On April 11, over 1,300 of a who’s who of leaders from all walks of Canadian society – premiers, mayors, CEOs, MPs, academics, journalists, lawyers, even a rock and roll legend or two – braved an unseasonable winter storm for the Public Policy Forum’s annual Testimonial Dinner and Awards in Toronto. The spotlight that evening was trained on the achievements of a group of people usually content to stay in the background: the Clerks of the Privy Council.
When David Mitchell, the Forum’s president and CEO, first contemplated paying tribute to the Clerks, he wondered if the choice would resonate, especially in a city more closely associated with corporate kingpins and film stars than with government mandarins. But Mitchell needn’t have worried. “It goes to show the impact and relevance great leadership can have across sectors, and that the public service matters,” he said.
Co-chaired by Elyse Allan, CEO of GE Canada, the Forum’s 26th Testimonial Dinner and Awards featured speeches by five former Clerks: Paul Tellier, Jocelyne Bourgon, Mel Cappe, Alex Himelfarb and Kevin Lynch. Current Clerk Wayne Wouters traveled from Ottawa.
Clerk from 1985 to 1992 under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney
Tellier focused on the need for more exchanges and understanding between the two spheres. “I’ve learned a lot from both the public and the business sectors,” her said, adding that both have a responsibility to contribute to the public policy process.
He went on to list a number of these lessons, including the need for the public service to have “a greater sense of urgency;” the importance of human resources and performance management – he criticized the public service’s approach to dealing with underperformers; and the fact that for business, “stakeholders have become as important as shareholders,” meaning that for many companies, engaging with government isn’t just a nicety – it’s critical to the bottom line.
“I wish every public servant could be exposed to the business world; I wish every businessperson could be exposed to the government environment and the public sector. I’ve seen first-hand that each sector has so much to learn from the other…it has to be a two-way street.”
Clerk from 1994 to 1999 under Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, the first and only woman to have held the position
Bourgon delivered her remarks via a live Cisco weblink from Singapore. She provided a detailed description of the personal and professional characteristics of the ideal Clerk.
“The Clerk has limited formal authority, but a lot of influence,” she observed. “Clerks ensure the harmonious functioning of the space between the Prime Minister and Cabinet, between ministers and departments, between central agencies and deputy heads and senior staff. The best in this job manage to reduce the costs of friction across this vast system of government.”
Bourgon also highlighted the crucial role of the Clerk when today’s complex, government-wide policy issues such as climate change, national security or deficit reduction are increasingly exceeding the capacity of any one department.
“Coordination is more necessary than ever before, and the role of the Secretary to Cabinet is to bridge the gaps, to connect the pieces…the best in this job have their eyes trained on the big picture.”
Clerk from 1999 to 2002 under Prime Minister Jean Chrétien
Delivering the evening’s most talked-about presentation, Cappe was outspoken about what he perceives as diminished respect for Canada’s “faceless bureaucrats” and the professional, non-partisan, evidence-based analysis and advice they provide.
“The two most important things that we should pay attention to…are respect and trust,” Cappe stated. “I worry that the public service is being taken for granted, and that the respect and trust required from some ministers is missing. Ministers better not take (public servants) for granted; they make ministers look good, or at least better than they would otherwise.”
Cappe also decried the trend by “some governments” toward replacing evidence with ideology, and especially toward preventing the dissemination of findings and facts that might not support that ideology. “Scientists should be prohibited from talking to the public about policy,” he said. “That’s the job of ministers. But they should be encouraged to talk to the public about their science and their research.”
He gave credit for the smooth, safe day-to-day functioning of much of Canadian society, to the “thousands of professional, dedicated public servants,” most of whom “toil in the background.”
“My phone company, my bank and my airline can learn a thing or two from the Canada Revenue Agency,” he said to laughter and applause. “They actually do a great job – they answer the phone, for one thing.”
Clerk from 2002 to 2006, under Prime Ministers Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin
Continuing in the same vein as Cappe, Himelfarb also alluded to a public service that feels unappreciated and attacked on every side. “It was, more often than not, fulfilling and even, believe it or not, fun,” he said of his own career in the public service. “I wonder how many public servants today could say that. Things were easier for us. Public service was more valued. We were more respected. Politicians sometimes got angry at our advice, but they kept asking. The media often ignored us, and we liked that very much. Things sure seem different now…it can’t be much fun.”
He listed the often contradictory advice levied at the public service: “The public service needs to behave more like a business. The public service is trying too hard to be like a business. The public service needs to take more risks. The public service makes too many mistakes, it needs to take fewer risks.”
Although transparency, accountability and good taxpayer value are important, he said, perpetuating the myth of an overpaid “bloated bureaucracy” contributes to a culture of derision and disrespect toward civil servants. “We have to stop treating this vital institution like overhead.”
Clerk from 2006 to 2009 under Prime Minister Stephen Harper
Lynch spoke about how various external events shaped his time in the Clerk’s office: working with a minority government, the first change in political party in more than a dozen years, the continuing war in Afghanistan, the growing pressures of ageing demographics, and the global economic crisis. “As challenging as these were at the time, they showed a non-partisan, professional public service at its very best,” he said.
Ever the economist, Lynch struck a chord with the Toronto business crowd when he described his vision for a bolder, more globally ambitious Canada, led by equally ambitious public policies and a talented, entrepreneurial public service to deliver them.
“Why don’t we go global in a big way? Negotiate free trade agreements with China, Brazil and India? Become a global hub, rather than a spoke? Why don’t we become a leading nation of trade and traders? Why don’t we diversify our energy markets away from our single and increasingly unreliable partner, the United States, and toward Asia? Why don’t we establish a national innovation framework? We need leaders in both the public and private sectors to drive change. And in all this, a strong, non-partisan public service matters greatly in building the Canada that we want.”