Communication
May 7, 2012

Too many misperceptions

CGE Vol.14 No.3 March 2008

Kevin Lynch is Clerk of the Privy Council, Secretary to the Cabinet, and Head of the Public Service, the largest and most diverse organization in the country. On February 18 in Vancouver, he reached out for the first time through a “town hall” meeting to public servants, and through them to the nation, in a speech that we think is worth carrying here, in its entirety.

One of the great privileges of being Clerk is having the opportunity to meet with public servants all across our amazing country, hear about what you do and why it matters, see first-hand your commitment to this work, and feel your pride in public service.

Let me start by quoting Thomas Friedman (The Lexus and the Olive Tree; The World is Flat): “…in the globalization system…one of the most important and enduring competitive advantages that a country can have today is a lean, effective, honest civil service.” He was articulating what extensive research by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund has confirmed, that there is a strong correlation between a country’s competitiveness and prosperity and the quality of its public sector. Further, this correlation holds whether the country is developing or developed; poor or rich; African or Asian or European or Western Hemisphere. In short, what you do, delivering public services, matters, and how you do it, matters even more.

I believe Canada has long been well served by a non-partisan, professional, competent public service. Yet, today, there seems to be increasing scepticism and negative rhetoric towards our public institutions in Canada. And this includes the public service.

Criticism of the public service is not new, and it is not always without merit. Healthy institutions respond well to constructive criticism; dynamic organizations look forward not backwards. But, I fear that we have allowed some misperceptions about the public service, from both inside and outside the public service, to go unchallenged too long.

I would like to share with you my list of the “top misperceptions of the public service.” In each, there is a kernel of truth in the misperception, but we are all too quick to accept that the kernel is the whole story. For each, there are numerous public service “experts” who strenuously advance their individual views as articles of public faith. With each, the reality is a more nuanced and complex story, one based on a public service that is neither perfect nor broken, one strongly rooted in public service values, and one, like the rest of Canada, under constant pressure to adapt to an ever-changing world.

1.     The public service is broken, merely a pale shadow of its former self
Misperception number one is that the public service today is broken, that it is merely a pale shadow of its former self. There are a number of different perspectives contributing to this notion.

Many in the public at large, inundated with mistakes and worse identified by the Gomery Commission, the Auditor General, parliamentary committees and journalists, have understandably generalized their legitimate concerns to the public service as a whole, and become sceptical or worse. Some observers dismissively see the public service today as “the permanent custodian of perpetual problems,” a bureaucratic version of the movie Groundhog Day, rather than a source of new ideas, fresh perspectives and energy to deal with today’s challenges. There are some former colleagues who remember wistfully a realm of mandarins striding mightily across the land, and now perceive a domain of bureaucrats organizing interdepartmental meetings from sea to sea to sea. And some public sector commentators engage in existential hand wringing that does little beyond depressing morale within the public service and depressing confidence about it without.

The public service cannot be error free, no large organization can. We will make mistakes, be accountable for them and learn from them. We will also provide consistently good public services, day in and day out, to millions of Canadians, and occasionally do amazing things. However, we need to do a better job at explaining the breadth and scope and importance of the work public servants do.

The reality is that the public service of today is Canada’s largest, most complex institution, with over 250,000 employees, more “lines of business” than any Canadian private sector organization, more “points of service,” both nationally and internationally, and ongoing pressures to revamp our “product lines” in response to the demands of a changing world.

For example, in the post 9-11 world, the public service has shifted towards strengthened border security, transportation security, national security, Arctic sovereignty and support for our active military engagement in Afghanistan. In response to pressures of globalization, the public service has helped governments achieve 11 consecutive years of fiscal surpluses, steady and low inflation, corporate taxes that are very competitive with our major trading partners, and infrastructure modernization. Innovations in research funding, long-term fiscal support for health care and new, tax-based supports for low income families have re-invigorated university-led research in Canada, strengthened our health care system and made appreciable progress on child poverty alleviation. Service quality standards, with measureable and transparent tracking, have been established in a number of areas and the results are encouraging. And the list goes on, as do the challenges.

Unfortunately, this reality is not well known. There persists in Canada an all-too-common notion that nothing significant ever changes in public policy, that the public service is more obsessed with process than results, that economically Canada is continually falling behind other nations. But this myth simply does not square with the remarkable transformations in Canada over the last 20 years, and the public service figured importantly in these transformations. This public service is certainly different today, and needs to be, because the times have changed, Canadian society has changed, the public policy “tool kit” has changed, and public expectations for government have changed, including more accountability processes.

2.     There is actually nothing much wrong with the public service – we don’t need renewal
Misperception number two is almost the mirror image: there is actually nothing much wrong with the public service, and a concerted focus on renewal is unnecessary. While the status quo has an undeniable allure in any large organization, the reality of public service demographics means that massive change is inevitable, and our stark choice is between “muddling though,” with real risks for the quality of the public service, or “managing for renewal.”

Within the public service, some would argue that we have experienced renewal exercises with depressing regularity over the decades, with little to show for the efforts. Others would point out that the threat of a massive departure of the Baby Boomer generation has figured prominently in public service reform rhetoric for over a decade, and still does. Still others, while accepting that generational change is finally coming, would sanguinely assert that a business-as-usual approach is more than adequate.

The public service today is entering the third major renewal period in

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