The 2011 federal election has focused on policy and leadership. But any government needs to think not just about what it will do, but how it will do it. Good public management is the essential precondition for implementing good public policy.
A key priority for any government after the election should be maintaining or establishing an effective relationship with a professional, non-partisan public service. Strengthening the neutral professionalism of the public service is a condition for public trust, government effectiveness and long-term political success.
With that in mind, here’s a checklist of 10 public management issues that should be high on the agenda of any government that retains or takes office after the coming election:
1.A Charter of Public Service: This has been called for in reports and studies for almost 15 years, from the Tait report to the Gomery Commission, to frame relations between elected and non-elected officials. Parliament formally committed to establishing such a charter in 2005. Following through on this commitment would set much-needed ground rules between ministers, Parliament and a professional, non-partisan public service.
2.Appointment of deputy ministers: One of the features of a legislated charter should be a new independent process for the appointment of deputy ministers (DMs), also recommended by the Gomery Commission. The obvious way to do this would be to raise the appointment authority of the Public Service Commission (PSC) to include deputy heads. The PSC should hold competitions and make recommendations. As in New Zealand (which has a similar process), the prime minister (or Cabinet) should be able to ask for another recommendation, or even make a unilateral appointment, but only with a public explanation.
3.Budget process: The federal government lags behind some other governments in developing a robust budget process with a built-in, results-based review of ongoing spending. The closest it has come is the selective “strategic reviews” now conducted by the Treasury Board Secretariat. The comprehensive one-year Strategic and Operating Review announced in the March 22 federal budget is a logical step forward. But “one-year” and “one-time” are not enough. The time has come to develop a regular, ongoing comprehensive spending review as part of a multi-year, results-based budget cycle that concludes with concrete performance contracts between the centre and departments and commits the necessary resources over a three-year spending horizon.
4.Balancing decentralization with whole-of-government accountability: The federal government is overly centralized in some areas and overly decentralized in others. A more robust multi-year budget process would allow greater financial and management flexibility for departments, eliminating the need for many if not most current Treasury Board submissions. But recent reforms to human resource management, for example, have damaged crucial central agency leadership in other key areas, such as values and ethics and official languages. The mantra that DMs are now accountable (as they always were) too often allows the centre to evade its own responsibilities. The federal government needs to recover awareness that only central agencies can be accountable for management performance of the government as a whole. Empowerment and effective central leadership can and must go together.
5.Management accountability: The federal government has developed a Management Accountability Framework (MAF) that – though still a work in progress – is already a genuine public management success story. But it lags behind some jurisdictions in linking management accountability to other core processes. MAF reviews are now used in performance management for deputy heads. But this is just the start. They can also play a central role in a new multi-year, results-based budget cycle. And, as in some other jurisdictions, the resource allocation cycle (and MAF) should be linked to performance management for all executives. Assessment of organizational performance against results objectives should precede and condition performance assessment for individuals, including performance pay – even whether there should be any, in a given year or department.
6.Accounting officers: The Federal Accountability Act (FedAA) has clouded accountability by the way it implements the role of deputy heads as “accounting officers.” This reform was essential, but the FedAA version of the accounting officer has none of the key features of the British model and several unfortunate innovations, especially its emphasis on “disagreements” between the DM and the minister and the process it establishes to resolve them. This approach gives DMs neither the tools they need to draw a line between public service and political accountability nor the necessary values framework within which to use them. Bringing the FedAA more into line with the British approach should be a priority after the election.
7.Boards of management for departments: Experience with a board of management at the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) has shown they can contribute to good governance and management even at core departments and agencies. Deputy heads are subject to little real management oversight and excessive mobility in the top ranks undermines the effectiveness of public organizations by reducing constancy of purpose. Both problems can be addressed by strengthening the governance of departments and agencies through external boards of management, as at CRA.
8.Canada Revenue Agency: While this lesson is implemented more widely, it’s time to address the anomaly of CRA. It was established as a test field when wider “agencification” of government was turned down. It’s now time to learn the lessons from the experiment. Almost a quarter of federal employees should not continue to work under a separate management regime. Useful lessons learned by CRA should now be extended to the rest of the public service, while putting core departments on a common footing again.
9.Service Canada and service improvement: It’s also time to revisit the status and mandate of Service Canada. It needs strengthened capacity to integrate federal services and to work more closely with provincial and municipal single windows in providing Canadians with one-stop access to public services. The government also needs a renewed focus on external service improvement. From 2000 to 2005 the federal public service set and exceeded a 10 percent target for improving Canadians’ satisfaction with federal service delivery. It’s time for the government to give itself another stretch objective. Re-engineering and consolidation of internal government-wide business platforms announced in the March budget can support this. But only if undertaken with an outside-in objective.
10.Public service leadership and employee engagement: Recent events at the Public Sector Integrity Commission remind us that too many top leaders succeed by cultivating superiors while abusing subordinates. This too common pattern impairs the effectiveness of federal organizations by undermining employee commitment to organizational results and values. There is a direct link between effective leadership, employee engagement and citizen satisfaction. Federal managers must develop a culture