The transition from one CEO to another is an important event in the history of a company. So too, the departure of an old and arrival of a new Secretary to the Cabinet signals an important change in the management life of the whole government.

Ever since the report of the Lambert Commission on Government Accountability in the late 1979, Cabinet Secretaries in the federal and provincial governments have assumed greater responsibility for improving the quality of management.  

Three years ago, at the federal level, Kevin Lynch became Secretary to the Cabinet and Clerk of the Privy Council Office in the new Harper government. An economist by training, he was a surprise appointment since he had only recently moved to Washington to take on executive director responsibilities at the International Monetary Fund and was perceived by many as a key player in the Chrétien government where he served as deputy minister of Industry and Finance.

But Harper knew of Lynch’s reputation for being tough intellectually, and for being evidence-based and politically sensitive in his approach to policy development and for getting things done.  

Given his background and strong belief in innovation and productivity, most people expected that Lynch would concentrate on developing the government’s economic agenda. Instead, he opted to use his considerable energy on renewing the federal public service.

At the outset, he was faced with the challenge of replacing more than half of the baby boomers that were eligible to retire over the next five years. Moreover, he inherited the new Public Service Modernization Act that transferred new responsibilities to the deputy minister community and away from the central agencies.  

More important than the external drivers, Lynch was motivated by his personal conviction that the federal government was not a modern organization when compared to well-managed companies in the private sector. This alone convinced him that, unless the federal government made significant improvements, it would not be able to compete for the highly skilled workers who would be crucial in a modern public service.

Over the past three years, Lynch has powered a reform agenda that has been unrelenting and consistent in its messaging. In order to absorb the more than 100,000 employees that have joined the public sector since 2000, Lynch has championed a new recruiting system, has required deputies to file learning plans for all employees and to prepare succession plans, and has provoked the planners to integrate human resource and business plans into a single coherent document.  

While it is premature to judge the long-term effectiveness of his efforts, there are already some lessons to be drawn. First, Lynch made reform the centrepiece of his term as Clerk and made it a priority for deputies, by tying their pay to their performance on this matter. Second, he insisted on measuring the outcomes of these reform efforts and then attributing them to individuals or to agencies so that the accountabilities could be established. Third, he found external validation of his work by having the Prime Minister set up an advisory committee on public service renewal and effectively using it as a sounding board for his efforts. And last, he resisted the temptation to give this reform effort a name or develop an attractive acronym and then declare victory. Instead, he knew this initiative, like all others, would take a long time and, consequently, he concentrated on small changes with visible and measurable outcomes.  
Given the time lines, his success as change agent will depend on the commitment of his immediate and subsequent successors. It is clear that more must be accomplished before any government can claim that the reforms have been effectively and successfully implemented. For one, the human resources community has to become the focal point for HR planning and serve as the link between the deputy minister and the thousands of frontline managers and executives who have daunting challenges ahead of them.

As well, Lynch identified in his last report to the Prime Minister that the middle managers need to play a greater role in the management of their work units. They are the crucial cultural carriers and their plight has often been overlooked in the search for new talent and workable management systems. Finally, the Tellier–Mazankowski task force also identified that poor performers were not adequately dealt with in the current system.  

In the end, the Lynch years will be characterized as having started a decade long reform of the federal public service that has been well launched. But it remains to be seen whether the commitment will still be at the top and if there will be an increased role for a broader range of managers.  

David Zussman holds the Jarislowsky Chair in Public Sector Management in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and is the outgoing president of the Canadian Association of Programs in Public Administration (