Although the value of Canada’s professional and non-partisan public services is widely acknowledged, the need for deep-rooted and comprehensive re-branding of the public service is critical.
Two main factors threaten the capability of Canada’s public services to meet the needs and expectations of a diverse population in a highly competitive global economy: perception and demographics.
For public services to be fully effective and for democracies to maintain legitimacy there must be a minimum of trust between elected officials, public servants and those they serve. Trust being based on perception as much as on deeds, it matters that citizens believe their public services to be at least adequate.
Canada’s second national sport is “public service bashing,” a favourite pastime in coffee shops and on talk radio shows, those founts of objectivity and sound analysis. The mainstream media and populist politicians also engage in the sport, mostly to advance their own interests.
As a consequence, from the citizen’s perspective, there is a profound sense that most public services are generally inefficient, reactive and uncaring. Those who govern often respond to their constituents’ dissatisfaction by layering on rules and obsessive auditing, enforced by assorted watchdogs that add delays and excessive transaction costs, thereby feeding the prevailing perception.
At the federal level it is estimated that by 2015, up to 30 percent of “baby boom” public servants will be eligible to retire. And they will. Many will take with them decades of corporate know-how. This will come at a time when the interdependence of public issues and attendant complexity requires ever more qualified resources.
From a citizen’s perspective, this exodus, when added to announced layoffs, could well result in a rapid and pervasive reduction in the capacity of their public servants to meet needs and expectations. For current staff and most potential recruits eager for challenge, collaboration and creative freedom as well as reasonable work-life balance, the tagline “employer of choice” will continue to strain credibility. At the federal level, the current renewal initiative is a work in progress.
A working definition of “brand,” adapted to a non-commercial context, is: “a promise that current and future employees, as well as clients/citizens and decision makers, can believe in.” This belief is based on sustained satisfactory experiences, as well as on overall perception of services provided. If a service is shoddy, uneven and uncaring, no amount of branding will improve perception.
In short, you can only successfully brand something that actually consistently delivers on its “brand promise.” The brand is made real by the way every single employee behaves. A simple way of summing this up is: “Talk the walk (establish the brand) but first, be sure to walk the talk (live the brand).”
To a large extent, public services in Canada have already been branded, mostly negatively. So, to create conditions favourable to attracting and retaining top talent and shore up trust in public institutions, at least two actions are needed: a profound renewal of the culture and day-to-day practices of public services, and sustained efforts to re-brand or re-position public services in a way that accurately reflects the new approaches.
A number of provinces and municipalities, as well as a few federal departments, have recently undertaken branding/re-branding exercises, with various degrees of success.
In 2007, following a recommendation by the Prime Minister’s Advisory Committee on the Public Service as well as direction from the Clerk in his Action Plan for PS Renewal, The Leadership Network was mandated to develop a comprehensive branding program. This initiative was abruptly cancelled in Spring 2008, but the framework document, developed by an expert panel, is still available on the web. In August 2011, an RFP was posted on MERX seeking bids on a similar exercise to be completed by March 2012.
Branding/re-branding takes time, effort and perseverance, especially from senior management. In large organizations with diverse mandates, “umbrella” brands may have to be split into sub-brands and flexibility maintained to ensure long-term relevance of the brands’ expressions. Results will not be immediate and will vary depending on the original state of the organizations’ reputation.
The need for deep-rooted and comprehensive re-branding is now greater than ever. The consequences of inaction or of a mostly cosmetic rush job leave no room for complacency.
Denis Vezina was a retired federal communications executive. As president of D.V.-CO Consulting, he helped people achieve success through better communications. Denis passed away last October.