Change Management
May 7, 2012

Peter Harder: Reflections

CGE Vol.13 No.5 May 2007

Peter Harder retired recently. He served as Deputy Minister at Foreign Affairs, Industry Canada, Treasury Board, Citizenship and Immigration, and Solicitor General. His contribution is widely respected. We asked him to reflect on public service.

Looking back at the mega-level, I would say that the consensus on public policy has changed in three significant ways. First, we’re now all fiscal conservatives. The Nielsen task force began that sea change – we found we were living beyond our fiscal means. Direct program expenditures were over 17 percent of GDP, and we moved it down to just below 12, although it has inched up slightly now. That was a significant change in the culture and, I would say, the political consensus. In some sense, the public service welcomed that discipline.

Second, I would argue, there’s a broad cross-political consensus that economic space is greater than political space. Twenty years ago there was no consensus on free trade, the emphasis was on GATT. Globalization has made apparent that economic space is greater than political space. That means that, from a public policy point of view, we have to continue to carve out Canada’s advantage in the globalized economy. That’s an ongoing challenge; it didn’t end with NAFTA. But the debate is no longer about should you build barriers. The debate is how to open up to the economic benefits of globalization.

Third, there’s a broad consensus that the future of this country is in creating the knowledge society. That is to say, the role of the state in a globalized economy is increasingly one that ensures the development of human capital, that Canadians move up the value chain of innovation. And that means investing in universities, in post-graduate studies, ensuring the broadest level of participation in economic activity possible. Because our future success will depend on being better than other nations at learning, innovating, discovering, and commercializing those discoveries.

The government has to be an accelerator of the innovation agenda. The government has been having some difficulty with some aspects of this, but with the Canada research chairs, we moved from 169 endowed chairs to 2,169. That’s more than an incremental adjustment. The investment in post-secondary research and the like has been significant – the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, the granting councils, Genome Canada, etc. Several provinces shared that view and have made parallel investments, Alberta in particular. You go to the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary, and it’s tremendous to see what kind of infrastructure is in place for human capital. And the community colleges in both northern Alberta and southern Alberta are at the cutting edge of that whole notion of developing your labor force.

All three of these ideas were shaped by the public service before they were adopted by the political class. It is good to have many loci of policy development, including think tanks. But the public service needs the capacity to build policy – it is the only institution with the wider public interest as its driver.

I continue to believe that the public service is a terrific career for young Canadians. You can within one employer have a series of careers. I think young people today are very much motivated by: Is the work interesting? And can I make a difference? The challenge for managers is to ensure that young people who are new to the public service see both as achievable – let’s not layer on so many levels of bureaucracy and control that you can’t innovate and be creative. And let’s not make them wait for years to get there.

DFAIT had no recruiting problems. Last year, we had 7,000 applicants, screened to 700 interviews, for 100 hires. But we did need to adjust the skill sets we were seeking to meet the new challenges.

The public service support for the Government of Canada Workplace Charitable Campaign is indicative of people’s commitment to the communities in which we live, work and play. It is the largest workplace-based charity campaign in the country.

People took risks on us. I was a deputy minister at 39, and I’m delighted that somebody said, “Let’s take a risk.” I sometimes think we’re too risk-adverse as managers; the reward system is balanced more in favor of “don’t make a mistake” than being innovative. Perhaps we boomers have become too arrogant, and have forgotten that youth can be trusted.

I love that quote that New York City mayor Mario Cuomo used so often: “Good public administration is a combination of poetry and plumbing.” It puts together in one phrase what I believe a serious manager in the public service must be able to do, and that is to both manage the organizational unit over which you have charge – and that means all of the accountabilities that are requisite to good management – the plumbing – and motivate with poetry. What’s the purpose? And how does our purpose connect with the bigger picture? I think people do want to see that their work is bigger than the sum of its parts. And the challenge I would give to new managers in particular is to achieve that integration of poetry and plumbing, of policy and operations, to get out of your field of specialization and into the whole of your organization, to give leadership beyond the borders of your organization.

AFTER 29 years as a public servant, a DM for 16 years, I am not leaving with any sense of frustration, but with a deep sense of gratitude. I just want the opportunity to, in a sense, reinvent myself. I think it’s a tremendous gift, really, to have the opportunity to do that. And rather than do one thing full time, I’m seeking to build a series of components to my career. The anchor for that is my work at Fraser Milner Casgrain, which is a highly respected national law firm. While I’m not a lawyer, they thought that I’d be helpful to them serving clients, particularly dealing with international governments and public policy issues that have an international dimension. I will also be doing some volunteer work, reflecting and writing commentaries, serving on boards and participating in think tanks. One can still be a good servant of the public good even though one is no longer a public servant.

I think even more strongly than ever that governments need to adjust the architecture of international expression, to require a greater integration of our ability to project our presence, our interests, our activities in the world. The security paradigm at this point is not opposing the monolithic “other side” of the Cold War. It is failed and fragile states and non-state actors. And that requires a different kind of military. It’s not more secure, by the way, and it certainly requires a greater capacity to project good governance.

I think a country whose constitution begins with “peace, order and good government” has something unique to project, in terms of the ability of Canadian resources to assist failed and fragile states in developing good governance. And that’s not just foreign policy, or the Department of Foreign Affairs. It’s not just CIDA. And it’s not just the Department of National Defence. We must go beyond the “Three Ds” of defence, diplomacy and development. Some of those assets are niche, like Elections Canada. Some of them are not top of mind, like Corrections Canada. How you build correctional institutions is not an inconsequential expertise. And I think sometime

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