Many young Canadians have joined the public service to serve their fellow citizens and one is struck by the fact that these new professionals are keenly interested in renewal, a topic that public administrators have been tackling for over four decades.
At the federal level, these efforts have included the Glassco Commission (1962), the Program-Planning-Budgeting System (1968), the Lambert Commission (1979), Public Service 2000 (1990), La Rélève (1997), and the Public Service Modernization Act (2005).
So why haven’t we yet solved the issue of public service renewal?
To be sure, renewal is a complex subject that touches on many other public administration challenges, including recruitment and retention, knowledge management, and individual and organizational performance measurement.
Senior officials who are pursuing renewal should not miss the opportunity to engage new professionals and to build on their imagination, enthusiasm and networks in support of this goal. I offer the following advice to senior officials who are dealing with the renewal challenge:
Conduct cross-jurisdictional focus groups of new professionals.
Many public services conduct staff focus groups to inform their annual renewal plans. I would urge public services across the country to jointly conduct cross-jurisdictional focus groups of new professionals – those under the age of 35 with less than five years of public service experience – who can offer important insights for improving the public service’s policy advice and program delivery capacity. Given that contemporary public policy challenges don’t respect artificial boundaries, these cross-jurisdictional focus groups of new professionals will help to create a more cohesive set of renewal initiatives across Canada.
Engage “newer” new professionals in the conversation.
It is often said that the best idea generators are employees who have been with an organization for less than six months. These employees are new to the organization, and will naturally question why things are done the way they are. Senior officials who want to understand why young Canadians are or are not interested in joining the public service can engage these “newer” new professionals in the earliest days of their public service as part of the renewal dialogue.
Nurture new professional networks.
The federal and many provincial governments have formal communities and networks of new professionals. Some of the leading networks include the federal Canada@150 Network, the federal Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS) Renaissance Network, the Nova Scotia Government’s GoverNext, and the Ontario Government’s TOPS Network, each of which boast hundreds of members who are engaged in finding solutions to the renewal challenge. New professionals are also engaging in the discussion through web communities such as cpsrenewal.ca and by joining professional associations such as the Institute of Public Administration of Canada. These departmental and whole-of-government networks can serve as communities of practice in which new professionals can participate and grow.
Focus on bridging the impending knowledge gap.
For over two decades, demographers have issued warnings about the impending demographic challenge which will see many baby boomers retire and leave large capacity gaps in the public service. In response, public services have implemented innovative programs to attract and retain new talent, such as the federal government’s recently revamped AETP program and the Alberta government’s Policy Internship Program. However, new talent alone won’t resolve the demographic challenge. What is needed are solutions to bridge the lost knowledge, by creating opportunities for new professionals to be mentored by senior officials before they retire. A leading practice can be found at the federal TBS, where new professionals have the opportunity to job shadow senior officials on committees working on the Secretariat’s key priorities. By assisting these senior officials, new professionals meaningfully contribute to TBS’s most important files and help retain the Secretariat’s corporate knowledge. Public services should also consider interchange opportunities, placing new professionals with private and not-for-profit organizations, to gain cross-sectoral knowledge in meeting the public policy challenges of the future.
Renewal continues to be an important issue confronting public services across the country. This challenge offers an opportunity to engage and build upon the contribution that new public service professionals can make. They are ultimately the ones who will continue the Canadian tradition of providing sound policy advice to elected officials and delivering effective programs and services to citizens.
Howard Yeung is a Senior Consultant with Deloitte’s public sector consulting practice and is a co-chair of the Institute of Public Administration of Canada National Capital Region’s new professionals program (firstname.lastname@example.org).