Destination 2020, a groundbreaking report released in May, is the result of the most extensive public service consultation process ever about the future of the Public Service of Canada. At the head of this huge transformation is Wayne Wouters, Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to Cabinet, who took the necessary risk to pursue this project, his sights clearly set on a vision of an effective public service for the 21st century.
One of the cherished pastimes around the virtual water coolers of informal public service Ottawa is not only musing about the future, but also talking about leadership and the decisions of the institution’s executives. This article looks more closely at Wouters, his background, his emergence as the leader of the public service and his interface with the government of the day.
Water cooler discussions are fueled by many things: some knowledge, plain old gossip and former actors in the broader public service governance space. From time to time, the headlines flare with criticism because, after all, praise or congratulatory epistles rarely sell more papers or fuel the gossip mill in the same way.
Of course, the people who have held the most senior jobs are extremely rare to contribute. Therefore, public commentary comes from those who may not have the experience or knowledge to see matters from the many perspectives at the centre and top of the system: the need for balance; the need for necessary debate which must remain behind closed doors; the accommodations that cannot be seen from the outside. The result can be the fashioning of facile solutions that do not address the force field or the real problems.
A crucial partnership
To describe Wayne Wouters’ journey, we have to begin by acknowledging that this journey is in part directed by another very significant leader, the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper. Without the mutual respect and understanding by these two Westerners of each other’s roles and the institutions that each heads, there can be no sustained progress for either Canada or its public service.
A prime minister, on his best days, is the guardian and steward of the country’s prosperity, humanity and resilience. He holds those values close to him as he leads a government on behalf of Canadians. The Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet is head, guardian and steward of a vital national institution that contributes to supporting the agenda of the government of the day. He ensures that the values of the public service, including stewardship, excellence and integrity, are honoured and oversees the non-partisan institution as it strives to protect Canada’s national interest while maintaining its relevance.
The relationship between these two leaders, their mutual respect and understanding, and how they work together is critical both to the nation and to the public service.
There is no question that the nine-year relationship between this government and the public service has seen some turbulent times. The change in government in 2006 brought to Ottawa new political leaders who were not well acquainted with the federal public service. As a group, they had a more direct manner of speaking their minds. They felt at a distance from the traditional Ottawa establishment and were therefore suspicious of it.
While discussions will continue on whether the government is respectful or disrespectful, trusting or not, of the public service, the reality is that the whole public environment has changed. In some ways, if the government of the day seems impatient, it is reflecting the views of Canadians as a whole. Therefore, the choice open to the two leaders was to determine whether they would be combatants or partners, bridging or fighting the realities they represent.
Developing the skills
Wayne Wouters began his career in the public service in Saskatchewan in 1977. His experience with a new provincial government, which fired the senior ranks of the public service, left a lasting impression. In 1982 he joined the federal public service, working on energy policy reform. He was part of the team that was asked to unwind the provisions of the National Energy Program (NEP). In his late 30’s, he worked on major projects like Hibernia, the Husky Oil Upgrader and various oil sands projects. As a new executive he supported Progressive Conservative Cabinet member Don Mazankowski’s energy committee, developing strategies and working with provincial governments and oil companies to negotiate loan guarantees and other financial instruments.
As a more seasoned executive at the Department of Finance, he worked on major economic development issues. He then moved to the Privy Council Office to work on issues associated with the closure of the Northern Cod Fishery and its impact on the Newfoundland economy and was quickly promoted to manage Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s deficit reduction process, Program Review.
As Deputy Secretary, Plans and Consultation, Wouters sat in a very interesting position during Canada’s last referendum, a sobering time for the government and the nation. His first deputy appointment took him to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans where he oversaw the implementation of the Marshall decision by the Supreme Court of Canada, introduced eco-system management through the Oceans Act, and changed the culture of a department constantly in crisis mode.
As the Deputy Minister of Human Resources Development Canada, Wouters got firsthand experience in social policy and a look at the huge scope of government. He took a social policy department and gave it greater economic emphasis. As a very large operational department of government delivering services to millions of Canadians, he came to understand the need for enterprise-wide solutions, the modernization of government infrastructure, and the need to transform public service culture. With the launch of Service Canada, he was directly implicated in the early days in many of the issues he would champion as the Secretary of the Treasury Board.
At Treasury Board, learning from private sector management regimes, he experimented more broadly with the concept of shared services with both pension and pay modernization reform. His time at Treasury Board also defined the Harper government’s relationship with the public service. The public service was struggling to adjust to the new relationship and new ways of doing business, which put pressure on the institution.
Through daily interactions and the passage of the Accountability Act, relationships were built between the President of the Treasury Board, senior Cabinet members and the Prime Minister himself. The focus of the Treasury Board soon passed to the government’s key priority of assessing existing spending, the development of a new expenditure management system and a systematic review of programs. All of these interactions allowed Wouters to build key relationships with the Prime Minister, with the Cabinet and with the public service.
Putting skills into practice
And then on July 1, 2009, Stephen Harper appointed Wouters as the Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet. Hugh Winsor, writing in the Queen’s University Alumni Review in 2010 (Wouters’ received his Masters Degree in Economics at Queens), noted that with this appointment the Prime Minister was signaling that “there is a new style of doing the public’s business at the command centre in Ottawa, consensus builders can replace command and control Martinets; thoughtful pragmatists can survive in the political cauldron….”
As the new Clerk, Wouters could have taken the public service in many directions. He chose to rise to the challenge by recognizing the somewhat strained relationships and by doing what he is best at, thoughtfully and persistently building bridges between those who must work as one in the public interest. With the Prime Minister’s public support, he chose a path of reenergizing the public service and channeling its leadership toward transformation and modernization of the institution supported with the necessary infrastructure and tools to serve Canadians and the government. He has not ducked the challenges, nor has he focused on confrontation.
To everything there is a season, and this is the time when both major players seem to have understood that they depend on each other to fashion a modern, resilient and agile public service that supports a modern nation in achieving its place on the global stage. And so, in Wouters’ time at the PCO, his greatest skill as head of the public service may well turn out to be his capacity to get the Prime Minister on side and work with him on issues having to do with the role of the public service, the size of the workforce, and changing the business model of government. This bridge to the future began when he launched the Administrative Services Review. The review looked for government-wide opportunities to consolidate and standardize government operations and led, among other things, to the creation of Shared Services Canada.
Wouters’ ability to work closely with the Prime Minister has manifested itself in other areas than public service renewal, however important that may be. He used his position as Clerk, working with colleagues such as the deputy minister of Finance, to support the government’s economic goals, ensuring the development of five successive budgets that kept Canada out of recession and brought the government back into surplus. His support and advice was critical to the finalization of a number of bilateral trade agreements, including the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with the European Union and the Canada-Korea Free Trade Agreement.
He was also involved in another prime ministerial concern, relations with First Nations.
Through Blueprint 2020, Wouters is moving the public service into unchartered waters. Responding to criticism that the public service is too focused on the short term, he is using it to promote a longer term view of policy, program development and service delivery. He is staking the future on the belief that the leadership – at all levels of the largest employer and most diverse workforce in the country, operating in very complex domains – is up to the challenge.
The Prime Minister and the Prime Ministers’ Advisory Committee on the Public Service, until recently chaired by David Emerson, are supportive and aligned to the challenge. The call to arms in the Blueprint 2020 exercise has been launched against a backdrop of cynicism, cost reduction, and a drive to operational efficiency. This renewal starts at a time when the same sort of efforts at transformation are being led by public services around the world. Blueprint 2020 fundamentally recognizes that existing policies, tools and processes no longer fit the needs of today.
The issues of engagement, culture, agility and relevance are at the heart of this renewal. There is a profound recognition, which the cynics missed in the early days, that reforming public service is a team sport where every player must be called upon to be a leader, where every step, big and small, will add up to change. With the public service going through a transformation, the need for broad engagement is fundamental. That is the engagement that Wouters, as head of the public service, has unleashed in Blueprint 2020. Over 100,000 public servants from 85 different departments and agencies have participated in this dialogue.
With the release of Destination 2020, the call to action is clear and the momentum continues. Social media, along with the openness of spirit and engagement with which Wouters has launched this dialogue on collaboration, innovation and modernization, is unprecedented in the history of public service reform. The engagement at so many different levels of the organization will ensure that the momentum will not end with the “tabling” of this living, crowd-sourced document.
To come full circle, two unlikely partners – Stephen Harper and Wayne Wouters – picked each other to work together in support of the public interest. Each is working to reshape his own sphere. There is no question that tough conversations occur – as they must – behind closed doors. What will be accomplished is a modern, relevant public service better able to serve Canadians.