Kevin Lynch is Clerk of the Privy Council and head of the federal public service. An economist and career public servant, he is a former deputy minister of Industry who was pivotal in developing the Government of Canada’s innovation agenda. He later was deputy minister of Finance when the government expanded its support of research and development, as well as launched its agenda of tax cuts and debt reduction. Immediately prior to becoming Clerk a year ago, he was Canada’s representative at the International Monetary Fund in Washington. The Clerk spoke about his views of public service renewal, including the challenges and opportunities they present, with editor-in-chief Paul Crookall.
You have made public service renewal a major focus.
Public service renewal is not about a specific initiative or effort at a point in time. It is a continual and dynamic process that seeks to ensure the public service reflects both the aspirations and needs of Canadians. It’s about being an ongoing institution that is continually improving. It’s not at all about something that is broken, or needs fixing to reach a certain point and stay there.
As a starting point, we must realize that the public service is an important institution. Thomas Friedman, author of The World is Flat, observes that “one of the most important and enduring competitive advantages that a country can have is a lean, effective, honest civil service.” The World Bank and the IMF have confirmed this. I am struck by the correlation between a strong, non-partisan public service and private sector competitive advantage. I think we under-appreciate this contribution.
Therefore, clearly the private sector has a vital interest in our renewal, so that a professional public service committed to excellence can continue to provide the basis for sustained success. The first step in renewal is to emphasize that the public service plays a key role. We are reaching out, from central organizations, to the private sector. I have spent a lot of time going out and talking with citizens and the private sector, telling them we would like them to be more involved in both the public policy dialogue and in understanding the importance of public service renewal. That is also why the Prime Minister set up the advisory committee on the public service. It was not established, as so many commissions are, to deal with a specific problem, report, and disband. It is ongoing. We have nine eminent Canadians who are to provide advice to the PM and the Clerk on how to keep the public service on the leading edge. I have been struck by their understanding of the importance of the advice they are providing.
Internally, we have set up a Deputy Ministers’ committee on renewal, headed by Margaret Bloodworth. Its focus is internal: How do we make sure that this institution, which is so important to the country, continues to contribute, to use best practices, to fulfill its role?
Overall, we are emphasizing that renewal is an ongoing, collective challenge and opportunity for all of us to refresh and renew the institution we work in.
Public and private sectors face similar challenges in renewal. It’s important to identify these challenges to understand what renewal means and how to achieve it.
First is demographics. Canada’s population is aging, and the federal public service more so than other segments of society. Canadians are becoming more diverse. As a public service, we are reflecting that diversity, but probably not at the pace that we should. Diversity of backgrounds, experiences and cultures allows us to give advice in many ways that reflects the views of Canadians and in so doing be a more effective public service.
Technology is very much changing the way folks do business. I’m not sure we’re maximizing the use of technology, internally and in service delivery to clients. We are sometimes at the leading edge, but that’s an area where we can learn, develop and improve.
We recruit and retain, not in isolation, but in the broad social and economic context of Canada and the world. We have many competitors for the best and the brightest coming out of university, and whatever stage of their career they’re in. We have to be conscious that we’ve got to work hard to recruit and retain them.
The next two challenges are more unique to public service. The public is changing its demands. One demand is for greater accountability and transparency. Another is for really efficient, effective delivery of core services. We have to understand and respond to these challenges to be successful in the ongoing renewal process.
Focus of renewal
It’s important to be practical. So rather than search for one specific thing that is going to change everything, we have focused on a series of pragmatic areas where we face the largest challenges with the biggest potential payoffs, and where we need to develop the greatest capacity to respond.
First and foremost is recruitment. We need to continuously bring the best and the brightest into government. There are more competitors and more opportunities for young people than 20-30 years ago when many of us joined the public service.
For too long, we have been a relatively passive recruiter. We’ve relied on being Canada’s largest employer, the national government, and folks would come to us. In today’s market, we have to be much more proactive. We can’t delegate it to the HR department. It’s got to be a primary focus and activity of senior management. So, part of our change of view is that recruitment will become the job of the DM, ADMs and senior management.
The reason for that comes from our value proposition, which is that a career in the public service is unique. It’s the nature of the job, the professional experience, the opportunity that by coming with us you can grow personally and professionally, and you can make a difference to your country. That’s the unique value-added proposition we have to market. But we must have people doing it who have experienced it, are living it and can represent it, who can actually interact with graduates on that basis.
We need to focus on our “brand.” As strong as it has been in the past, we need to define and make it more recognizable and compelling.
Second is development: How do you provide development opportunities commensurate with them being able to continually grow personally and professionally? That, I think, is going to take a much more personalized approach than in the past.
Third is retention. How do we make sure that we hold people in their careers? Our great advantage is that you can change your career many times without ever leaving the Public Service of Canada – across the country and around the world, in different roles. We have to ensure those opportunities to do different things in different departments in different areas are open and that mobility is available.
- Management tool kit
The fourth area is the management tool kit – to make sure we have the flexibility and the ability to do those various things mentioned above. We need a constellation of rules and other things that encourage risk management, not risk aversion. We want to encourage innovation in policy development and service delivery. Not to avoid risk at all cost but to risk m