Last October, Janice Charette was appointed federal Clerk of the Privy Council, the second woman to hold this post. She is leading change on two fronts. First, the public service continues to transform itself, building upon the Blueprint 2020 exercise. Second, there will be a newly elected government this year. Editor-in-chief Toby Fyfe asked her what she saw as the biggest challenge facing the public service.
I think it starts with confirming the role of the public service. Public institutions are really a cornerstone of our democratic system and public servants and the public service are integral players in making sure those institutions serve the best interests of Canadians. So the starting point is: what is the biggest challenge to meeting the best interests of Canadians and serving them with excellence?
We live in a world where the speed of change is phenomenal and the complexity of the issues we are faced with is significant, whether on the economic side, the security side or the social side. For the public service, it’s really about how we adapt, how we are resilient, and how we can best make sure we are organized with the talent and the tools to be a high performing organization.
How do you turn around a huge, diverse organization like the federal public service? Is Blueprint 2020 enough?
For me, the emphasis of Blueprint 2020 is on “blueprint.” I would start with the fact that Blueprint 2020 was a hugely ambitious undertaking in terms of an engagement process with employees. Every department, every agency, every region, every sector, all levels and so many employees took up the challenge to be part of charting the “blueprint” for the public service of the future. I would say that was largely about who we want to be as an institution.
But I’m not sure that’s necessarily going to be sufficient in terms of what the public service will need to do to meet all of these needs. Part of it will depend on the government of the day and what their requirements are of us, so we have to make sure the institution itself is robust and able to respond no matter what gets thrown at us.
So it’s about the institution having the ongoing capacity to change rather than just moving toward a fixed destination?
Your point about it being an institution is an important one. Just because we’re talking about transformation of the public service doesn’t mean that everything is going to change. It’s really important that we focus on those things that are not going to change as we’re transforming. I go back to the bedrock of what the public service is about: our values, our ethics, the integrity of the public service. There’s no one talking about revisiting the principals of a non-partisan professional public service. The challenge is for institutions of all sizes to focus on what high performing means in this era and how to achieve that.
How do you drive that change? It must be more than the momentum of Blueprint 2020.
I think it has to happen at a number of different levels. Certainly, some of it has to be good old-fashioned business planning. We need plans, we need action items and we need to get on with it.
There are some things that we need to do across all government departments to enable those excellence or modernization agendas within each individual department or agency. There are examples like the work we’re doing to transform the way we email, our data centres, and the creation of Shared Services Canada. What we’ve identified are things we can do at an enterprise-wide level which will have benefits for all organizations, like better service and lower costs, that are proceeding apace.
But, for me, the real challenge in all of this – and I am hopeful because of what we saw from the engagement process – is that at the heart of what Blueprint is about is thinking about the culture of a high performing public service. In the kind of world that I’ve described, a high performing public service is empowered and engaged and public servants at all levels ask the question, “Why are we doing it this way?” They feel like they actually can make changes within their own business units, within their own sectors, within their own regions, because it’s going to lead to better services and better outcomes for Canadians.
We have to say to public servants that we want to continue the kind of enthusiasm and engagement we saw through Blueprint 2020, to think now in terms of building the culture of these organizations going forward and invite them to be part of it. I think that’s an invitation – not driven in a classic sense where it’s your job and your accountability, but where everyone feels they have a sense of responsibility to our public service.
Roughly half the public servants have joined within the past 10 years. What’s the generational challenge?
I don’t think the public service is any different than any other large organization in terms of having a multigenerational workforce. For me, it’s another dimension of the diversity our workforce. How do we actually leverage the benefits of that diverse workforce, recognizing not everybody manages the same way?
I think there’s a lot of upside, because recent public servants come with new ideas and fresh perspectives and an opportunity to have impact and influence. That’s how we’re going to attract and retain bright young folk who want to join the public service, because they want to make a difference for the country.
From a talent management point of view, the challenge is to attract and keep young people. How does the public service do that?
I looked at the interview you did with Daniel [Watson, Chief Human Resources Officer in the December issue] and I think the starting point is that we need to be back in the recruitment business. The fact is, our level of new recruits is not enough to offset attrition. As leaders of the public service, that is a priority. On the basis of good, well-developed, rigorous HR plans, what are the skills and the competencies we need, how do we develop and build them in our current workforce, and what do we need to be bringing in from outside? It’s demographics, it’s generational, but it’s also skills and competencies.
It’s also about the value proposition for a new recruit. I’m a fan, I’m an advocate, I’m a passionate public servant. So for me the chance to come in and make a difference for my country – that’s a pretty high calling. And for folks who aren’t motivated by that, maybe they don’t need to be in the public service. Maybe they should be thinking about a different kind of a career.
It’s not the work itself, it’s the way we work, it’s the culture of our organizations that has to be welcoming and hospitable to folks who have very different ways of working and learning. If you see how students are working now in universities and community colleges and graduate schools, the teamwork is hugely collaborative, hugely collegial. Can they bring those work practices and culture into the workplace in a way that helps us to learn and to be more like that in our current workplace?
Still, this is a public institution. We are trustees of public resources, and there are rules about how we operate because we’re not dealing with our money, we’re dealing with taxpayers’ money and we have to make sure we run a values-based, ethical public service of high integrity.
Is there more we can do to get rid of rules? Absolutely. That is one of our signature initiatives from the early stages of Blueprint because we heard it from employees. Some of it is what we do to ourselves as organizations, and so TBS (Treasury Board Secretariat) is leading a team, which is a good use of a multigenerational workplace, to make progress on this front. Government had a very successful exercise in terms of small- and medium-sized enterprise red tape reduction. Well, let’s do red tape reduction within the public service.
How do you engage your deputy colleagues in pursuing your agenda?
I’m very fortunate, because one of the great things about working in the public service is you have the opportunity to work with such highly-committed, motivated and truly wonderful colleagues, and that’s definitely the case with my deputy minister colleagues. There is a shared recognition in the DM community that we have not just an obligation as stewards of the institution, but we have an opportunity to shape the public service of the future. And not just within our individual departments and agencies but as a collective. We have a group that sits as the DM Board of Management and Renewal that is helping chart the course and that I very much use, along with Michael Wernick, my deputy Clerk, as a kind of steering committee for this work. We have regular conversations about this at DM breakfasts and planning sessions that happen throughout the year.
There’s the one time of the year every DM writes to me as Clerk telling me what’s going on with respect to building a high performing organization, what’s going on with Blueprint, how they are continuing to engage their employees, and innovation. The novelty is that they’re not just writing to me anymore. Those letters are now being posted so employees are able to see them. I’ve been reading the letters, and the pride of employees at all levels in the work that they do, the passion that they have for serving Canadians, is palpable. That’s a wonderful thing to see and showcase. It’s great that the DMs were writing to me as Clerk, but it’s even better that they’re talking to their employees about it.
Preparing for transition
You need to prepare for some kind of government transition over the next year. How do you do that?
That is one of the defining features of our Westminster system; a non-partisan professional public service is an integral part of our system because we have to be ready to serve an incoming government, whoever is democratically elected by the people of Canada. We have to be in a position to give them advice and support at the same level and the same quality, no matter who it is.
We have to make sure we have taken stock of the challenges facing the country and look out to the future. This is a chance to make sure that we’re doing medium- to longer-term planning between five to 10 years, and to make sure that we do good, hearty diagnostic, evidence-based public policy: we understand our facts, we understand the evidence, where the country is going, where the challenges are going to be, what the options are for an incoming government and, ultimately, what our advice will be. We have to be in a position to provide the incoming prime minister with advice on any part of government and to align that with what’s going to be prepared for individual ministers. We have been using DM policy committees that have been in place for a couple years to make sure those diagnostics are robust and rigorous.
Of course, then you have to blend that with what the parties might say so that you’re in a position to provide advice about the implementation of those platforms and how your advice as the public service would blend with an incoming government. And so we are trying to make sure that as we’re doing our medium to longer-term planning and our transition planning, we’re not just public servants talking to public servants; that we’re making an effort to talk to the leading minds, opinion leaders and think tanks, casting the net broadly and not just thinking that the solution to every problem is in the public service. And then we have to be ready for the day after, to work with the transition team and the incoming PM to serve in whatever way they’re going to want.
It’s a fascinating time, actually, because it’s also a time when the current government deserves our full support in terms of implementing and completing their agenda. So we have to be able to do both of those things.
What’s your personal management style?
First off, I’m a pretty hands-on manager; I like to be involved. I like to know what’s going on, I like to work with great people who take up lots of space but who make sure that I know what’s going on.
Second, I’m an absolute believer in the importance of people management as a core responsibility of leaders at all levels. Probably the main lesson I have learned as I’ve progressed through my career is that the time you spend on people management has the highest return on investment of any time that you spend on a large organization. So pick the right people, develop them well, give them meaningful feedback, let them experiment and be creative, support them, celebrate their successes, and help them find and develop themselves in their own careers.
Third, I feel profoundly that as a leader in the organization I have to live the values of the organization. People look to me as a role model in terms of the values and ethics of the organization and I take that responsibility really seriously. And that’s true whether I’m dealing with a file going to the PM or my own personal travel claim, and everything in between.
Finally, as Clerk of the Privy Council and in other senior roles that I’ve had, I still learn every single day. So recognizing that it’s important to devote the time and the space for learning and self reflection is part of how you continue to grow and develop as a leader and that’s an ongoing project for all of us.