Renewal
May 7, 2012

The Clerk’s campaign for cultural change

On March 31, the Clerk of the Privy Council Office submitted his most recent annual report to the Prime Minister on the state of the public service in Canada. This is Kevin Lynch’s fourth report since he assumed his duties as Clerk and it contains some interesting new features that are likely to become a template for subsequent reports.

Since the Clerk became the head of the federal public service 16 years ago, Lynch is the first to have explicitly made public service renewal his top management priority. He created a renewal secretariat and asked the Deputy Clerk of the Privy Council to make it her major responsibility.

Specifically, he has chosen to champion cultural change at a time when the public service is in a period of demographic transition and risk aversion. The report contains some interesting information about the state of the federal public service and it sheds light on the way in which deputy ministers’ performances are evaluated and in which the culture change agenda is anchored.  

The context is especially important – renewal will unfold along a parallel track with the government’s response to the economic and social crisis gripping the nation. This will mean that reform efforts will be shared among those activities directed to implementing the budget commitments.  

Of equal importance is the often reported widening rift between the senior ranks of the public service and the PMO, ministers and their staff. This is casting a long shadow over the renewal efforts by threatening to undermine the Clerk’s admonition that the deputy minister community take more measured risks and exercise greater control over the management of their departments.   

The report describes the accomplishments of the public service on the renewal agenda along the four pillars that were set out in earlier reports – planning, recruitment, employee development, and enabling infrastructure. 2008 was a very busy year. First, under the leadership of Tony Dean, the deputy minister community has been challenged to integrate their work with overall business planning. In terms of recruitment, more than 4,000 new public servants have been hired and many efforts have been launched to rebrand the federal public service. More than one million applications were received last year, suggesting that public service work is in vogue once again (even before the recession). With regards to learning, all employees have developed personal learning plans and there is an expectation that this will lead to better performance measurement and formal training.  

Finally, and most important, there was a significant readjustment of the human resource governance regime, doing away with the organizational changes introduced in 2003 and imposing a simpler structure which is integrated with the overall planning cycle managed in the Treasury Board. By lining up human resources with other forms of planning, it should contribute to a reduction in the “web of rules” and create explicit service standards for human resource management.

Lynch introduced two new elements in his report. First, he has included a scorecard on last year’s work. While it is not totally clear how the outcomes were measured, it is a significant first step in introducing a transparent accountability regime for subsequent reports. Second, he has peeled back the covers on one of the most confidential elements of public management, that is, the evaluation framework for deputy minister performance.  

2008 was a very important year in the current effort to renew the public service. Most significantly, the deputy minister community is now clearly in charge and accountable for human resources. Moreover, the February 2009 streamlining of the Public Service Agency demonstrates that the federal government recognized the need to align the work of the central agencies with the decentralizing intent of the 2003 Public Service Modernization Act. In other words, the reorganization recognizes “the central agencies must be unified and streamlined, modest in size and committed to providing guidance and frameworks that are enabling.”
 
However, there are still a number of important outstanding issues to achieve in order to secure the desired cultural change. In Our Iceberg is Melting the authors identify eight crucial steps for achieving lasting organizational change. One of them is empowering others to act in ways that support the desired cultural change. In this regard, Lynch has identified a number of communities that he wants to enlist as enablers of the change agenda. They are: the many functional communities (regulators, scientists), the national managers’ community, and regional federal councils. In particular, he has targeted the middle management cadre who has been identified in earlier research as the key “culture carriers.”  

As Lynch says, “renewal is a process of deliberate evolution and innovation that must continue, because no national institution can stay static and hope to succeed.” Given the responsibilities being placed on government today, it is especially important that governments recognize the importance of empowering those that interpret and foster cultural change.  

David Zussman holds the Jarislowsky Chair in Public Sector Management in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and at the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa (dzussman@uottawa.ca).

Editor’s Note: For the 16th annual Clerk’s report, see www.pco-bcp.gc.ca. Our June issue will include interviews with Michelle D’Auray, the new Chief Human Resource Officer, and Paul Tellier, co-chair of the Prime Minister’s Task Force on the Public Service.

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