The Clerk’s Report 2012: A Review

Another year and another Report from the Clerk to the Prime Minister on the Public Service of Canada. This year’s report has a number of highlights, many of which have been discussed by other intrepid bloggers. The report is filled with interesting insights, both implicit and explicit, but what’s next for the Public Service? There are times when we’re 200+ departments/agencies/commissions, and there are times when we are one Public Service. This report speaks to the latter, but leaves the responsibility for doing so up to the former. I’m curious as to what the follow-ups will be to turn the ideas presented in the report into a reality.

On the Surface

In terms of positive things in the report, I was glad to see that stories of success were told. I’ve talked before about leading by example, and it’s something that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. Showing these stories, including the Open Policy initiative at DFAIT, is a good way to show how senior leaders at the DG level are taking on the challenge to be more open and inclusive.

There is also probably the strongest language supporting Social Media for public servants:

Public servants should enjoy consistent access to [Web 2.0] tools wherever possible. We will find a way to achieve this while at the same time safeguarding the data and information in our care.

Hopefully departments will look closely at this, given the massive disparity between the best and worst departments when it comes to Social Media access. Surely we need to find a way to be consistent across departmental lines – maybe something that Shared Services Canada may be able to assist in doing.

Probably the most interesting challenge issued was the following:

And while we have updated many of our management practices, we must find ways to reconcile vertical accountability and ways of working with an increasingly horizontal and collaborative world.

Addressing this challenge is integral to morphing into the Public Service that we want to be, although it’s not necessarily a new challenge. One of the biggest hindrances to collaboration is that we can’t seem to reconcile vertical accountability and a collaborative work environment. The Canadian Public Service sometimes suffers from departmental nationalism, where people see themselves as a member of their department first, and a member of the Public Service second – and the system is designed to have people think and operate in that manner (more on that in another post).

But on the more subtle side…

Of course, under the report lies a whole host of really interesting stuff. There are a lot of explicit items, but also some more subtle things that piqued my interest. For example, the report mentions:

For the first time in seven years, the Government has a majority in the House of Commons. The Public Service has a valuable opportunity to support the Government in developing longer-term approaches that will help Canada address its significant and enduring challenges—whether related to the economy, Canada’s aging population, or its role on the world stage.

Fundamentally, I think it’s the job of the Public Service to support the Government in developing longer-term approaches regardless of whether it’s a majority or minority situation. As stewards of public institutions, it is our responsibility to do so. Luckily, there have been many instances, even during minority governments, of the Public Service performing this function admirably.

There also appears to be some cognitive dissonance – there is an acknowledgment of the importance of Social Media and collaboration, but when we look to those who should be setting the example (here, here, and here), our expectations may be left wanting. This isn’t a pet project for line departments (although, notably, there are some excellent examples (hat-tip to TBS for leading this) led by line departments) – it requires very real leadership coming from the centre, encouraging collaboration in all areas across government.

The Stark Reality (Winter is Coming)

I also appreciated the candor in the report – specifically when the report acknowledges that there will be fewer jobs, going forward. This has major implications for the Public Service, in terms of recruitment. We need to look past our traditional recruitment campaigns, and be more targeted in getting the right people in the right jobs. In some cases, this could mean experienced people from the outside, in other cases it could mean students fresh out of university or college.

The report also mentions the following, which has been a subject of a great many debates:

Although no other organization in the country can match the breadth and objectivity of our policy expertise, we are one of many sources of advice available to the Government.

Trying to understand where we fit in with this concept is difficult, I think, for many people in government. There is an assumption that we are the (1) only and (2) best source of policy advice, which I think misunderstands our function. The advantage we have is (as mentioned) that we are objective. This section speaks towards opening our arms even wider to engage with as many people as possible during the development process (academia, industry, other departments, other orders of government, international organizations) – not once we have a fully-cooked idea – and not to be afraid of hearing divergent viewpoints. Indeed, part of the challenge is in reconciling those viewpoints in order to provide the best advice possible to the Government. If we don’t learn to adapt to these changing circumstances, we risk making ourselves irrelevant, and Canadians and the Government lose out on the objective perspective that can be offered by the Public Service.

Where do we go from here?

This is the question I’m left with. We have some interesting ideas presented and some great examples that have occurred over the last year or so. But these initiatives have happened because of individuals taking risks, not because of anything systematic. There are only a handful of examples, and almost all of them can be traced back to specific individuals going out on a limb – the expectation, and the default, is not to work in this manner.

So where do we go from here? Do we just continue to hope that individuals will take on the bigger challenges and take risks? Or do we try to change the expectations of the system to one where this open type of behaviour is expected? If we can figure out how to reconcile some of the major issues raised in the report, I have a lot of hope for the future.

A New Foreign Service Model

A cursory glance through GEDS tells us that almost every department has an international bent to it. When thinking about a department’s overall policy framework, it is impossible to ignore international factors. There are multilateral organizations, bilateral frameworks, etc, that all have an impact on policy approaches in Canada.

The mandate of DFAIT is: The mandate of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada is to manage Canada’s diplomatic and consular relations and to encourage the country’s international trade.

Additionally, DFAIT serves as a Common Services Provider, with jurisdiction over international telecommunications, international procurement (including real estate, goods, and services).

How effective is this model? I’m unsure. It appears that each department spends time running their own international policy shops and coordinating with DFAIT. That being said, the actual diplomatic expertise required may be lacking in departments, as it is centralized at DFAIT (FS, the Foreign Service classification, is only located in DFAIT). The working relationship between DFAIT and other departments has an impact on how Canada is perceived internationally.

That’s not to put the blame on diplomats or departments — the question, rather, is how to structure our institutions to provide the most coherent and consistent international policy, allowing all departments to fulfill their mandates as effectively as possible.

The Department of Justice essentially functions as the law firm for the Government of Canada. Almost all lawyers (LA classification) are employed by DoJ, even though many are posted to various departments. This allows departments to access the expertise of the lawyers, who provide independent advice, but are fully aware of the operational context of the departments in which they serve. As they are all part of DoJ, they idea is that the lawyers speak with one voice with regard to legal policy. The DoJ itself has its own core functions (including policy), but those providing advice to departments are actually embedded.

DoJ is also a Common Services Provider. Their mandate under that policy:

Justice Canada is responsible for the legal affairs of the government as a whole and for providing legal services to individual departments and agencies through functions related to the offices of the Attorney General and the Minister of Justice. These services include providing legal advice, preparing legal documents, drafting legislation, regulating or conducting litigation, and overseeing all legal mechanisms used to achieve the overall objectives of the government.

It would be interesting to see if DFAIT could do something similar for its diplomatic corps. By having FSs posted to each of the departments, it would allow the departments to benefit by having people who are professional diplomats fully aware of a department’s operational context, while also ensuring that the overall foreign policy of Canada is consistent, as DFAIT would have their employees embedded within each individual department.

Justice and DFAIT both serve as Common Service Providers. Justice can use their employees to provide benefits to the departments (access to services), and provide intelligence to themselves (each department is using the same “firm”, and those embedded can advice on their area of specialization).

It would require a big shift in how we think about foreign policy and the role of the diplomatic corps. However, as we shift towards an ever more globalized world, the actions of departments necessarily will have consequences outside our borders. Recognizing that, and structuring ourselves for success, will be crucial as we begin to address international challenges.

A New Vision for the Canada School

There are times when we are members of the 251 different departments and agencies in the Government of Canada, and there are times when we are are Public Service.

Increasingly, it seems that we are spending more time in the former, and less in the latter. There is a lot of talk about the challenges facing each department, but very little internal discussion on what challenges we’re facing as a Public Service. We have a few departments, though, that serve the broader Public Service. For example, we have Policy Horizons, which I’ve spoken about before, and we have the Canada School of Public Service, which I have also spoken about before.

I want to take a moment, though, and look at how the CSPS could operate. The vision of the school is:

The primary responsibility of the Canada School of Public Service is to provide a broad range of learning opportunities and to establish a culture of learning within the Public Service.

I absolutely love this. We see how it comes together, too, with courses like the Orientation to the Public Service. The problem, though, is that that’s where the mandatory training stops. Some departments have found it to be more cost-effective to do their own training and create their own material. What is lost, though, is the cross-pollination across departments and the idea of creating a cadre of Public Servants — rather than a cadre of employees from this department or that agency.

So what could the CSPS actually do? HRSDC, as an example, has an excellent EC Development Program Curriculum (Check out GCPedia for the schedule of courses for each level). We know that new hires increasingly are used to an academic model. What we lack is a good transition from school to work. While graduates have great minds, they might not have the hard skills or knowledge to work in the government. Writing a briefing note, as an example, is a very specific type of writing.

Given that the government is already looking at centralizing services, maybe we could look at the same thing with training. We can make it standardized for many functions. ECs should have a standard track to follow. Same with PMs, PEs, etc. While the jobs are going to vary depending on department, the same basic skills set ought to be the same — and the CSPS should be offering that service (including coordination for non-CSPS courses — contracting with uOttawa or the IOG).

The understanding is that every Public Servant is going to have a mix of generalist and specialist skills, depending on their jobs. The CSPS should provide that generalist base for Public Servants, with departments providing some of the specialization.

Of course, such a system would be helped if we could make entry-level positions that exist outside of development programs the exception, rather than the rule.

We want to talk about retention and training the Public Service of the Future, maybe this would be a place to start.



Principle 4: Be an Example

One thing I think we often look for in the Public Service is examples of people who are successfully taking risks. The Clerk’s report talks about taking risks, and we read over and over again that for the Public Service to thrive in the future and be able to effectively deliver service to Canadians, we’re going to need to take risks. Sometimes this risks will pay off, sometimes they won’t. This doesn’t mean just taking risks without thinking — we can take calculated and intelligent risks.

The cadet program teaches that were are two kinds of examples we set: Deliberate and Unconscious. The biggest danger is when these two things come into conflict. For example, if you show cadets how to do their uniforms (deliberate example) but you show up with your uniform not done properly (unconscious example), the net impact on your followers is that you’re all talk.

Not a great way to inspire your followers.

In terms of deliberate examples, we see a lot of positive things out there. The reports that have been written and the feedback that we see is excellent. The words are written in an inspirational way that encourage people to take risks and to be more “out there”. I wonder, then, what the unconscious examples are that we’re seeing?

There are obvious reasons for seeing some unconscious examples at this point in time — the operational context is hugely important in assessing any situation. However, I don’t think that we have a lack of public servants who want to take intelligent risks. I think there’s a lot of public servants who don’t want to take the risks if they think they’re not going to get back-up.

Nick wrote an excellent piece talking about the mythical clay layer, who may be getting an unfair reputation in all this. I think what we can agree on, though, is that all the way up the chain (and at the working level too) there needs to be awareness of what sort of unconscious examples are being set. We’re always being watched by those above and below us. We can say or write many things deliberately, but if it conflicts with our unconscious examples, what is the net impact of our actions?

Citizen Impact — Communication and Policy Intersection

The recent report released by Samara has some fascinating insights about those who are politically disengaged from our democracy. Without touching on the political aspects of it, it is interesting to look at the parts that deal with the bureaucracy – indeed, our performance as bureaucrats plays a role in how engaged people are with the political system and how empowered they feel. While there are some powerful stories in the report on citizen interaction with the bureaucracy, it is succinctly captured here:

Some became outsiders after seeking assistance from elected representatives and civil servants in government, but ultimately receiving little help.

This brings to the forefront an interesting discussion about our role in upholding the public trust. While when I wrote that initial post I was looking at the institutional level, but this report makes clear that the individual level is just as important when looking at how institutions maintain trust and, along with that, engagement.

Essentially, remember this: Our interaction with citizens matter. Public servants are one of the facets through which people engage with the Government of Canada, and how we are perceived has an impact not just on that one instant of service provision, but can have a deep impact on how that citizen engages with the Government (and political institutions) in the future. Of course, we see this as one of the values that we need to uphold in the Values and Ethics Code:

Public servants shall act at all times in a manner that will bear the closest public scrutiny; an obligation that is not fully discharged by simply acting within the law. 

With this idea of engagement comes the idea how we manage communication. In Nick’s recent post, he met with a communicator who rightly pointed out that communication is a function of policy. When communicating with the public, including in engagement exercises, we have a duty as public servants to make sure that citizens actually are engaged in the process, and that hopefully their experience is positive. How big of an impact these consultations have is, of course, up to the political level, our duty is to make sure that the public trust is upheld through the process and provide advice as to how they may be used on the outcomes.

Which makes me wonder: Where do communicators fit in within the policy-program continuum? I’m glad that there has been some talk lately on that continuum and how important it is to policy development, but it seems that a crucial player may be left out.

Policy Horizons — Horizontal Policy?

As recognized throughout several reports, the future of policy work is horizontal. You simply can’t address, for example, an infrastructure issue without looking at multiple perspectives (be it Transport, Industry, Infrastructure, etc). The future of policy work will have multiple departments working together to achieve policy solutions that are holistic and address multiple perspectives of the issue.

Yet we’re still bound in our little departments. At present, we seem to address this horizontality issue by:

  • Establishing an interdepartmental task force (working level, DG-level, and ADM-level in many cases) and assigning a lead department; or,
  • Establishing the capacity internally

How effective are either of these solutions? In the first case, the lead department still retains control and accountability for the project (and may or may not take feedback from other departments), where as the latter is simply a stop-gap measure that discourages departments from working together unless their mandates explicitly conflict.

So what’s to be done, then?

The vision of Policy Horizons is as follows:

To promote a high and sustainable quality of life within a globally competitive Canada, through the co-creation and advancement of knowledge that informs and structures policy choices for the Government of Canada by way of an integrated and longer-term perspective.

It’s a place for members not only of the federal government, but also partners from outside the federal family, to come together to co-create solutions. A broad mandate, to be sure, but maybe one that can become a place for addressing these complex policy problems outside of the hierarchical structure required by typical departments.

On the Policy-Program Continuum, I see Policy Horizons playing a crucial role in the policy development (up to and including MC presentation), with the Program experts from whatever the final “home” department will be being involved as well. Essentially, whenever a policy objective is identified (and it’s recognized that the solution will need to be multi-departmental), the various departments will identify one person from their department to serve on the task team. The person would be seconded to Policy Horizons for the duration of the project (from policy objective identification through to program design). The policy initiative would be presented to the appropriate DM committee (allowing not just for “stakeholder” departments, but other perspectives) before eventually heading down the road to Cabinet.

Additionally, the permanent members of Policy Horizons could provide advice on creative thinking and the involvement of the private/academic sector in the policy and program design.

This idea takes away some of the turf-wars from departments, as the members of the team, while “representing” certain perspectives, are actually under the purview of Policy Horizons for the duration of the project. This frees the people up to just work on the specific policy initiative. If our goal is to provide good and creative advice with multiple perspectives, it’s important to have this “safe space” — especially with priority initiatives.

Each team would be composed of the relevant background/skill sets for the particular initiative (policy, programs, communications, etc). They would have a budget assigned specifically to them for the initiative. By report to a DM committee on the matter, directly, it removes several levels of hierarchy.

Could this be used for every single policy initiative? Not without substantial change to how we conceive of the machinery of government. Could it work for large, priority files? Absolutely. The interesting part would see if we could actually put these teams together and set them up for success.

I’m sure there’s a million reasons why this couldn’t happen — but I just wanted to put this out there!

Principle 3: Seek and Accept Responsibility

In this series of posts, I’m looking over the 10 principles of leadership that are taught to cadets (12-18 year olds). Typically, these principles are discussed in a cadets 3rd year when they are 14-15 years old. It’s amazing how relevant these principles remain. Onto principle 3:

Seek and accept responsibility – One of the most important characteristics of a good leader is the ability to accept challenges with confidence and enthusiasm. To do this, a cadet who aspires to leadership must develop a sound mental attitude. This attitude should be characterized by a lively interest, an avid curiousity and a determination to strive for higher personal achievement. Some ways in which you can go about developing responsibilities among your cadets are:

  • Encourage them to attain qualifications for promotion.
  • Give senior people responsibilities and authority to carry them out.
  • Develop pride in the corps and the cadets.

The most interesting thing about the above principle is the examples that are given — specifically the latter two. In one instance, it encourages giving senior people on your team (who may not have official responsibilities) the ability to take on a larger role. By developing people in this type of leadership capacity, it builds your team’s ability to carry bigger and more complex projects.

The latter is also pretty neat — as part of our responsibility, we need to build up morale as well. This includes being proud of the Public Service and building a pride within our organization. This can be difficult at times, depending on the circumstances in which we find ourselves, but nonetheless it is something we need to work towards.

Perhaps the biggest lesson we have from this is taking on initiative — identifying gaps and figuring out a way to fill that gap. In some cases, it’s a process that needs to be fixed. In other cases, it’s a much larger problem that requires our attention. To attack these problems, we need to bodly put forth ideas and actually accept the responsibility to take action.

This means taking risks as well — even with our own personal careers. This is easier said than done, depending on our own circumstances. One of my favourite quotes from Jon Stewart is something along the lines of, “If you don’t stand up for your values when they’re challenged, then they’re not values — they’re hobbies.” When we put ideas out there, we need to accept the responsibility for putting them out there — including the consequences.

Even if it’s just a briefing note to your director with some suggestions for improvement, putting concrete solutions around identified problems is a way to push ourselves forward.