The combination of poor systems and a new class of worker is driving reform of bureaucracies around the world. For the federal government, Blueprint 2020 was the latest exercise, led by a Clerk of the Privy Council, aimed at adapting the federal public service to the changing environment it faces.
Six months after the exercise’s final report was released, the question is still valid: how do we get to effective change in a large organization that will meet the needs of Canadians, and those that work in that system?
“Enterprise transformation” and the “management void” was the headline topic in Canadian Government Executive magazine in the November 2006 issue. The editor of the time wrote that, “The greatest transformation underway in the public service is how people are being managed. The increased need for productivity and accountability, the looming retirement tsunami, the competition for knowledge workers, the need for better strategic HR management, and new legislation are all drivers for this change. But most importantly, people are looking for leadership.”
A common theme in the interviews was, “speaking truth to power” and its importance for measuring the health of an organization. Another theme was strong leadership to move the federal public service away from reliance on traditional command and control to more flexible and nimble operating systems. It would be trite to say that little has changed in this discussion in 2014.
Linda Duxbury, a professor at the Sprott School of Business, has argued that aside from leadership and systems, “government is going to have a problem with succession planning for a simple reason: many younger people do not want a job in the public service.” Overworked executives, little say in public policy, and poor work-life balance were cited as contributing reasons as to why younger generations are staying away.
Duxbury’s thoughts have been repeated many times since 2006, including a recent article in Maclean’s magazine noting that “generation Z” is highly educated and less tolerant of hierarchy and traditional command and control. They are highly adaptable to their environments, and want to see positive change in society that is tangible. They do not respect empty promises and misguided solutions from reactive systems and unqualified managers.
A long journey
Public bureaucracies have been facing these and other major questions for a long time. In fact, since 1870, there have been 19 federal administrative reform efforts, where 16 of these up to 1982 were public consultations through vehicles such as royal commissions, white papers, and legislative change.
Reforms tackled big questions of patronage, collective bargaining, employment equity, official languages, access to information, and financial planning and reporting. The changes from these systems are detectable and measurable through not simply rules and oversight, but cultural and behavioural norms. They are valued by the organization, and have been maintained although with varied commitment.
Since1982, Canada has abandoned large public vehicles of consultations and followed a more risky route of reform: efforts led by Clerks of the Privy Council. Such reform efforts include PS2000 initiated in 1989, followed by La Relève in 1999, and now Blueprint 2020 (2013-2014).
Each promised in its own way to “renew the public service of Canada, and equip public servants for the 21st century” (PS2000), or to “create a learning organization” (La Relève), or to “revitalize the Public Service” (Blueprint 2020). Some have led to lasting changes while others, including the recent Blueprint exercise appear to have seen few results.
PS2000 looked for innovative ways to encourage efficiency and improve program delivery by bolstering service delivery to Canadians, and reforming internal employment and personnel regimes. There were some measurable successes including moving to single operating budgets for departments, de-layering management structures, creating special operating agencies (with some limited successes), improving HR systems (learning systems), and expanding employee mobility. In addition, it sought to move from an administrative culture to a service culture, the effects of which are being felt increasingly.
Although PS2000 was regarded by many at the time to have failed in its objectives, the fact is that several of the initiatives have survived in limited ways to the present day. A good part of this success can be afforded to then-Clerk of the Privy Council, Paul Tellier. His will and determination drove the process, although he was criticized for a top-down process that ignored middle managers, employees and unions.
In hindsight, given the very difficult fiscal environment, and an aggressive reorganization process in 1993, it is difficult to see how PS2000 could have played out differently. Unlike the Next Steps Initiative in the U.K. or the Reshaping Public Service Initiative in New Zealand, PS2000 enjoyed little prime ministerial and ministerial support. The effort rested almost exclusively on the shoulders of the Clerk.
With a new government in 1993, PS2000 was relegated to a minor process, giving way instead to Program Review, a significant cost-cutting exercise announced in February 1995. Spending cuts of 20 percent or more for some departments, and overall staffing reductions of 45,000 meant that HR reforms were no longer a priority. With this process completed in the late 1990s, room was made for another reform effort under another capable Clerk, Jocelyn Bourgon.
In 1997, she diagnosed the travails of the federal public service in familiar ways: high workplace stress and workloads, an exodus of experienced senior managers due to under-utilized talents, shortages of qualified people in non-traditional jobs as well as scientific and professional categories, low morale due to negative perceptions of public servants largely imposed by ministers and the media, protracted salary freezes, and lack of opportunities to gain experience or access training.
La Relève was established, therefore, to address specific issues: better recruitment and retention, revising compensation for executives, creating a universal classification system (which ultimately failed, again), devolving staffing authorities (largely successful), strengthening internal recognition systems (successful), negotiating collective agreements and improving union relationships (mixed successes), broadening the executive pool and feeder programs (successful for a while), and maintaining a dialogue on values (extending from the Tait Report on Values and Ethics – limited success).
Again, the story was a familiar one. Public service reform enjoyed little prime ministerial or ministerial support. In fact, ministers at the time perpetuated negative images of public servants as slothful and irresponsible with public funds.
La Relève attempted to “let the managers manage” as a way of improving flexibility and responsiveness to citizen needs, but such initiatives were met with reluctance on the part of the media and politicians. Cultural change processes without political support essentially failed.
With respect to leadership development, La Relève created a pool of pre-qualified ADMs, many of whom moved into the DM ranks. However, such initiatives were eventually scaled back in the 2000s.
The narrative repeats itself with the introduction of Blueprint 2020, led by Wayne Wouters, who recently retired as Clerk of the Privy Council. It follows on the heels of major cuts to programs and services beginning with the 2007 budget, ongoing strategic and operating reviews, and a vigorous HR reform agenda led by the Treasury Board. Morale is poor, secrecy is high, public servant advice is not sought nor wanted, and public servants are vilified openly in the media by prominent ministers.
There are four “guiding principles” to the Blueprint exercise: a “networked” work environment that extends beyond the public service into the wider community; a “whole of government” approach to service delivery; a workplace that implements new technologies effectively for the purposes of service delivery, data access and communication; and, a workforce that mobilizes its talent in the most effective way possible.
The Blueprint 2020 vision document asked for public servants’ feedback, which included questions such as: What does the vision mean for you? What will it take to make it a reality? And, what can you do to help achieve the vision?
Unlike previous exercises that provided a specific and measurable vision with identifiable projects, Blueprint 2020 is cast as a bottom-up exercise (learning supposedly from PS2000 and LaRelève). Its guiding principles and the vision document are full of positive and inspirational language, but they do not provide a clear path forward to meaningful reform. This is left up to employees to articulate with some guidance from deputies. What’s the strategic vision? Can one envision a large corporation like Coca Cola, Ford, TDCanada Trust, Bombardier, or SunCor relying on employees to develop its strategic vision? How is this somehow applicable in the public sector?
A reform initiative requires a clear narrative with tangible and measurable timelines and deliverables. For productive action to take place, leadership is essential. Roger Gill of the Durham Business School writes that strategic leadership is “showing the way through strategies, informed by shared values, in the pursuit of a vision or purpose.”
It also requires clear thinking, a sense of the whole, and a connection to people. In these regards, Ruth Hubbard and Gilles Paquet accuse the federal public service of a “decline in critical thinking” – an incredible indictment of public sector management. The sheer notion that such initiatives could be tried repeatedly with the expectation of any real and lasting effect appears counterintuitive, leaving one to conclude that these are nothing more than public relations exercises.
The fact is, sadly, that Clerk-led initiatives have shown little by way of lasting change. What has had effect is interventionist and non-consultative ministers, especially Treasury Board presidents, who have made bold changes to operating systems with little public service involvement in matters such as pay and compensation, sick days, pensions, leaves of absence, mobility, and programing. This is the only way our system seems to work at the moment.
Until the public service and ministers can work together toward common outcomes, this pattern is unlikely to change. We are left with cheerleading – something with which public servants are increasingly showing signs of fatigue.
And the question remains: is reform success a question of leadership, or the right mix of leadership? Going into the next election, citizens will be told about public service and program cuts, and balanced budgets, but bureaucratic reform won’t be detected on the electoral radar.