There is little doubt the public service of the future will not be the same as today. Anywhere. It will mean not only new organizations, but also new competencies for public service leaders. Editor-in-chief Toby Fyfe spoke with the man leading change in the federal government, Clerk of the Privy Council Wayne Wouters, about his expectations for the future.
As we go through these times of change, what leadership qualities do you expect from senior levels of government?
We are living in a very complex world. The public policy issues that I saw when I came into government 30 years ago have become much more complex and multi-dimensional. This means that as leaders today we need to recognize that while we still have a lot of knowledge and experience in the public sector, we don’t necessarily have all the information and sometimes even the analytical capacity we need.
So leaders need to be agile, adept – nimble if you will – and collaborative. If there is any term I could use to define new leaders it would be “collaborative” because it’s a question now of getting outside our comfort zone and discussing issues with provincial governments, the private sector, volunteer sectors and civil society.
The fact is, the Internet has changed our world. As public servants 20 years ago we were not only responsible for government’s analytical capacity, we were also the keepers of knowledge and information. Today, information is worldwide: if you’re a leader or a minister and there’s an issue about, say, urban poverty, there are individuals around the world who are writing about their own experiences dealing with urban poverty. So you can find leaders tapping into this information and questioning the advice they’re getting from public servants. We’re no longer the keepers of all the knowledge, but we’re still the purveyors of non-partisan analytical advice. Our elected officials still look to us to keep them informed and our leadership has to ensure that our capacity to serve is always there and maintained.
You implied there is a lack of policy and analytical capacity in the public service. Do these competencies need to be rebuilt?
I wouldn’t say there’s a lack of policy and analytical capacity in the public service; I think that because of the nature of the public service we have been somewhat self-contained, that we sometimes still miss out on good analysis and policy work being done elsewhere.
The model I suggest is about ensuring that work done by others is incorporated into our own analysis. Given our breadth and the scope of our responsibilities, I still think we have good analytical capacity, that we have a good knowledge base and expertise thanks to our work across the country, probably more so than any other organization. We don’t have a single issue we’re promoting like a private sector firm and we are non-partisan so we can scope out issues differently. I think all those attributes of the public service that have always been there still hold value today in how we do our work.
In the Eighteenth Annual Report to the Prime Minister on the Public Service of Canada, you wrote that good progress had been made on the four pillars of renewal. How can renewal be sustained in times of cutbacks?
It’s a question a lot of public servants are asking. My view is that we’ve made good progress on the renewal of the public service. I would argue that in a period of restraint it is even more critical and more important that we give focus to renewal. Think of it as renewal through restraint and not renewal in spite of restraint. Collectively, we all know that we can’t drop the ball as we go through changes in the nature of the workforce.
We’ve done a good job of recruiting. A mistake we made back in 1995 was that we stopped recruitment completely and we ended up with this huge gap in our workforce. That’s why ongoing recruitment, which is one of the key pillars of public service renewal, is still critical: we can’t stop recruiting but we have to be very selective and targeted as to where we need new public servants.
Restraint could mean that more people leave the public service. So here again we need to be strategic on the type of public service we build for the future. Will it have the same composition that we’ve seen for the past 20 years? I don’t think so. We’re looking for a higher knowledge level overall, perhaps less on the administrative side. Probably one of the most important pillars is workplace renewal. Because if we have fewer resources, my own view is that there is a tremendous opportunity to do things better, more efficiently.
It’s been said that in the future the public service will need to mobilize and move skilled people quickly as needed. Would this mean rethinking how we manage human resources?
When it comes to the public servant knowledge worker, we need a combination. We need individuals who, because of their basic knowledge and experience, will continue to provide continuity in departments. We won’t necessarily move those individuals around since they are there because of their experience, knowledge and background. But, at the same time, we need a set of knowledge workers that we can deploy to the complex issues, who are able to take on these difficult policy challenges that we have and provide analytical rigor and support.
Young professionals are going through a deficit reduction exercise and saying to themselves, “I never thought I’d have to face this.” What advice would you give them?
I think we have been very fortunate as public servants at all levels in that we’ve lived in an environment for the last 10 to 15 years of ongoing surpluses; when there was a problem to solve generally there was plenty available to help deal with it. I think the message now to all public servants, and the senior public service in particular, is that they will have to fulfill their responsibilities through a period of restraint when they will have fewer resources at their disposal. They need to think differently. As opposed to in the past, when the value-added managers brought to the table was to maintain or enhance their budgets, they will have to shift their approach and focus. I think they have to say, “Can I do what I’m doing with fewer resources? Is there a better way to do it?” We need to value this more, and those leaders who come forward with those ideas need to be recognized.
We’re capable of doing anything. I still believe strongly we can work in any environment. So I say: pause, reflect where we’re at and adjust how you’re thinking and doing business to meet the demands of this government.
What do you mean when you call for “increased engagement of employees in the excellence agenda?”
It’s all part of the same message: excellence today means that, given the challenges we face as public servants in delivering services and in providing advice to ministers, we have to continue to adapt and innovate. Try to take risks where we can and ensure we give room for people to be creative. We know there are issues around risk taking because of concerns in the past related to the misappropriation of funds and these, in turn, meant more rules were put in place. We have to give public servants and our leaders the broad framework to work in which I would hope over time would mean fewer rules, greater capacity, greater author