“Public institutions are the cornerstone of our democratic system” is the starting line of the Clerk of the Privy Council’s Annual Report to the Prime Minister. This is Janice Charette’s first instalment as Clerk, and in this year’s version she has articulated an ambitious set of priorities and concerns about the federal public service.
The report is presented as a social media document with high quality visuals and photos imbedded in the text. The Clerk has reinforced how her work aligns with the government’s agenda by highlighting action photos of the military serving Canadians during times of need, immigration officers welcoming new immigrants, the military protecting Canadian interests in the north, and CBSA officers ensuring border security.
It is clear that Ms. Charette is passionate about the importance of the public service in preserving Canada’s democratic system by providing non-partisan and professional advice and loyalty to the government of the day. This is her starting point, and from there she makes a number of important observations and commitments to the more than 250,000 public servants and 6,400 executives in the federal public service who fall under her direction.
Early in her report, she stresses the independent nature of the Canadian public service by reminding public servants that the public service will be ready to serve whatever government is elected in the October 2015 general election. At the same time, she is committed to continuing the work initiated by her predecessor, of Blueprint 2020, and specifically the following activities detailed below:
First, the public service must make significant improvements in its back office and service delivery processes. To do this, the Clerk is asking public servants to be more innovative by striving for continuous improvements, by becoming more “nimble and agile,” and by operating in an “open and collaborative” manner.
Second, there needs to be more concerted actions to reinvigorate recruitment efforts by making the public service the employer of choice for entry level jobs, especially those in areas of direct competition with the private sector. Moreover, there is also a need to encourage executive-level recruitment from the private and NGO community in order to ensure a diversity of perspectives in the senior ranks of the public service.
Third, Ms Charette is very mindful that employee surveys and APEX’s own studies of executives suggests that the current work environment is becoming unsustainable and stressful for many employees due to excessive workloads and ever more demanding requests from ministers. As a consequence, she would like to see concrete efforts to build a more healthy, respectful, and supportive work environment that pays particular attention to the mental health of employees.
Finally, the Clerk has highlighted the need for rebuilding the policy community that has been diminished in relevance and capacity in recent years. She would like to see a concerted effort to reinforce the policy community as a profession, and to ensure that the “public service can continue to provide world class, timely advice to government” by adjusting to the many new opinion leaders outside of government and working with them in a collaborative manner.
As in the past, the Clerk’s report to the Prime Minister was accompanied by the annual report from the Prime Minister’s Advisory Committee on the Public Service. The report, under the leadership of two new chairs, Massey College Master, Hugh Segal, and former bank CEO, Rick Waugh, issued a similarly urgent call for the public service to “up its game” by moving more decisively in responding to the public’s needs. The committee is concerned that the federal public service will not be able to anticipate and respond to the needs and expectations of Canadians and of government. This is a matter of concern both to ministers and to officials at all levels, especially given the speed at which the challenges and opportunities facing Canada and the public service are emerging today.
The Advisory Committee also acknowledges the ever-increasing complexity of issues and their associated accountabilities, but despite these constraints they call on the public service to act with more agility and responsiveness. In their view, the best way to respond successfully to a constantly changing public environment is to create an institutional culture where change is the norm and a commitment to innovation, rather than risk aversion, is a value.
Interestingly, the Committee offers a similar set of recommendations to those offered by the Clerk in proposing a more effective human resource regime that would attract, develop, and retain talent in the Public Service and more effective ways of improving the processes and problems of speed of service.
Both reports, however, leave the heavy lifting to those with responsibility to improve the HR regime, to make the workplace a more welcoming environment, and to improve the policy and service capacity of government. These are complex challenges that go to the heart of the issue of what kind of behaviour is to be rewarded in government, how much risk is tolerable, and who is accountable for what? Both of these reports are authored by passionate and knowledgeable people, and next year greater precision could be provided as to how these laudable goals will be achieved within the complex work environment of the federal public service. A more detailed road map would be most helpful and welcome by those working within the current system.
David Zussman is Jarislowsky Chair in Public Sector Management in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and is Research Advisor to the Public Sector Practice of Deloitte. ( firstname.lastname@example.org)