Blueprint 2020 follows similar efforts of previous Clerks who were trying to build a “modern” public service, less bound by rules and more attentive to personal responsibility, relying on frontline workers to elaborate and implement the details of broad polices.
In these traditional top down processes, senior leadership identified a series of problems and tried to move the public service in a preferred direction.
Blueprint 2020 lays out a much more grass roots process using social media and other technologies to engage public servants in a variety of forums with greater openness and transparency than in the past. The hope is that managers and frontline public servants will provide a sense of urgency and respond to the call to embrace innovation and creativity. Blueprint 2020 remains at this stage a dialogue between the leaders and the operators of the public service.
Yet despite this willingness to engage public servants, the destination remains the same as in previous efforts. The hypothesis of Blueprint 2020 appears to be that past reforms failed to live up to expectations because of the overly centralized, top town process that came prepackaged with solutions. This time they are engaging in a two-way dialogue with the aim of having public servants own the process. What appears not up for debate is the destination itself.
Whether it is process or destination, we would be wise to have modest expectations. This is particularly true when Blueprint 2020 sees our administrative institutions as being disconnected from our political institutions. This creates a false picture of what can be accomplished on the authority of the Clerk and the deputy minster community alone. It appears, then, that there is a further question: can the public service leadership, on its own authority, transform our public service without engaging Parliament, let alone Canadians?
This process does have some strength in that it acknowledges the tremendous diversity within the public service and is not looking for a one-size-fits-all approach to reform. However, this also requires that the leadership accept that these different organizations are pursuing multiple and often competing goals in addition to having distinct ways of working.
This, in turn, leads to an acknowledgment that the operators doing the work will have different, novel and perhaps unorthodox ways of meeting these conflicting goals and getting to that final destination. In such an environment, senior leadership will need to ensure that failure is acceptable, that risk takers are celebrated, and that deputy ministers provide sufficient cover when failure happens. Anything less means that the good intentions of Blueprint 2020 will be squandered long before 2020.
At the end of the day there is an expectation that collectively the leaders and the “grass-roots” will create a public service of excellence, based on engagement, collaboration, teamwork and professional development, all leading to the elusive “well-performing organization.” While excellence is a major goal, it is also an ambiguous goal. Excellence is laudable, but it is not a strand of objective judgment; it means something only in relation to something else. Is the Canadian public service better than other, comparable public services? The Clerk notes only: “Excellence is our mission and our commitment to the current and future generations of Canadians.” This, however, is a promotional statement, not a blueprint for reform.
Everyone can agree when the Clerk notes that the public service needs to adapt to change, it needs to hire the “best and the brightest” with the skills needed to develop “evidenced-based options and advice for the government…” Further agreement will be found when he enumerates all the factors pushing change on the public service from globalization, technological change, demographic challenges, demands for accountably and shifting workplace expectations.
Yet it is more of a description at this point, leading to criticism from former Parliamentary Budget Officer, Kevin Page, that the Blueprint 2020 exercise is an “empty vessel.” Yet the criticism is misplaced, in that it is purposely empty at this point and is in the process of being filled. Blueprint 2020 in its final form will only be unveiled in March 2014 after extensive rounds of consultations and engagement activities.
For now it is possible to see this process as a vote of confidence in the public service from the Prime Minister. Not every public service has such luxury. The fact that the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) is virtually absent from this exercise is a good thing, and the public service should take the opportunity to ensure that some of its core values are re-emphasized, the boundaries between itself and politicians re-established and the relationship with Parliament strengthened and expanded. These are hard things to do and require some honest appraisal of both past failures of administrative reform and the manifest failures of our democratic institutions. To say the least, these things take courage, time and great unity of purpose if they are to be accomplished. Yet they need to be part of Blueprint 2020 as much as the need for a public service that “makes smart use of new technologies.”
As our political institutions become increasingly discredited and dysfunctional, it is good to be reminded that the administrative institutions we have created are available to fill in the gaps as they always have in the past. The sense of fairness for all Canadians, the professionalism and public interest motivations, the representativeness, and probity in the use of public funds all need to find a greater voice in this process of renewal. It is important that we do not forget that these too are political values and remind both politicians and citizens that the public service has always been part of our democratic and constitutional system. The public service needs to be connected to how Canadians are governed, how they view government, and how they participate in their own governance.
At the end of the day, after all the voices have been heard, the public service, both the leadership and the rank and file, is going have to work hard to avoid any further erosion of its position. It will need to assert itself, push back when governments engage in unconstitutional behavior, and, most important, create the space needed for public service managers and frontline workers to engage in innovative, and thus by definition, risky projects and processes. If the leadership remains risk averse, afraid to assert its voice and keeps both eyes focused only on the minister, then the process will become another marker in the erosion of the public service.
Let’s hope we can fill the empty vessel of Blueprint 2020 with the basics of a public service that serves our parliamentary democracy as well as it has in the past.