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.

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2 thoughts on “The Clerk’s Report 2012: A Review

  1. Thanks for this post. I think you really hit the nail on the head, with respect to your last point about the report, and your final comments.

    How do we make systemic change? Always tough, but especially in an organization as large as the federal government. I really think the key is to focus on small changes locally, and not on the big changes that we want to see. It’s taken me a while to realize that, but the big changes, really flow from a bunch of small changes adding up to something bigger.

    Thanks for the post!

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