As the Public Service Commission of Canada celebrates its 100th anniversary as an independent, arms length organization devoted to preserving the merit principle and protecting non-partisanship within the federal government, it is fitting to recognize the passing of one of the giants in the field of human resources.
John Carson occupied an important place in the transformation of human resource management in this country. Starting in 1908 until the present, there has been a steady effort made to professionalize the activities of those who practice human resources. While there remain sharp and distinct differences in the degree to which jurisdictions have been able to professionalize their public services, they all owe a debt to John Carson and his colleagues who pioneered the early efforts to make human resource management a valuable element in strategic planning.
Looking back on Carson’s term as president of the Public Service Commission from 1965-1976 gives us the opportunity to reflect on the distance that has been travelled over the last half century to ensure that the merit principle is strengthened and there is a new purpose to human resources management.
Prime Minister Pearson recruited Carson from the private sector after he had served on the Glassco Commission. His practical and useful advice to the Commission, which was based on years as a human resources expert, impressed so many members of the deputy minister community that he was brought in to introduce them to the latest in private sector HR practices.
It is clear from the written record of the time that, from the moment he joined the Public Service of Canada, Carson was there to make a difference by reaching out to the human resource and personnel community and offering them a new way of looking at their work. With his experience in the forestry industry in British Columbia, dealing with a workforce that had to cope with technological change, he saw earlier than most that the public sector was also going to experience dramatic changes that would require a more knowledgeable workforce with specialized skills and the ability to manage scarce resources. He called the HR professional group an “endangered species” unless they adapted to the changing environment.
After kick-starting a move to greater professionalization of the public service, Carson and the Government of Canada developed two important objectives in the 1970s that reflected the real challenges the nation then faced. The first challenge was to respond to the acknowledged need to transform the public service into a bilingual institution to reflect the reality of the country where too few federal services were available to francophone Canadians. The second challenge was to recognize the increasing number of professional women entering the workforce (especially in management positions) by increasing the number of women in executive positions. In both cases the current data demonstrate the effectiveness of his efforts and those of his successors in making very significant progress.
Reading Carson’s speeches provides an interesting insight into the persistent challenges that confront the “tsunami” of change that is taking place today. First, Carson was a firm believer in the importance of values over rules. His decisions and those of the Commission were wrapped around a hardcore set of values long before the “web of rules” emerged from the depths of central agencies.
Second, he recognized early on during his tenure that demographics were going to be a major challenge to the public service in light of the advent of new technology that promised to change the workplace. It is not likely that he really appreciated how profound those concerns would be in all sectors of Canadian society, but his persistence set the stage for significant policy work.
Third, Carson was a harsh and public critic of the status quo. He had little patience for those who suggested that there was no rush or that the old ways of doing things were sufficient. He was certainly outspoken by today’s standards and he often chided his colleagues by saying “their good intentions are there, but not their conviction.”
Finally, later in his career at the University of Ottawa, he expressed a growing concern about the increased antagonism in society and in government toward those who aspired to leadership positions. He concluded that mangers in the public sector were developing an attitude of “anti-leadership” where they sought to serve in advisory roles without direct responsibility or accountability for their work. He often concluded his speeches with a clarion call “for men and women with the ability to move into positions of responsibility and leadership.”
When we look back at the challenges that Carson had in the 1970s we can see many parallel issues playing out today:
1. The HR community needs to “pay attention to the deeper issues” in order to respond to today’s needs.
2. There is a continuing need for first class management education – especially mid-career programs for those moving into executive positions.
3. The concern about the growing gap between the public and private sector in terms of understanding each other’s contribution to the well-being of Canadians is a persistent problem in a small country like Canada.
4. Carson was of the view that “special efforts will have to be made to accelerate the development of those under 30.”
David Zussman holds the Jarislowsky Chair in Public Sector Management in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa. He is also president of the Canadian Association of Programs in Public Administration (CAPPA) and a part time Commissioner of the Public Service Commission (firstname.lastname@example.org).