Originally published in November 2010.
In many respects, the future looks pretty grim through the eyes of Canada’s public service leaders despite the country’s much heralded economic resilience. Spending on public services in many areas has been constrained for a number of years. New spending has been focused on health, where annual spending across the country continues to outpace revenue growth. Other major spending is focused on political priorities, such as defence and justice at the federal level and education provincially. Spending more in these expensive areas continues to draw resources away from other departments, causing them to wrestle with flat-lined budgets and a plethora of program reviews. New constraints are regularly announced and more will follow.
The long-signalled wave of retirements of senior public servants is underway and many of those remaining are tired and more than a little pessimistic. There is a widely held perception – at least partly true – that the long period of minority federal governments has contributed to a tailspin of public service morale at the senior levels of government. Not a good sign for the country’s largest and most influential employer.
This is not a uniquely Canadian story. It is a global one, with many of the same pressures and outcomes, and with a similarly unclear future. Governments and public sector leaders face the dual challenge of providing critical public services with less money while managing the rising expectations of citizens for more and better services.
This is not a time for public service leaders to sit tight and hope that our political colleagues will save the day with large tax increases. New revenues may be part of the solution – to the extent that there is any public tolerance remaining for this – but a significant responsibility for sustaining and renewing public services lies in the hands of public servants and their leaders.
I say this for three reasons: public servants have the knowledge and expertise to get this job done; they have a professional responsibility to do it; and good public administration makes for good politics. If public servants chart a sensible and credible course, it has every chance of finding political support.
How do we achieve this? The answer partially lies in deepening and consolidating a public service reform journey that has been under way for some time.
First and foremost, everything possible must be done to enable and support a new generation of public servants. This has to be part of an entirely fresh approach to managing and developing people. Progress has been made in recruiting a wonderfully impressive cadre of younger public servants. The new recruits tell us, however, that they would benefit from more sophisticated approaches to orientation, training, knowledge transfer and an atmosphere in which tough questioning of the status quo and creative new ideas are encouraged.
A great many public service organizations still fall a long way short of this. New professionals, and their organizations, would benefit from fast-tracking future leaders into jobs that will stretch, motivate and bring out the very best in them as quickly as possible. Alongside this lies the obvious need to retain this new talent in the likely event that public service organizations become smaller.
There is also a significant opportunity to grow the existing talent of our diverse and highly educated colleagues in the administrative and technical levels of public services. Managers and staff must be consistently asked for their best advice; they must be heard and see their ideas implemented if commitment is to be maintained and both passion and innovation unleashed.
Like organizations in other sectors, public service organizations must improve how performance is managed, finding better ways both to reward innovation and to tackle poor performance. This is a significant organizational and leadership challenge, and it must be led and modeled from the top. It is a crucial step in tackling the morale-sapping impact of managers and leaders who have difficulty providing clear and consistent expectations and tough and honest feedback on performance.
Second, it will be necessary to accelerate and deepen horizontal, or integrated, approaches to working together across professional, departmental, and ministry boundaries, as well as across levels of government. In spite of Canada’s reputation as a leader in integrating services, the siloed architecture and culture of Westminster-style governments continues to be a major challenge. Transactional services such as the issuance of driver licenses, health cards and birth certificates have been consolidated behind common counters, on common digital portals and across jurisdictional lines.
The U.K. has experimented with cross-departmental accountability structures and budgets, and “place-based” delivery of public services, but there is growing concern that these innovations are now being threatened by that government’s 25 percent spending cuts, which are forcing a return to departmentally-based cuts and, likely, more siloed planning and decision making.
Ironically, this is precisely the time when the next generation of joined up planning and delivery should be of the highest priority. There is an important lesson for other public sector organizations.
In Canada and other countries the next frontier in service integration lies in more joined-up delivery in the complex and expensive areas of health, children’s, social and justice services. There has been much discussion of better “wrapping” a number of siloed and multi-sectoral services around special needs clients, but progress has been slow. There are notable exceptions, such as in efforts across the country to better align previously disconnected hospital and community services to streamline patients’ journeys through the health and community care systems. This is taking pressure off high-cost emergency rooms and hospital beds.
This next generation of service delivery is moving beyond “joined up” government toward highly networked delivery partnerships with the social and voluntary sectors. These efforts will increasingly incorporate not-for-profit social innovations in service delivery – eye-catching to governments of all political stripes.
These partnerships will be critical in the transition toward the more localized and personalized service delivery that will exemplify the future of public services. These partnerships will also be highly dependent on the digitization and sharing of client records, on better web-enabled communications between service providers, and between providers and clients. Pooling this data will permit better tracking and reporting on outcomes in relation to investments.
Talk of the need for innovation is commonplace these days, yet its documentation and dissemination often eludes us. There is endless innovation occurring in public services at every level in Canada, from which we all benefit every day. It is important that these innovations be quickly spotted, shared and tested for local adoption.
Encouraging innovation demands a deliberate and step-wise approach in the public sector. This involves growing the innovative cultures and workforces that we already have and applying risk identification and mitigation to targeted and well-supported innovation projects.
In turn, this requires setting in place rapid feedback loops which can quickly inform progress, the necessity for course correction, or even the discontinuation of experimental initiatives before they become a political liability.
Third, changing culture is fundamentally driven by leadership; at this moment in the long and virtuous history of public service, leadership has never been more important. Changing culture and expectations go to the heart of a more strategic approach to the management of people and the design of our organizations. They also involve setting and reinforcing clear expectations about the role and values of public service. We have hugely talented leaders and managers in the public sector, but this is not uniformly found in all departments. This level of talent must be broadened. This represents the single and most important opportunity for renewal.
Re-invigorating the public service, empowering the next generation of public servants, re-designing and delivering the next wave of innovative public services and truly joining up departments, governments and other key sectors requires two acts: first our public sector executive cadres must step from the shadows to more fully embrace their leadership responsibilities from the very top; and second, they must empower the many public sector entrepreneurs in their organizations who are out there every day working to transform the frontlines of service delivery, working across jurisdictional boundaries and adding public value.
It comes down to this: in the context of a fiscal crunch, scary demographics (and in some cases, even scarier politics), public sector leaders have a responsibility to establish a bright and positive vision of the future of public services and to make some of the tough decisions that will be necessary to get there.
Indeed, political support will be critical but, as in every other area of the public service’s relationship with political leaders, this must be earned, and it will require a much more activist orientation. This goes hand-in-hand with what public sector leadership is all about.