Communication
May 7, 2012

Networked public service

CGE Vol. 14 No.5 May 2008

Reaching out – it’s been a theme since camel trains plied the silk route and Colombus the Atlantic. Today globalization is accelerating, driven by four developments that affect how public service works.

First, there is a revolution in the way in which we collect and disseminate information. We are nearing the point where almost all of the world’s knowledge will be available, at a nominal cost, to all six billion of its inhabitants. The public service is no longer the permanent custodian of information; “information is power” will diminish as a lever in policy development. A person can at the same time be a contributor of knowledge (Wikis), a user (the web), and a participant (social networking and collaborative spaces).

Second, all of the world’s major economies are integrated with one another to the extent that policies, laws and regulations in one country will have an impact in the others. As Peter Harder has pointed out, our economic space is much larger than our political space, so sovereignty is diminished in our search for profitable markets.

Third, Canadians’ security is no longer circumscribed by our geography. Terrorists can strike our infrastructure and our citizens. We must share our insecurity and our responses to it with other nations.

Fourth, advances in supply chain methods facilitate increased competition among nations by removing much of the advantage of proximity to markets or resource supplies. This development requires a new approach to industrial and economic planning.

Fortunately, Canadian governments have been adapting since it first became apparent that a dramatic response was needed. For example, most provincial and federal jurisdictions were quick to realize the potential of the information and communications revolution by aggressively building a fibre optic infoway from coast to coast to coast, putting services online, and integrating service delivery.

Much remains to be done. In this new complex, competitive environment where everyone is simultaneously a potential competitor and a collaborator, the public sector is grappling with ways to develop sound policy advice and provide effective, efficient services. It is also grappling with the movement of the NetGeneration into increasingly responsible management roles.

At this point, the greatest challenge to policy makers is finding ways to ensure that government policies reflect the reality of globalization. The policy community needs to be better linked or networked into the international policy community because so much extra-territorial policy has an impact on our domestic policy.

Once again Canada is well positioned to operate in the globalized public sector. For example, over the years, many public servants from cities, provinces, and federal governments have served in key positions at the OECD, the UN and other international organizations, or worked/volunteered abroad.

But there is much more to be done to be integrated into the global public sector. Huge policy networks are being created that link “like minded” policy thinkers around the world. Being a regular contributor and user of these networks is crucial to learning more about what others are doing and bringing back the best of what is available. This means being a regular contributor to the policy debates and showcasing Canadian best practices. Since these networks are Internet-based, additional methods are required to build working relationships with key policy thinkers that go beyond the exchange of emails.

There are implications for the machinery of government. Decisions will have to be made regarding the extent to which the networks need central coordination and where the locus of control might be located. As an example, more than 25 federal departments have international programs and networks and, in many departments and agencies, they operate at a number of different levels in the organization. Add to that the provinces, cities, and NGOs – keeping all relevant stakeholders informed and coordinated will be an ongoing challenge.

It will be important for senior management to recognize the value of the personal relations that are established through these international networks – providing another good reason to slow the job churn and keep key people in their jobs long enough to build and use networks.

Professional exchanges, providing more opportunities to work abroad, and to bring others here, is a powerful way to establish a life-long professional network, and more innovative (and less bureaucratic) ways should be found to do this. What of the young professional who wants to join government and volunteer in the Third world one month a year. Can she do that?

In the end, the extent to which Canada’s governments successfully cope – and our private sector successfully competes – with globalization will be greatly influenced by our ability to operate in a global networked public sector.

David Zussman holds the Jarislowsky Chair in Public Sector Management in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa. He is president of the Canadian Association of Programs in Public Administration (dzussman@uottawa.ca).

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