Pick an adjective to describe leadership in the public service today. Challenging? Frustrating? Impossible? Or how about “rewarding”?
The latter is actually what we most often heard when interviewing senior public servants for one of our latest studies: Ten Tough Jobs 2010. Updating a report published by the Public Policy Forum several years ago, we took a fresh look at the nature of leadership in the public service, profiling 10 positions across the federal government, mostly at the assistant deputy minister-level. We view these as exemplars of the kind of leadership jobs near the very top of the public service today. And we decided to stick with the word “tough.”
Why a fresh look? Today’s reality includes new accountabilities, an impulse toward greater transparency, an extended period of minority governments and sweeping generational change. All of which prompted us to ask a number of important questions, including: What are the leadership attributes required to be successful in the federal public service? Are they changing? If so, how? And what are the implications for public service management?
Predictably, we found that several elements of leadership remain the same today as in the past. Strong leaders must inspire. They must provide clear direction and vision. They must see the big picture and make solid strategic decisions. They must be strong communicators and build effective relationships. And they must be good managers of dollars, people, process and information. These core attributes are important for all leaders regardless of sector – and they’ve stood the test of time.
There are, however, some important differences facing today’s public service. With a greater emphasis on accountability and transparency, complexity has increased – on individual issues and in the relationships between issues. And there is now a greater focus on service delivery at the expense of policy development. While many of the resulting changes are positive, some have potentially negative consequences. These must be carefully managed to ensure that the public service contributes as effectively as possible in building and delivering strong government.
What follows are drivers and the resultant skills that are more valued today than previously.
First, a greater focus on accountability and transparency requires public service leaders to take into account and respond to a broader range of partnerships in the process of governance. This results in less time available to devote to primary goals and objectives. Accountability frameworks are important tools, but they’re insufficient to ensure strong public management. In designing these frameworks, senior public servants must also ensure that they’re aligning their resources and efforts behind the results that are most important. Doing this well often requires challenging trade-offs. While clear accountabilities are essential, there is a risk of developing too many rules and regulations, thereby reducing the focus on what’s most important.
Senior public servants must be careful not to go too far in compromising the outcomes of their work – “what they achieve” – in service of the process for obtaining them – “how those results are achieved.” They must also ensure that accountability, results and risk management frameworks are developed and used as management tools to drive better outcomes for citizens. Without a focus on strategic impact and organizational learning, these critical planning tools risk becoming processes and documents that merely explain and defend past actions.
Second, the increased complexity of individual issues, the relationships between them, and how the public service addresses them, require more of a focus on networks, relationship building and communications skills than in the past. While horizontal management can be important, senior leaders must pay adequate attention to issues that are germane to their own areas of responsibility. As one observer asked: “If deputies are now spending much of their time outside their department, who is looking after the department?”
The same question could be asked of other senior public servants. As issues become more complex, deep knowledge of them only grows in importance. Knowledge takes time to build. It also risks being lost as senior public servants retire in near record numbers. Public service leaders need time to develop a rich knowledge of their departments and issue areas in order to be able to deliver innovative policies and programs.
Finally, today’s greater focus on operations and service delivery demands stronger management skills than were previously required. Better service to Canadians and stronger internal management are positive trends that should be continued. Public service leaders must, however, continue to foster the policy skills which were once the trademark of most senior public servants.
Public servants across Canada have important roles to play in developing new ideas and providing well-informed policy options for governments. Continued focus on the policy dimension of leadership positions in the public service is critical to ensuring that fresh perspectives and comparative approaches continue to percolate within government. The 10 positions profiled in our new report show that balancing operational management and policy development is possible, although challenging.
The 10 tough jobs we profiled in our new study are extremely demanding positions, requiring extraordinarily talented individuals to do them well. They are also essential to our country and standard of living, providing Canadians with a comparative advantage of which we should be proud.
David Mitchell is the president & CEO of the Public Policy Forum. To read the full report, see www.ppforum.ca.
TEN TOUGH JOBS 2010
1.Regional Director General, Maritimes, Department of Fisheries and Oceans
2.Assistant Deputy Minister, Consular Services and Emergency Management,
Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade
3.Assistant Deputy Minister, First Nations & Inuit Health Branch, Health Canada
4.Assistant Deputy Minister, Human Resources Services Branch, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada
5.Senior Assistant Deputy Minister, Policy and Strategic Direction, Indian and
Northern Affairs Canada
6.Assistant Deputy Minister, Spectrum, Information, Technologies and Telecommunications, Industry Canada
7.Assistant Deputy Minister, Finance and Corporate Services, National Defense
8.Assistant Secretary to the Cabinet, Communications and Consultations Secretariat, Privy Council Office
9.Assistant Deputy Minister, Diseases and Emergency Preparedness, Public Health Agency of Canada
10.Assistant Secretary, Expenditure Management, Treasury Board Secretariat