This issue we begin the first in a series of conversations on the relationship between public service and elected government. What sort of leadership should ministers, premiers, mayors and prime ministers provide to their deputy ministers and public services, and what should the public service provide to the elected government? British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell spoke with editor-in-chief Paul Crookall.
What do you expect from public service leaders?
I ask my public service to see the challenges in front of us as opportunities. I ask them to realize that they are the primary leaders in a critical collaboration to improve our public life. I think that, clearly, you need people who are professionals, who put their professional ethics front and centre of what they’re doing, and who follow through and solve the challenges and reach for the opportunities that confront us.
What sort of leadership do you think the public service, in particular your senior executives, need from you and your ministers? How do you lead and direct them?
To start, the political leadership has got to understand the importance of a professional, non-partisan public service, and a relationship that is based, frankly, on respect. You understand what they bring to the table, you understand that their job is not just to identify the good news but the challenges that are in front of you. And the job of the political leadership is to say with clarity, “this is what we’re trying to accomplish,” and make the difficult decisions that are necessary to make progress. I think the critical component is mutual respect, respect from the political leadership for both the leadership and the participants of the public service. And, frankly, respect the other way as well, respect for the political leaders from those in the public service. We have mutually reinforcing roles in establishing a healthy, vital and exciting public life in Canada. We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of public life in defining our quality of life as Canadians. What we do privately or individually is one thing. But what defines us as Canadians or as British Columbians is the public framework that establishes what we can live within and where we can prosper.
And when we get that right, both politicians and public servants tend to be happier and better respected by the public.
That’s exactly right. I encourage young people to join. There are few areas that have a higher purpose, that have a broader set of interests that you can pursue, and few areas that establish the kind of learning environment and the opportunity for learning that the public sector does. We all have to move away from not recognizing the contributions that public servants make. We have to understand that young people are looking for purposeful lives, purposeful educations, occupations – that this is a calling. People don’t work as long, as hard, and on weekends, and as consistently as public servants do without feeling that it’s an important purpose they’re serving. Their work is purposeful and meaningful and it changes the lives of people in positive ways. That’s what a good public service does.
It changes the lives of the “servants” as well as the served.
There’s no question that it changes the lives of those of us fortunate enough to be in public service. First, you meet all the people, and second, you see an awful lot of great things happening in our society and in our country. But you also meet people who are interested, who are engaged, who are enquiring, who are tenacious in their beliefs, principles, and passions. That’s a great environment. Political leadership should always be assuring a great work environment for public servants.
What difficulties do you face in dealing with the public service and how do you manage those difficulties?
One of the challenges is the public tendency to talk about what’s not going right as opposed to what is going right. I can tell you, in British Columbia, I am so proud of the work that our public servants are doing. We should get used to stopping and congratulating people for the great work they do. Time is another challenge; the job is never finished. Almost all the major issues that we confront today are long-term jobs: climate change, the aging society, improving the quality of life for Aboriginal people, building the new economy. To see results takes five to ten years, but elected officials deal in four-year cycles.
As a society, we have to rise above some of the past practices and move to a higher practice of public service. I want to be clear: I think that’s something that society and politicians have to try and establish. I don’t think the public servants are able to do that; we have to do it as a society.
Many of these long-term problems are multi-jurisdictional. How do you lead beyond your jurisdictional borders?
We have to always encourage our public servants to be leaders, not to be afraid to be the first out of the gate, not to be afraid to be the first to try something new. I think there is a natural tendency to embrace the status quo and I think the world we live in doesn’t allow us to do that anymore. “The status quo,” someone quipped, “has no status anymore.” We live in a changed world so you have to allow a professional public servant to be a leader without waiting for permission – within the framework that you established.
If you can manage to do that, then you start to see inter-jurisdictional collaboration and new practices and new ideas across the country. When I’m dealing politically with these issues, candidly, I try to do something that I think is relatively different. I’m always looking for areas of agreement. You can always get a headline disagreeing with somebody. I think what is more difficult is to keep your eye on the ball and to look for areas of agreement, because my contention is we’ll run out of resources before we run out of agreement.
I’ve talked to federal ministers and provincial premiers and provincial ministers and we all care about our forests and how we will be able to make sure we secure them for the long term in the face of climate change. We all care about our water and how we will make sure that we can have the water that our citizens need and our industries and our agriculture needs in the face of climate change. We all face climate change. What are the things that we can do together? As an example of that, British Columbia and Manitoba are partners in a western climate initiative. I think whenever, in a country the size of Canada, you look for unanimity, it can paralyze action.
We have to get used to a government that is more agile and responds more rapidly to the world that we live in. And the response has to be based on principle, not expedience; on long-term decisions, not short term. So I try to do that, I try to tell people, “here’s what we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” and I invite them to be part of that. When others tell us, here’s something that’s really worked in our jurisdiction, I’m glad to take that idea and try and put it to work in British Columbia.
Another thing to remember is that federal, provincial, and municipal governments are all elected by the same people. Our primary job is to serve the needs of those people and to define ways that we can break out of the jurisdictional barriers. We too often have impedimen