DevelopmentGovernmentLeadershipPublic Sector
February 22, 2017

How to bring about real Cultural Change in the Public Service

The new governance system requires a thorough renewal of our way of selecting, evaluating and coaching executives. The inclusion of the stakeholders in hiring would force dialogue among them, which can only help anchor the process of organizational learning.

The critical challenge facing the public service is changing its culture. This is a direct consequence of the complexities and intricacies of the new kind of work required by the “new governance” required in the 21st century. At stake is not simply a change in attitude, but a new awareness that change is not, and will not, be a one-time thing. The inter-relationships among all levels of government, departments, stakeholders and citizens, as well as among jobs and functions within the public service, are bound to be more complex, unspecified, and ever-changing in the digital era.

These days, there is a great deal of loose talk about “stewardship” in the public service as if it were some sort of passive activity designed to ensure that things don’t fall apart. It should be a lot more than that. It should be about breathing new life into structures. The task of stewardship is to ensure that the new governance system works well. But it is crucial to recognize that it is fruitless to be an executive in an organization that is poorly designed: stewardship entails, therefore, some concern for design and continuous interaction with the construction of the governance system.

Even though I like to refer mostly to persons in positions of authority, it should also be clear that stewardship is not the preserve of executives, senior managers and supervisors. Stewardship is a process (neither a task nor a position) in which persons at all levels of the organization must partake. By focusing on those who are expected to effect change, I want to emphasize two main points: (1) that those in authority may, because of their authority, make or break the new governance; and (2) that those who wish to institute change cannot do it at arms’ length and be themselves untouched by the change. It’s about “do as I do”, not “do as I say.”

 

The Context has Changed

The new governance requires making sense of people’s experience by putting it into a larger context. For the public service, this means providing a sense of purpose, a sensitivity to why people do what they do, and a way to shape the organization by building a shared understanding with the many stakeholders. Meaning-making is about reflecting meanings that existed in the partners, and connecting them to one another in new ways appropriate to the demands of the new situation.

Second, community-building is about establishing, developing, maintaining, sustaining and nourishing relationships within and between organizations. It is all about skillfully working interfaces where dilemmas, inconsistencies, contradictions and paradoxes are omnipresent. This requires the mastery of dialogue, the capacity to suspend judgment, and the ability to question one’s assumptions.

Thirdly, stewardship cannot emerge unless the public service can improve its ability to adapt rather than simply rely on its traditional authority. This means an ability to “nudge”, to help the community address its particular challenges. As many observers of government have noted over the past quarter century, this means more contact between the public service and the people it serves.

The heart of the matter is not goal-seeking and control, but intelligence and innovation: the definition of standards and norms, and the negotiation of a moral, intellectual and emotional norm-holding pact, built on a multi-level dialogue. The whole institutional process becomes itself the learning process and the source of the redefinition of norms and standards as a result of experience.

 

Modest proposals

I’m not denying that there has been some progress on this front, particularly at the local levels of government. But the provincial and federal levels are lagging badly. For the new governance system to take hold requires a thorough renewal of our way of selecting, evaluating and coaching executives.

The first proposal has to do with the selection, promotion and deployment of executives. While this requires no change in legislation or policy, it would call for a significant modification in practice. The definition of the executive position and the choice of the incumbent would be made in effect not only by the supervisor and the Public Service Commission, but also by representatives of the different stakeholders (employees, peers, major client groups, etc.) under the guidance of the PSC to ensure due process and impartiality.

The inclusion of the stakeholders would force dialogue among them, which can only help anchor the process of organizational learning. Critics will argue that this would require time and dilute management’s authority to deploy personnel as it seems fit. That is precisely the point. Meaning-making, shared understanding, community building, and organizational learning cannot occur without dialogue.

Dialogue takes time and is costly (and I am aware that recruitment in the federal service is already absurdly long). But poor selection, based on a very partial identification of needs and leading to demotivated employees, can only translate into organizational sclerosis or in-fighting, reduced productivity, low creativity and innovation, and dissatisfied clients. This is much more costly.

Our second proposal deals with how, once appointed, managers are supported, coached, mentored and developed. At the risk of generalizing, the current model is one of “sink or swim.” Executives are expected to be quick studies, and to possess almost instantly all the knowledge and skills of their new positions. Some managers at all levels are known to boast not only that they expect instant high performance, but expect such performances instantly under the most extreme and demanding conditions. This sort of situation has led to organizational disaster, and would, if anything, be exacerbated by a shift to the market employment (or contract-employment) model. This proposal calls for personal development to be regarded as a planned process of learning, through feedback, coaching and mentoring, as well as other self-directed activities.

The third proposal calls for a new process of evaluation for executives, and a rethinking of the whole incentive-reward system for this category of personnel. Just as the stakeholders must be involved in selecting executives, so they must also be involved in evaluating them. The 360 degree appraisal must become the norm and, as a result of it, a process of dialogue and values clarification must be instituted. Deputies and central agencies will be expected to reward both formally and informally those persons who meet all aspects of the successful profile and to avoid celebrating those who excel in certain areas only to the detriment of others.

This proposal is the kingpin of the transformation process. No cultural change will occur if employees continue to perceive that rewards go mostly to those whose policy skills and political savvy are geared entirely to serving mindlessly the whims of their superiors, irrespective of their capability for meaning-making, their capacity for community-building and their ability to inspire trust and confidence, and to deal with people at all levels.

What is at stake is nothing short of a new covenant for the public service. The traditional employment framework cannot simply be replaced by a nexus of market employment contracts. We have to provide some basis for the development of the new moral framework that will be required as an essential complement to the market contracts. This process depends first on the recognition that market employment contracts will not suffice.

The moral framework has to provide two things. First, a way of dealing with multiple loyalties by public servants in the modern age and, secondly, ways of affecting the moral contracts for the new moral framework to coalesce.

To forge the new moral framework, a six-step process can be anticipated. Each of these steps will be very difficult because each calls for a genuine revolution in the mind, a new manière de voir. On the governance front, wide-ranging consultations can lead (1) to a reconfiguration of the new federal public service (a sort of Program Review, Phase II); and (2) to the replacement of the Westminster model by a more modern version, taking fully into account the multiple loyalties of public servants; (3) a major redirection in the guiding principles of public administration toward a social learning process is absolutely necessary.

On the stewardship front, the general features of the new stewardship in a new non-centralized, distributed governance system would require dramatic modifications in the machineries that govern (1) the entry and promotion of executives in the federal public service; (2) the nature of the support and training they get in the process; and (3) the process of evaluation and the whole incentive-reward system for executives. These changes point the way to a new moral framework that would appear to fall half-way between the old model and the idea that public servants only be hired on contract that is often presented as the only workable alternative.

This may provide for the federal public service what has been provided by successful private sector enterprises for their employees: not a naked market-based employment contract, but a two-tier contract, with a tacit unwritten but centrally important component to ensure a reasonable degree of risk-sharing between employer and employee. The full burden of risk will not be shouldered entirely by the employer, as in the old moral contract, nor by the employee, as in the market-type employment contract, but will be shared after extensive negotiations involving not only those two parties, but by many of the stakeholders who have such an interest in these negotiations that they will no longer permit that negotiations be carried on without them.

 

Adapted from Driving the Fake Out of Public Administration: Detoxing HR in the Canadian Federal Public Sector, by Ruth Hubbard and Gilles Paquet (Invenire, 2016).  Gilles Paquet is currently Professor Emeritus at the Telfer School of Management and Senior Research Fellow at the Centre on Governance of the University of Ottawa.

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