Rankings of public sector entities has been big trend for quite some time. We have global rankings of universities, rankings of hospitals, the PISA scores of secondary school systems and so on. But until now we have had no effective system ranking one nation’s civil service against that of another. While rankings are fraught with conceptual and methodological difficulties, they are undoubtedly popular – and those who do well in these rankings are quick to point to their results as proof of their excellence. Those at the bottom of the table either make excuses or just ignore the results.
While academics have long been interested in what makes for an effective public service, it has often been based on highly subjective and theoretical perspectives, which suggest that a good public service must include characteristics like autonomy from politicians, non-partisan staffing, a career structure, solid policy making capacity and so on. That is, we believed we knew how to build an effective public service, but it was always hard to find measures of the overall effectiveness. Until now.
The International Civil Service Effectiveness Index (InCiSE) recently released the first major comprehensive report that attempts to evaluate the effectiveness of a nation’s civil service based on a wide range of indicators and proxies. As it turned out, Canada ranked as the most effective public service in the world based on this compressive list of indicators.
An effective civil service has long been recognized as an important component of a nation’s overall prosperity and social progress. But what makes for effectiveness was difficult to pinpoint, and politicians of all stripes have wanted to introduce new measures that will ensure an effective public service. Indeed, public servants have endured a steady stream of new public management ideas, reforms, restructuring, and fads. However, what is clear from this report is that building an effective public service is a long-term endeavour focused on basic activities unique to the public service and not on superficial reforms to the managerial superstructure.
Given that Canada was ranked number one overall in this survey, one would have thought it would have been a cause of celebration, especially since this was a UK based report, from Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Public Policy and the prestigious UK based Institute for Government. It had no Canadian funding. The underwhelming response from most of the country is an indicator in itself of the problems associated with the perception of Canada’s public service that exists outside the public service community. While officials in Ottawa justifiably pointed to the report with pride, it will do nothing to change the perception that exists among most Canadians and many politicians. That is a much more difficult battle, but this report and those that will follow it in subsequent years provide a useful corrective to the false narrative around public service incompetence.
The report identifies two core components that it deems crucial to overall civil services effectiveness: how effective is the public service in delivering on its core functions, and what are the attributes which drive the way the core functions are delivered? These are seen as the “what” and the “how” of public service effectiveness.
The authors of this report have chosen three types of core functions that measure civil service effectiveness. These are the central executive functions for ministers and which are felt by citizens. Included in this list are things like policy making, fiscal management, regulation and crisis/risk management. The next core function is service delivery, in which the public service interacts directly with citizens in areas such as taxes, social services, and digital services. The third is the mission support functions that help the public service do its job, such as financial and human resource management, information technology, and procurement. The report looks at each country’s delivery of these functions and measures how well the civil service delivers its core activities.
The next set of measures includes the attributes, which the report refers to as the “underlying set of behavioural characteristics or traits which are important drivers of how efficiently core functions are delivered.” This includes things like openness, integrity and inclusiveness, which should apply to all aspects of the civil service and not just to core functions. How well a country develops these attributes is understood by the authors of this report to be the key to measuring their civil service’s overall effectiveness.
As noted, Canada emerged as the most effective public service in the world, but if we dig a bit deeper we can see why Canada does well, and what the federal public service will need to do to maintain its high rankings. In the area of core functions, Canada had good rankings in most areas, but was strongest in the areas of human resource management. Canada’s strength in this area is not due to its ability to attract and retain talent, but rather rests on the skills and merits of those who enter the public service. Canada has the best-educated public service in the world, and that helps overall effectiveness. Another core function that Canada did well in was regulation based on our ability to engage in impact assessments and stakeholder engagement around regulations. We ranked fifth in the area of public policy, which is based on the quality of policy advice, particularly if it is evidence based and on the quality of policy coordination across government, an area of ongoing concern of the federal public service.
Yet where Canada really excelled was in the second area, the so called behavioral attributes, and it was our performance in this area that made us the most effective public service in the world. Canada appeared in the top five in four of the five attributes. Canada ranked fourth in the area of integrity, which covers six dimensions including corruption perceptions, adherence to rules and procedures, work ethic, fairness and impartiality and proxies that protect integrity and prevent conflicts of interest. In many ways, this is not a surprise, but ironically a number of the new policies and agencies that are in place to ensure integrity have emerged only due to scandals that have rocked the public service in the past.
Canada also scored well in the area of inclusiveness, which includes the role of women and the representation of ethnic and religious monitories in the public service. Again, these have been long-term themes within the Canadian public service, which has strong systems of reporting on these goals and robust measures that permeate the public service. The other attribute Canada scored well in was capabilities, which measures such things as problem solving, numeracy and literacy skills, and the overall educational attainment of the workforce, which again reflects the large number of post-secondary degree holders in the Canadian public service.
As a result of a strong position in both core function areas and especially behavioural attributes, Canada was ranked as the most effective public service in the world. But this does not mean that there are not areas that could be easily improved. The report suggests that improvements could be made in the area of tax collection, with more use of digital processes for tax administration, bringing Canada in line with other countries. The report also notes that Canada needs to improve in the area of openness and could do a much better job in the area of access and availability of information to the public, something advocates and commissioners have been complaining about for far too long in Canada.
While many of those involved in studying the Canadian public service have long seen it as being effective, it is good to find independent assurances that we were not just making it up. That does not mean it will remain this way forever, and bad decisions can always get in the way of effectiveness. Yet there is good news about the resilience of the public service in the face of an indifferent public and hostile politicians. Canada has clearly entrenched many of the key features around its human resource system, integrity offices, conflict of interest rules, representative public service, etc., all of which will provide a solid base for ongoing effectiveness.
Canada, according to this report, has a strong and effective public service that appears quite able to manage, adapt and develop while attracting excellent talent in all categories. This is a cause for some celebration. But in keeping in the characteristic modest approach that most public servants take to their role, it is best that we don’t make too much of this and continue to work on the primary job of delivery services to citizens, while making incremental improvements. This, however, stand as a great reminder for the next set of politicians who want to reform the public service. What will make the public service effective is not the next private sector management fad, but a sustained focus on the continuous strengthening of its underlying structure and characteristics. The issue is not more management, but rather more public service. Now that is a message worth spreading.