Wayne Wouters has been Secretary to Cabinet, Clerk of the Privy Council Office, and Head of the Public Service of Canada since last July. A veteran of the federal public service, he had been head of Treasury Board Secretariat immediately before, as well as Deputy Minister of Fisheries and Oceans. He recently spoke with Paul Crookall of CGE about his first few months as Clerk; excerpts from their conversation follow.
This is a big job; what are the main challenges in your work?
First of all, I would like to say how honoured I am to be asked to serve as Clerk. This is a fascinating role, one which I take on with pride. My primary objective is to ensure that the Public Service continues to serve Canadians with excellence, even as our environment becomes more complex.
The biggest challenge I have faced so far has been ensuring that the government’s overall agenda is moving forward. This has been a unique year in that we faced the most severe economic recession we’ve seen in many, many years. In response, the government had to move forward with its stimulus package, the Economic Action Plan. In retrospect, perhaps it was a smoother transition than it might have been – both for me and the agenda – because of the role I played as Secretary of the Treasury Board in coordinating approvals for the EAP-related plans and programs in early 2009.
So my first priority was advancing the economic plan and ensuring that it accomplishes what the government said it would achieve in a timely fashion. The first phase of this process was getting the approvals for the many new programs announced in Budget 2009. To this end, we did a lot of work streamlining both Cabinet and Treasury Board processes, and shortening the usual decision-making process by two to six months. This in itself is quite remarkable. In the second phase, we undertook appropriate negotiations with provinces and other stakeholders to facilitate rollout of the plan. Now, in the third and last phase, we continue to monitor implementation and make sure it’s having the intended impact on the economy.
In short, prior to the economic downturn, we were moving along in a steady state and then rather suddenly, the government had to respond to the crisis and it did – by designing, approving and implementing all these new programs in rapid response to an extremely challenging economic situation. As part of this effort, I believe that the public service has done an excellent job in supporting the government. Compared to many other countries, we feel we have well-achieved the objectives that were laid out.
Of course, it’s a two-year plan, so we’re going to have to continue to monitor and work on this. The government tabled four quarterly reports before Parliament. All of that work is being done, and we have put the information on the web so that Canadians can see how we’re doing.
That’s been a key priority. I work directly with the Prime Minister, who is analytical, hard working and has a solid understanding of Canada’s economic situation.
The second priority is public service renewal. This is an initiative that my predecessor, Kevin Lynch, launched and I am pleased to make it a priority of mine as well. We are making good progress; we also have some challenges, particularly with respect to managing the demographic changes impacting on organizations such as the public service.
To illustrate the scope of demographic changes that we are managing, consider the following. Over the past year, some 50 new ADMs have entered the system and we have appointed quite a large number of associates and deputies since I was named Clerk. We have a new Secretary of the Treasury Board, a new Deputy Minister of Finance, a new Chief Human Resources Officer and Comptroller General, and a new Deputy Minister of Public Safety, to name a few. That’s a lot of change, representing a major transformation in the ranks of the senior public service.
Within this context, I spend a lot of my time on the whole question of future leaders of the public service: ensuring we have a good cadre of ADMs, associates, and deputies; making sure we’ve got good talent management systems in place to identify future senior executives; ensuring succession planning; and, ensuring we can move forward on all of the other aspects of public service renewal, including recruitment and streamlining our human resources systems and structure at the centre.
And, renewal is about more than renewing the workforce. We must also renew the workplace, which is an area that I intend to focus on more in my tenure as Clerk. This involves renewing our back office, fostering innovation and embracing collaborative technology such as Web 2.0 in our workplaces. If we are going to nurture the next generation of leaders, we must also look at our work environment. We must ask ourselves whether the workplace and workspaces we have to offer – some of which are antiquated and out of date – have what it takes not only to interest recent grads but also to ensure the Government of Canada, as an employer, remains competitive.
Renewal has always been synonymous with excellence, because it is about finding new ways to deliver on the business of government and to better serve Canadians.
In short, as part of our renewal efforts, we need to ensure that the public service is an attractive, collaborative, innovative and creative place in which to work, learn, grow, experiment and take calculated risks.
Complementing this is good policy capacity – which is also a personal priority for me – and the ability to focus on the impact of public policy in the short, mid- and long-term. Clearly, the recession has required us to focus on the shorter term. However, I think we need to continue to look beyond the shorter term to the next four or five years. What kind of world is emerging? Where will Canada be positioned globally as a country in the emerging world order? What does it mean as we come out of the recession, what are the challenges for Canada moving forward? How is global governance evolving and how do we continue to play a valuable role in the world commensurate with our capacity and ability?
So, there is work that we are doing led by deputies looking beyond the immediate to the medium and longer term. Hopefully, coming out of that will be new policy ideas that will address some of our country’s future needs.
In our earlier interview (February 2006), you identified yourself as a policy wonk. You’ve certainly been involved in operations in this job. Ontario is using the term “polivery” which is policy and delivery together.
I have always been of the view that good policy and program development can be lost quickly if it isn’t implemented appropriately – the two have to go hand-in-hand. There’s no doubt about that.
Henry Mintzberg observed that the biggest problem in government is that policy makers are disconnected from frontline delivery, and don’t get field input. It’s more difficult to change it post facto.
We’ve kept policy and operations within the same departments, in contrast to, for example, Centre-Link in Australia where it is clearly a service delivery unit, and the policy for that agenda is set by a separate department. By contrast, we have tried to maintain the feedback loop between policy and delivery.
It seems we are in an age of all accountability all the time, and public servants, already risk averse, have become more so. At the same time, we hear from new pro