Peter Wallace has a tough task. As the new Secretary of the Cabinet, Head of the Ontario Public Service (OPS) and Clerk of the Executive Council, he took over in December as the province received a fiscal knuckle rapping and now faces a report recommending radical transformation to achieve cost savings. He spoke with editor-in-chief Toby Fyfe.
What do you see as core challenges facing you and the OPS today?
The core challenge is that of delivering high-quality public services in an environment of sustained fiscal constraint. Ontario is an advanced jurisdiction with very significant strengths in terms of a diversified economy, an educated workforce and a high quality of life. We invest significantly in our public services, which are in turn hugely valued by Ontarians.
However, we also live in a world of increasing economic competition and volatility. We need to understand that both the global economic crisis and slower growth in our economy have significant implications for government revenues and service affordability. These challenges are long-term and demand a serious response.
As a result, the OPS and our partners in the broader public service will need to focus on ensuring that public services are delivered efficiently and maintained on a fiscally sound and sustainable basis. We’re not alone in this – federal, other provincial, local and other jurisdictions around the world are facing these same challenges.
Some see the public sector as inefficient and unable to achieve results. What can it do to ensure results and maintain public confidence?
I’m not going to answer the question defensively. Public services aren’t an abstract concept, delivered by nameless, faceless bureaucracies. We’re talking about the investment in people and capital to deliver services that really matter to Ontarians – education through teachers, public safety through police and emergency workers and healthcare through doctors, nurses and other frontline providers.
We can take some initial comfort from the fact that Ontario’s public services are already relatively efficient – we spend less per capita than all but one other provincial jurisdiction in Canada. But we know that is still not good enough. Our own experience in the OPS tells us that there are pockets of inefficiency in every organization. And citizens have every right to be concerned about these and skeptical about our capacity to deliver.
This isn’t easy stuff to address. Driving productivity in any sector – public or private – is rarely straightforward. The status quo will always be a place of relative comfort. But in an environment of sustained fiscal constraint, clinging to current ways of doing business will necessarily reduce the effectiveness of public services and marginalize the roles of those who deliver them. The private sector provides many models for more effective investment and delivery. Other governments in Canada and internationally are also pointing to ways of holding or reducing costs while maintaining strong outcomes. So Ontario’s public servants will continue to do what’s right – providing our best advice to government and ensuring effective delivery.
Will the OPS have to go through a culture change to get to where it needs to be?
Of course. I accept that culture change is important for every organization, private or public, that needs to improve efficiency and outcomes. I am proud of the ability of public servants to embrace the drive for real change. The reality is that the OPS of today is vastly different than that of 15 or 20 years ago. As always, however, there are still huge opportunities to reduce barriers, communicate better and ensure that services are client-centred and deliver real value for money.
Is the private sector a model for a future OPS?
The OPS must be open to drawing the best we can from other models, including those from the private sector. Many of our strongest partnerships and most successful change initiatives have been based on interactions with private sector leaders. We will also continue to gain knowledge from the efforts of our colleagues in other provinces, at the federal level and the municipal level. We can also benefit from looking at what’s worked well in our own experience – Service Ontario comes to mind – and exploring how to draw additional value from those approaches.
The OPS is known as one of Canada’s best employers. How will you reassure its people and maintain its quality over the next few years?
Let’s remember that we’re not the only organization that has gone through change, and we have a history of adjusting to change. I’ll be quite frank here: we have a strong management team of dedicated leaders and a strong tradition of adaptation. We know what drives this. If we refuse to change, refuse to acknowledge new realities, we will be justifiably left behind. By adopting change, by embracing it, we will minimize disruption and preserve the services that we care about.
It is self-defeating to get up every morning only to do the same thing every day. What we do get up in the morning to do is deliver services that matter and to create and implement the policies that are important to achieve results.
What’s your management style?
I think it is inclusive. I’m used to drawing from the strength and diversity of the people around me. I think it’s incredibly important to reflect on the experiences of the management team and to take those into the decision-making process. Along with inclusiveness, I believe we need to develop an atmosphere of trust and collegiality. We fundamentally need to pursue teamwork, focused on outcomes. All those things are incredibly important to me.