Plus ça change — Risk Management 10 years later

I was excited when I saw the following tweet this morning come up on my feed:

@marknca: “Risk, Innovation and Values – Examining the Tensions” 4mn.ca/n8gGKO

I was even more excited when I clicked on the link and discovered it to be on the Treasury Board Secretariat website! What a pertinent issue – certainly, in today’s climate of fiscal restraint, strategic reviews, and the expansion of the technology we have available to service our citizens, such a report provides a useful understanding of the issues that the public service is facing.

Then you look at the date of the report: 15 April 1999. More than a decade ago.

There have been lots of victories in the last decade for how the public service provides services to Canadians. In some ways we’ve become more responsive and better able to adapt to the ongoing and evolving issues that we face as a society. However, there are some salient points in the report that we have not addressed. Going back to the core of the issues that we face, from a risk and innovation perspective, is a useful exercise to inform how we may want to face future issues.

Fundamentally, when we talk about barriers to innovation, we end up talking about public service values. The report notes that:

“The assumption of a large and diverse public service that can be managed by a single set of values and rules is similarly outdated, especially in connection with innovation and risk-taking.”

So, let’s go look at the current Code of Values and Ethics:

“Public servants shall endeavour to ensure the proper, effective and efficient use of public money.”

“Public servants should constantly renew their commitment to serve Canadians by continually improving the quality of service, by adapting to changing needs through innovation, and by improving the efficiency and effectiveness of government programs and services offered in both official languages.”

The value of innovation is included there, but the Code is relatively silent on how risks should be taken. How should public servants assess if risk is appropriate? And if there is no framework for making that assessment, are we surprised that there aren’t people out there trying to push forth new ideas?

When the Code of Values and Ethics is updated, hopefully part of this will be addressed. It’s well and good for something to state that innovation is good and to set the expectation that public servants will engage in innovative practices to better serve Canadians. However, there also needs to be leadership from the top on pushing forth new ideas and innovations that will have an impact on how the public is served.

So over the last 10 years, have our values (in terms of how we act, not what’s written) been able to adapt to better serve Canadians in terms of innovation in Government? Are we any better able to assess risk in order to apply new and creative solutions to evolving issues? I’m not convinced we have.

I like the report. It provides insight into bureaucratic culture and how risk taking is viewed within the public service. What frightens me is that this report could’ve easily been submitted a week ago, rather than a decade ago.

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