The federal government, as the largest and most complex public service organization in Canada, has traditionally been quite active in attempting to improve how it manages and operates in order to deliver its myriad of programs and services as effectively and efficiently as possible. To its credit, it has over the years conducted a broad range of horizontal management reform initiatives across its many departments and agencies.
While reform initiatives – both IT and non-IT related – have been a constant feature of the government’s management agenda, they have seldom been fully successful. In the wake of the largely publicised problems faced by the new federal pay system (Phoenix), a broader look at the lessons from both the successes and failures of past initiatives would help the public service grasp how to achieve better results.
Repeated priorities and lessons
This has been done before. There are various studies that could help federal executives successfully avoid prior pitfalls. Past studies, audits and other publications may have differed in scope and approach, but there are typically many similarities and common trends in their observations that would benefit future endeavours. However, these similarities also suggest that the federal bureaucracy has not always been proficient at acquiring and making use of past lessons.
This is important in the context of the Association of Professional Executives’ 2017 “Executive Work and Health Survey,” which reported that a majority of executives thought that the uses of technology and management tools were problematic. Similarly, under the “BluePrint 2020” red tape reduction consultations, “employees reported difficulty getting clear directions, siloed information, and poor client service, as well as process overload and cumbersome technology.” (Clerk of the Privy Council’s 24th Annual Report, 2017).
These issues are in contrast with the government’s long-standing objectives. A comparative review of past priorities, such as those reflected in the Clerks’ Annual Reports of the last 20 years, presents almost identical concerns. For instance:
“We are removing unnecessary bureaucracy from our work processes with a focus on outcomes and accounting for results.” (Clerk’s 7th Annual Report, 2000)
“That is why unravelling the web of rules at both the public service and departmental levels must continue. … There is an ongoing need to improve our back office, including our financial and human resources systems as well as related business processes.” (Clerk’s 17th Annual Report, 2010).
The present clerk has also indicated that the public service needs to pick up the pace of its modernization plan (Ottawa Citizen, March 2016). It is also worthwhile to recall that, going further back, government renewal initiatives such as Increased Ministerial Authority and Accountability (1986) and Public Service 2000 (1990 White Paper) – to mention only two – advocated similar ideas.
Focus on key obstacles
Proper context is crucial, particularly since the Canadian public service is reportedly one of the best in the world, and past reform efforts have unquestionably yielded many valuable improvements over the years. Nonetheless, true headway in some areas appears beyond reach. The conundrum of public service renewals and reforms is the often repeated unsuccessful attempts to solve the same basic daunting issues. For many priorities, such as simplifying internal rules and processes, tangible results remain elusive and objective information on actual outcomes is rare.
To achieve better results on broad horizontal initiatives, this impasse of reforms’ repeated history needs to be viewed as a symptom of more fundamental and overarching obstacles ensuing from how the public service is governed and organised. As such, the government needs to give more attention to the reasons why the lessons of the past appear so difficult to assimilate, and what to do about them. This echoes the current auditor general: “But the real question for the government to think about is why do we keep finding and reporting serious problems, and why do incomprehensible failures still happen?” (Office of the Auditor General, News Release, May 2018).
In keeping with this broader perspective, two areas which present obstacles to better progress are summarized. These are far from the only areas with likely issues, but they have been raised often by different authors and exemplify where short-term remedies should be possible.
The Westminster model of government – including embedded principles of ministerial accountability and delegation of authority vertically within departments – generally does not by itself easily supports the management of initiatives across departments. Additional structures and mechanisms are normally required to provide proper governance, oversight and coordination, but too often these can be insufficient for a number of reasons.
The distinct notions of governance and management within the public service are frequently blurred, and governance is too often used to refer to what are essentially management functions and activities. Unlike the private sector with dedicated boards of directors, subject to some exceptions there are generally no independent governing bodies regularly overseeing the management of departments or government-wide projects.
The Treasury Board (TB) – the Government’s management board – is limited in its regular oversight of individual departments or major initiatives, mainly because of its central role and the large number of departments and agencies under its purview. Further muddying the issue, deputy ministers’ accountabilities are complex and varied, including to their ministers, the clerk, the prime minister, the Public Service Commission, as well as to TB.
Governance findings and issues pertaining to senior roles and responsibilities are very often identified in studies and audits of management reforms. The federal government is complex and the explicit roles and responsibilities of its various actors are not always sufficiently well defined to avoid gaps and overlaps (e.g. deputy ministers, lead departments, central agencies, functional leads such as chief HR officer, CIO, comptroller general and others).
While governance changes are complex and require cautious consideration, timely actions to enhance oversight and coordination of reforms would be to better clarify the roles and responsibilities of key players, and to ensure there are very senior, independent and well-supported oversight committees reporting directly to the responsible deputy minister(s).
Strengthen senior capacity
The capacity and competencies of senior federal executives – essentially deputy ministers (DMs), associate DMs and assistant DMs (ADMs) – is another example where benefits could be readily harvested. There are two underlying difficulties frequently identified.
First, in the context of initiatives that can span many years, senior executives on average rotate jobs too often and don’t stay on long enough to see important projects through to completion and ensure success. This high turnover and churn is often critiqued as the consequence of a culture that prioritizes career advancement over competencies and results. One study described this as the “merry-go-round of senior executives … without concern for their specific capacities to deal with the different circumstances ….” (Hubbard and Paquet, 2014). Among others, the Prime Minister’s Advisory Committee on the Public Service also voiced the concern a number of years ago (Clerk’s 17th Annual Report, Annex E, 2010).
Second, the current over-emphasis on generic leadership competencies for executives does not help ensure that incumbents have all the necessary expertise required by senior executive positions. The six prescribed key leadership competencies (Create vision and strategy, Mobilize people, Uphold integrity and respect, Collaborate with partners and stakeholders, Promote Innovation and guide change, and Achieve results – Treasury Board Secretariat; The Key leadership competency profile) while certainly desirable, are not by themselves sufficient and cannot replace specialised knowledge, expertise and experience required by specific responsibilities. An in-depth study of ADMs reported that:
“… the Public Service has moved too far in recent years towards ‘generic’ managers and that greater emphasis and value should be placed in the future on ADMs having strong knowledge and expertise in the content of their area of responsibility …. This should be understood to be part‐and‐parcel of having a professional Public Service, led by senior people who are themselves professionals in their own areas.” (Lahey and Goldenberg, 2014).
As an important related factor, it is not always clear what are the consequences for senior executives when flagrant poor performance or failures occur. While often difficult to clearly distinguish the diverse responsibilities for horizontal initiatives, the lack of clear accountability for poor results risks undermining the need for executives to have the required expertise to begin with, and thus to ensure effective capacity in the senior ranks.
These issues could be largely addressed by increasing the terms of office of senior executive and better emphasizing specialized expertise and competencies in staffing executive positions. This would go a long way to improve the capacity of the public service to deal with government-wide initiatives and daunting issues.
In the wake of difficult and recurring problems, prompt action is needed to improve the capacity of the public service to deal with persistent reform challenges. As a starting point, a more structured examination of the reasons why past lessons are not more readily assimilated would help to better identify and address systemic obstacles to better governance and results.