Canada was at the table when the “Commonwealth of Nations” was reconstituted in 1949 and has remained one of its strongest supporters ever since. The Commonwealth today comprises 54 nations, and is home to two billion citizens, of all faiths and ethnicities, and includes some of the world’s largest, smallest, richest and poorest countries.
Within the Commonwealth, the Canadian public service is rightly recognized as one of the best in the world and our institutions serve as benchmarks for good governance. Canada’s development as a nation has been smooth and, for the most part, uneventful. The same could not be said for many of our Commonwealth brethren.
Using Kenya as an example, its independence was particularly hard fought and bloody. The Mau Mau uprising (1952-1960), which pitted Kenyans against Kenyans, eventually led to independent rule in 1962. While the Republic of Kenya was subsequently formed in 1964, remnants of the power struggle between tribal groups persisted. When violence broke out after the 2007 presidential elections, it was clear that their system of governance was ill equipped to deal with the decades old perceptions of inequality and unfair representation.
In March 2008, all political parties agreed on the principles for a constitutional review process, and Parliament established a Committee of Experts on Constitutional Reform to gather views from the public, deliberate on contentious issues and come up with a draft of the new constitution. The level of citizen engagement was indeed remarkable, with radio talk shows explaining the various points of view, massive outreach campaigns to all corners of the country, and public gatherings to solicit citizen input.
Key elements of the new constitution included the transfer of executive authority from the President to the Prime Minister as the Head of Government, the establishment of a Senate with regional representation, and realignment of the eight provinces into 70 counties, each having representation in government. In 2010, the new constitution received 75 percent approval from the citizens of Kenya.
Other countries in the Commonwealth are more mature and can turn their attention to improving public service performance. Most performance management systems are based on assessing results against some form of key performance indicators.
Commonwealth countries have a wide spectrum of processes for establishing appropriate indicators ranging from structured schemes similar to Canada’s Management Performance Framework, to subjective assessments of contributions towards national objectives. The “rewards” for good performance are equally varied across the Commonwealth. Generally, these include some combination of bonus payments, consideration for promotions and renewal of employment contracts.
It is interesting to note that in addition to these financial rewards, Malaysia has found that public recognition (or embarrassment) can have a much greater impact. They have implemented a “Star Rating System” where senior executives will be awarded “stars” in accordance to their annual performance.
Notwithstanding the range of performance management systems that are in place, experience has shown that a usable and credible system is not sufficient to stimulate high performance.
Countries such as Australia also devote much effort in establishing a work place culture that values performance and puts in place support systems for those in need of assistance. Experience has also shown that the effectiveness of any performance management system is only as good as how it is implemented. In depth reviews have proven that perceived biases and inconsistencies can serve as strong disincentives for employees.
Public servants across the Commonwealth face similar challenges. A common refrain is the need to embrace new ideas to solve old problems. India improved the plight of the very poor by coordinating the efforts of 100 community-based organizations. Trinidad and Tobago re-engineered business processes to virtually eliminate long queues at citizen service centers. Nigeria implemented a Midwives Service Scheme that dramatically reduced incidences of infant mortality in rural areas.
In 1998, the Commonwealth Association for Public Administration and Management (CAPAM) instituted the International Innovations Awards. This highly contested award serves to showcase the ingenuity of public servants across the commonwealth and to recognize their tenacity and determination in implementing new ideas. Twelve finalists will be vying for the 2012 Gold Award for Public Service Innovation at the Commonwealth Conference and Ministerial Forum in New Delhi, India, October 24-26, 2012.
The spirit of the Commonwealth for sharing and mutual support lives on in conferences such as these. While the Canadian public service has achieved great successes, we can still learn a great deal from other members of the Commonwealth family.
David Waung has been the executive director and CEO of CAPAM since 2008. He is stepping down in October. Previously, he served 32 years in the public service, including eight as a vice president of the Canada School of Public Service.