Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty spoke with editor-in-chief Paul Crookall, as part of our series on the relationship between political leaders and the public service.
Four years ago, you told us you were looking for public service executives who were: “Fearless in advice and loyal in execution, dedicated, hard working, a great role model.” Have you modified your expectations?
No, if anything I may have heightened them in the sense that I’ve come back changed in three ways. I’m experienced. I’m more confident now about how to get things done. And I’m more impatient, because I’ve come to understand how quickly time flies. We’ve got a great group of people here. When called upon, in particular when their creativity is sought, there’s a public service entrepreneurialism which I never fully understood and which I now highly value. I’ve come back more impatient but with a greater understanding of the strength of the team that’s here.
What sort of leadership do you think the public service, in particular deputy ministers, need from your ministers?
I think they’re looking for clear direction. That’s the price of admission to inspire confidence in public sector leaders. You need to demonstrate commitment to the results that you are seeking, moving away from abstracts and intangibles.
That’s a powerful magnet for collaboration. For example, consider education test scores and graduation rates, and how we align all the efforts that we’re making in order to ensure that we’re contributing to those public measurable results for which we’re all ultimately going to be held to account.
You also need to demonstrate that you’re doing this for the right reasons, the long term greater public interest, leaving this place better off than when we first got the job – rather than for short term partisan political gain or hubris. You want to inspire confidence, great efforts, and creativity. But if the public service thinks the minister is just marking time or trying to achieve some short-term political objectives, public servants are not going to get onboard.
We have lots of talent. We’ve got to recognize it. My personal mantra, I got from my old man, who used to say: “Nobody here is as smart as all of us.” I hold this office, we are privileged to sit around the cabinet table for a limited period of time. That doesn’t mean we’ve been vested with omniscience. The great thing is we can tap into the institution’s wisdom.
I never ask people to do things that I wouldn’t do myself. I ask of my ministers, don’t pretend you have all the answers. You need humility because you’re going to have to go beyond yourself to talk to others who will be able to help you. We’re at our best when we’re working together.
What difficulties do you face when dealing with the public service?
Size creates a challenge. It’s hard to develop a strong personal relationship with all the people I would like to.
Resistance to change is a function of human nature, and it’s a challenge. We need to find a way to move at a quicker pace in government. I’ve spoken with many public servants about this and they actually become excited about the prospect of how quickly we could move. I try to infuse our public sector with the notion that every day we’re here to compete and we will deliver good quality in return for the investment that Ontarians make in us.
With networked government there’s more pressure for citizen input and better services. How are you harnessing the new technology?
We’ve got to be aware of the little boy fascination that can overtake us – the new shiny toys. But there are things we can do with the new technology to enable us to deliver better services. For example, it used to take up to a year to issue a birth certificate. But I can order a pizza and if I don’t get it in 30 minutes, it’s free. So I thought, “why can’t government set standards and give guarantees?” Now birth certificates are delivered in 15 days, or they’re free. We’ve extended guarantees to marriage certificates, business registrations and the like.
We recently announced our $1.15 billion “Next generation of jobs” fund. We’re telling the business community, we’ll give you a yes or a no on a business proposal within 45 days, whether it’s a million dollars or a billion, even if you’re applying from Germany or South Africa. To my knowledge, that is unprecedented. This has an amazing impact on our public servants, who for so many years were told, “you can’t do what they do in the private sector. You can’t be as good, as quick, as nimble, as creative.” We can.
We have the highest rate of post-secondary education in the western world. Our challenges are more complex than ever, and global in nature. Why would we not take advantage of an informed, engaged citizenry? Why wouldn’t we take advantage of the strength of our people?
Some jurisdictions are working on a public sector brand – in B.C. it is “Where Ideas Work,” in New Brunswick it is “Be In This Place.” Is Ontario considering brand development for its public service?
That’s something that I’d love to sit down and chat with Shelly Jamieson about. It would be important to instill a sense of pride in our public service. It’s never been out of fashion to criticize pubic servants. But it’s never been more important to have a strong, engaged and energized public service. And a brand helps put a public face on that, and it helps me do something which I think is really important – getting young people to think about going into public service. Here’s a place for them to commit themselves. It’s a place where they can make a difference.
Tony Dean is a tough act to follow. He is a great public service executive. Are you comfortable talking about why you chose Shelly Jamieson as head of the public service?
We used a process. I can tell you that I’m absolutely comfortable with Shelly. She’s high energy, zero maintenance, Albert Einstein genius level emotional intelligence, and a quick study. She’s respected by her colleagues, has all kinds of private sector savvy that she is marrying to this experience, without overstepping. That’s something you’ve got to guard against, right. There are too many people who think that if you come from the business world, if you just apply business lessons, then you’ve fixed everything that fails in public service. But it’s not that easy. One of the things that I really like about Shelly is that she’s come in here and she’s been a good student, very, very adept at drawing lessons from her experience here and from those insights offered by her colleagues.
What’s your approach to performance management in the public service?
Well, I obviously rely a great deal on my secretary of cabinet and on my deputy ministers to help me execute and deliver on performance. I seek their advice. I would like, in an ideal world, for everybody who is lucky enough to work for the Ontario Public Service to say, “Man, I’m just so happy to have this job, am I ever lucky that I am making such a difference.” That’s not a function of salary, it’s a kind of moral imperative. It’s the sense that the single most valuable return that we get from making this investment is that we make a positive, lasting difference. It’s improving the quality of life for others. That’s the key thing, doing it for others.
We’ve been tracking the transformational journey for ten years now. I think that’s an impressive way to run a public service. What’s on the horizon, what’s