company's interest. Work that is based on values and commitment and personal and professional satisfaction that comes with making a difference to your community, your country, the world.

To leverage these advantages, we need a clearer, sharper brand. I believe that brand for the Canadian public service 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 perception number four, that the policy capacity of the public service is not what is used to be.

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, professional, unbiased policy options and recommendations.

A second observation is that the public service should not have a monopoly on policy research and advice. The more independent, non-governmental think tanks doing high quality, analytic policy work in a country the better.

And third, I believe the policy challenges of today are more complex than in years past. Our policy capacity has to be world class in new areas such as globalization, security, productivity, ageing, competitiveness, and climate change, to do the work expected of us.

5. The next perception is that public servants are afraid to take risks, that risk aversion is in our genes.

Risk aversion is imposed not inherent in public services.

We have mired public servants in a complex, and often conflicting, web-of-rules that encourages risk aversion 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, based on rigorous risk management systems.

6. Perception six is that in the public service management is too often not a priority.

As Peter Drucker has wryly observed, "so much of that we call management consists of making it difficult for people to work". That applies to the public service as well. The reality is that we can and must do better in embedding best-of-class management practices in the way we operate, the way we think, the way we evaluate performance.

Fundamentally, we have to make management a core part of every executives's jobs, not someone else's. We are strengthening performance management, including dealing with poor performance. More must be done. There is nothing more damaging to morale and a healthy workplace than poor performance that is left unaddressed.

7. And perception seven is that the public service is out of touch with citizens, the "they're from Venus, we're from Mars" syndrome.

At one level this perception goes to the heart of the importance of a non-partisan, professional public service that both reflects and understands the diversity of our country --- geographic, linguistic and ethnic --- as well as the rapidly changing world we live in. 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 diversity within the public service and active outreach by the public service.

More broadly, this sense of a solitude between the public and private sectors, is both real and wrong. Real in the sense the perception exists. 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, public and private sectors need to work more not less together. We need to interact, not disengage, to ensure we have business strategies and public policies that are designed to take advantage of our country's relative strengths, for the betterment of all.


I would like to leave with you two thoughts on public service.

First, public service matters. 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 we need a better public understanding of the important role the public service plays in the ongoing success of a country, whether that country is Canada or India.

Second, public service renewal will require individual public servants to take ownership of it.  As John F. Kennedy once asked: "If not us, who? If not now, when?" Public sector renewal needs all of us, all the time.

Thank you.