Defined by rules or values? – Canadian Government Executive

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May 7, 2012

Defined by rules or values?

Chris Baker is Deputy Minister, Policy and Priorities, and Deputy Minister, Community Non-Profit Organizations Secretariat, for the Province of New Brunswick.


Chris, you’ve thought a lot about the role of rules and the role of values and ethics in how public servants approach their job. Care to share those thoughts?

I think that there’s been an ongoing debate in the public administration community that is interesting and fundamental to the character of the public service. There are rules and codes on one side and values and ethics on the other. And the debate is about whether the actions of public servants ought to be defined by rules, or defined by values and ethics.

There is one school of thought that states that public servants shouldn’t be exercising judgment. They are there to administer programs fairly and that’s all. Judgment is to be exercised by another category of people.

In this point of view, if we are to maintain the trust and confidence of people, and if strong rules and codes reinforces that, then that’s the right thing to do. The big question then is, what is the appropriate role of the public service? Are public servants expected to be nameless and faceless, passive observers, while elected officials debate the great issues of the day?

But, given that you have highly skilled, highly trained people employed in the public service, doesn’t it make sense to involve them in the process of creating ideas, testing ideas and implementing them? Don’t you want more than compliance? You want them to be active, proactive and thoughtful.

As much as we want to reinforce a “values and ethics” approach among public servants, let’s remember that there are important rules – constitutions, the law, financial administration acts and others. But the valuable work that we do is not necessarily captured in these documents. Our value as public servants rests on those rules, but the rules are not our only guide for providing advice.

We know that citizens and ministers are demanding more value from their public service. And that value isn’t going to be found in a strict adherence to a book of codes. Facing novel situations, our guide ought to be our values and ethics in finding innovative approaches that get the job done. If all we are supposed to do is consult the Big Book of Rules, then we don’t need a public service, we just need software.

Our goal is to maintain a professional public service, and professionals are prepared to stick to standards. If you act unethically, your career is going to be a short one. If people don’t trust you, or your ability to make good decisions, how can you provide value? It’s as simple as that.

Emphasizing rules and codes over values and ethics also presents a problem for recruiting and retaining talent in the public service. If public servants are only allowed to work within specific rules, constantly watched, their motivations questioned, seen as guilty rather than innocent, then no well-trained, well-intentioned professional is going to want to be in that environment. No profession would do well under those sorts of circumstances.

Rather than attempting to define rules and codes for every situation a public servant could find themselves in, we should emphasize reasonableness and the exercise of sound judgment.

In some ways, the notion of the “web of rules” is a very apt metaphor for the situation that many public servants find themselves in. For the spider, the web is a platform for action. But for the fly, the web is a trap.

A very special form of leadership is necessary to support people in this way, though. Can you say a little about what you think that leadership looks like?

As you know, Premier Graham has set an ambitious self-sufficiency goal for New Brunswick, one that will call on the skills and energies of all New Brunswickers to achieve. He expects everyone, including the public service, to be an active player in this.

As part of this agenda, we will be going through a profound change in the way that the public service does business – how we deliver services to clients and internally. It can’t be business as usual. The Premier is demanding more from us because he recognizes that a creative, innovative and professional public service is going to be critical to the success of his government, and key to the success of New Brunswick. So that sets a tone and throws down a challenge for us as public servants.

What we all want in this life is a purpose to work towards. For the public sector, it really is about serving the public. It’s about being proactive, helping to solve problems and ensuring people can avoid red tape and get the things they need from our government. And that way of working fits squarely with the leadership the Premier is showing. He’s calling on us to use our judgment, experience, creativity and training to transform our province.

Leadership happens within the public service all the time, and at all levels. The person who goes the extra mile for a client, or the person who stays late to get a cabinet document ready to be decided on, these people are all expressing leadership.

Great leaders are always made by great followers. Now, I’m not going to say we need to improve “followership,” but what I would say is that, in our own way, each of us can be leaders and take responsibility for our own corner of the public service. That’s the kind of public servants we want. Not just minimum adherence to the rules, putting in just enough time or effort to our work to avoid getting fired. That’s not where the value will come from in improving how we work as public servants.

Tell me about how these ideas affect the relationship between deputies and ministers?

Well, ministers decide. All major government decisions happen at the cabinet table. Our role as public servants is to encourage, caution or advise, but we don’t decide.

You have to remember that governing is a team sport. Cabinet works together, and as public servants at the deputy level, we’re working together, too, in support of Cabinet and the goals of the government. We are supported by our own staffs in that effort. We are a team, and we play as a team. We have to respect that collegiality.

What sort of practical things are you doing to maintain the focus on values and ethics instead of rules in the New Brunswick Public Service?

We are currently working with Paul Thomas and Ken Kernaghan to work on a values and ethics program for the public service. But the way that we’re going about this is a little unusual. Instead of bringing a few deputies and academics to the table to discuss what they think are important values for public servants, we are having focus groups with public servants from across the province to hear from them what they think our public services values are and what constitutes ethical or unethical behaviour.

It’s really exciting to hear from public servants themselves on this issue. It’s giving us a chance to know what ideas and values people bring to work with them that you might not pick out of a textbook.

I know people have various views on what values in the public sector are. But what we’re looking for are those values that get us up early to get into work and keep us at our desk sometimes late into the night. We want to tap directly into the source of that energy and commitment.

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