Originally published in December 2010
Although we have much to be proud of, I’ve come to the conclusion that we’re missing a sense of pride and identity in the profession of public service in Canada. There is a distant connection to citizens, and the work culture has become more rules-based so that the public can see that the workforce has integrity. The public service needs to focus more on itself and its rich traditions, to find the meaning behind its fundamental importance in order to fuel pride and ensure a strong future.
As I look back over my career in the public service and think about the challenges that lie ahead, there are many that come to mind: the public service-political interface; balancing budgetary pressures and downsizing with looming retirements; the need to meet citizen expectations through new technologies; learning and applying lessons from public-private partnerships; and the profile of the public servant through social networking, to name a few.
Stepping back, however, there is an issue that is core to all of these that is much more profound than any other operational challenge. It is the fundamental meaning behind being a public servant in Canada, at any level of government, in any jurisdiction. It relates to the perception the public service has of itself as well as how it is viewed by the public it serves and the elected administrations it supports.
This is on my mind for many reasons. The past decade has been difficult for the public service in Canada. It has managed its way through negative controversy in the form of the Gomery inquiry, resulting in more rules meant to improve the public’s perception of its integrity. It has worked its way through downsizing and budget cuts at a time when its attention had been turned to renewal and transformation to get ready for a significant turnover in staff and citizen expectations of new and enhanced services.
At the same time, I have seen the dramatic rise in employee engagement, innovation, pride and performance that rises up in the public service when its fundamental importance is recognized and employees are encouraged to believe in the significance of their roles.
What do I mean by the “fundamental importance of the public service?” The relative stability of governance in Canada cocoons us into a permanent sense of security and therefore indifference toward our public service. The media and the public regularly call governments to task on issues relating to policy choices, the honouring of election commitments and, at times, questions of personal judgment. While the importance of monitoring and evaluating the performance of governments cannot be understated, it is a completely different context than that faced by many other countries in the world.
It is inconceivable to us in Canada that a military coup could topple the government, that fear of personal safety could stop one from casting a ballot, or that systemic corruption could pervade over widespread poverty and mortality. Because of this, it becomes hard to remember how important the role of the public service, and the values and code of ethics it performs under, truly is to the quality of life we all enjoy.
Even if it doesn’t seem apparent on a daily basis, every public servant is part of something larger than their own role. It matters that the public service ensures stability through the interregnum of an electoral period. It matters that the public service is responsive to the duly elected administration according to its priorities and decisions. It matters that the public service does not advocate policy positions, but rather provides informed and unbiased choices. It matters that it does not speak out publicly as the voice of government. And it matters that it continually strives to understand the changing needs of the public and the opportunities its jurisdiction has before it, to ensure program delivery achieves intended results.
The meaning of public service in Canada is no less than to protect and support our way of life. Ironically, the international community overwhelmingly recognizes Canada for the integrity and focused performance of its public service. Through the Institute of Public Administration of Canada (IPAC), current and former Canadian public servants are regularly called upon to advise on and design elements of governance to assist countries to move ahead with important reforms and levels of performance. Through involvement in these projects, public servants at all levels of government have an opportunity to experience the profound importance of solid public administration and the tenuous hold many countries have on the stability we take for granted.
If we lived in a country without political and social stability, the fundamental importance of the public service would be abundantly clear. But in Canada, our privileged circumstances have created an insular world without an accurate sense of context. In the absence of a shock to reorient ourselves, it seems we have been on a gradual slide into a world that has lost its awareness of the true state of our highly regarded professional public service.
The greatest challenge – and the greatest opportunity – before the Canadian public service today is to bring this meaning to the fore. While it may be ambitious to bring the day-to-day reality of the professional public servant into sharper focus for the public it serves, it is within reach for the public service to take a closer look at itself. At a time when demographic turnover, technology shifts and new partnerships all point to a modernization of the public service, our country needs a simultaneous renaissance – a deep dive back into the true meaning of being a public servant.
We must resist the ever-increasing rule-based working environment that attempts to codify appropriate behavior, classifying categories and levels of public servant and inevitably reinforcing the perception that the public service cannot be trusted to uphold its responsibilities without enforceable measures to “safeguard” its practice.
Instead, we need a consistent and credible leadership focus on public service values, bringing the rich traditions and the reasons behind them into meaningful focus. Values exemplified in the organization will thrive if they are showcased and celebrated. We have an opportunity to integrate professional standards – not just the what but the why and the how – into training, placements, promotions and recruitment. A work environment that accepts risk and the need to evolve, embracing change and new ways of operating is essential and can only be successful if the culture recognizes and promotes its underlying performance values.
There were two particular moments early on in my career that had a permanent influence on my outlook when I later had the privilege of being the Head of the Public Service in British Columbia. The first was when I was sworn into the organization and received an unexpectedly impassioned lecture on the burden I was about to carry in my career of service to the public of British Columbia. The second was when I joined IPAC and attended what was at that time a Victoria-based international committee that met to showcase the stories and projects of public servants working abroad. Both experiences affected me with a profound sense of the meaning of public service in Canada.
In my “retirement” from public service I have found my way back to IPAC and, through it, I continue to support professional public service in Canada and its impact around the world. In whatever is your way, see yourself as an individual who can contribute to the meaning of public service and the related impact it has on what it truly means to be a Canadian.
Jessica McDonald is a former Deputy Minister to the Premier, Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Public Service of British Columbia.