On July 9, Steve Orsini became Ontario’s new Secretary of the Cabinet and Clerk of the Executive Council after serving as the Deputy Minister of Finance and Secretary of the Treasury Board since December 2011. Editor-in-chief Toby Fyfe talked to him shortly after he took office.
It has been said that the biggest problem facing government in the 21st century is to remain relevant. Does that statement apply to the OPS?
I see the role of the OPS in delivering public services as very relevant to the people that depend on them, especially in areas such as health care and education. These services enable people to stay healthy, be productive, and enhance their ability to compete globally. The OPS will always be relevant, but we need to be more agile and innovative in order to connect and deliver services in a changing environment.
I think that all levels of government operate in very complex environments. No one is acting alone – we act as an organized network. We need to develop new networks and enhance existing ones. That can include all types of forums, the for-profit and the not-for-profit sectors. The tools of the past won’t work for today’s globally competitive environment.
So we need to find new and effective ways to provide services and connect with the changing needs of the population. We need to understand where the public is going and, as people say, to look where the puck’s going, not where it’s been.
How do you turn a large organization like the OPS around?
You draw on its talents. No one has a monopoly on good ideas. Whether you’re on the front lines or in the policy shop or the back office, everyone has a role to play in how we change and keep up with the times. Our ability to be more inclusive, to tap into that talent, to encourage new ideas, to take those ideas and develop them, and then to operationalize them, will enhance our ability to meet changing public needs and attitudes.
The challenge must be to change the culture of an organization that is hierarchical in its decision-making and is relatively risk averse. How will you do it?
One way to change culture is by tapping into the resource base of our talent and engaging staff at all levels in finding new ways of doing things. We have demonstrated in the past our ability to transform, to keep up with an ever-accelerating pace of change in a highly competitive global economy.
The OPS has demonstrated time and time again it can take significant issues and transform how it’s operating to deliver significant results. And I’ll just mention a few of them: we’ve transformed much of our back office functions; we’re moving to digitize more services for the public; we worked with other levels of government to transform how we deliver our programs; our tax reform in cooperation with the federal government has increased economic efficiencies and reduced the cost of administrating our tax system.
Do you see transformation as an ongoing process?
Transformation is a continuous process. It requires constant attention to rethink how we deliver things, and we’ve seen significant progress over the years. Whether it’s the economy transforming from an industrial era to a technology era to an internet era, public services will need to continually change as well. And as new tools get developed, we’ll be offering new ways of delivering those services.
For example, our communications need to keep pace with social media. Already our ways of communicating with the public have fundamentally changed and will continue to change; it’s an evolutionary process that will tap into the tools and strategies that exist at any given time. Continuous quality improvement and increasing our productivity is an ongoing opportunity to provide more services more effectively.
Ontario public servants, like many across the country, have been facing ongoing restraint. Are you worried about the morale of frontline staff?
Ontario has the fewest public servants per capita in Canada. The public service is aware of the continuous challenges given the need to balance the budget by 2017-18. I’ve seen a lot of enthusiasm from all parts of the organization to really seize the opportunity to transform and deliver programs and services in more cost effective ways. And I have seen boundless energy being devoted to those areas that we believe will generate results going forward.
As you look for new ways of doing business, are you working closely with the private and not-for profit sectors?
There are a lot of opportunities to build relationships, and there are a number of sectors that are prepared to work with the province. In a lot of cases we have already entered into partnerships to deliver programs and services. A really good example is how we transformed infrastructure development. The creation of Infrastructure Ontario has created a centre of excellence for how we entered into what we call these AFPs – alternative financing and procurement. And this new model is a made-in-Ontario approach that has been recognized around the world. And it does so by driving greater efficiencies in our procurement and by entering into partnerships with private sector providers to deliver very significant capital projects in more cost effective ways.
In the past the OPS has shown leadership in areas such as environmental stewardship and diversity. How are you going to keep those standards up?
These standards are critical if we are to ensure the long-term sustainability of public services. We need to continue to build our talent in a diversified workforce; this must become more important, not less so. We need to find new ways to harness the ingenuity and the resourcefulness of a diverse, inclusive, and engaged public service. We also need to continue to make sure we operate more efficiently, in terms of reducing our resource footprint, supporting environmental objectives and reducing our costs. All of these become more important, not less, as we drive for greater efficiencies and cost effectiveness.
As a leader, how do you work with your deputy heads?
My approach is to inspire all levels of the organization to think in new and innovative ways, from engaging deputies in their leadership role tapping into their organizations, to engaging staff throughout the organization and province, to outreaching with other stakeholders to engage the public on ways they can transform. It’s really about inspiring; it’s about building teams, establishing partnerships, and setting common goals.
Finally, what’s your management style?
I’m by nature inclusive and support team building. Our projects and issues are complex and have multiple dimensions. We need interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary teams to tackle them. I am also solution-oriented. And in talking to and engaging with public servants throughout the OPS, I see that they are willing to roll up their sleeves to deliver results. I will continue to engage them, to draw on their innovative and entrepreneurial approaches, and to drive change in an ever-increasingly complex and competitive world.