Allan Seckel joined the British Columbia public service in 2003 after a career in civil litigation and class action practice and was recently named Deputy Minister to the Premier and Cabinet Secretary after serving as Deputy Attorney General for the province. He takes over the position as the B.C. government celebrates progress in public service renewal and improved service delivery, yet faces challenges as budgets tighten. In this interview with editor Toby Fyfe, he explains that he intends to continue moving forward on renewal and service transformation and discusses his views on leadership and trust.
What are your three priorities?
My predecessor, Jessica McDonald, launched our public service renewal initiative under the banner of “Being the Best.” Jessica succeeded in leading us to be one of Canada’s Top 100 employers. My first goal is to build on her success, to continue to focus on improving employee engagement. I know that’s going to be a challenge in this economic environment, but we can’t really waiver in our commitment to that goal.
The second priority is to take the approach that Jessica adopted for public service renewal and apply it to the question of how government uses technology. Just as public service renewal was a plan for our workforce, we need to create a plan for technology and transformation that addresses how we will work in the future. The same demographic challenges that caused us to focus on the HR side of the public service also require us to think of the tools we use to provide government services. This will be a parallel track to the public service renewal initiative, and I think that it can be a further source of engagement as we focus on the workplace and the tools we have to work with. We hope to deliver a first iteration of such a plan later this year.
My third priority is to build trust within the public service, not just externally but internally. I believe that trust is among the greatest motivators. It is especially important in large organizations where there is really no one person who can follow every issue, every transaction. This can be an especially difficult thing in government, as government lives with a level of scrutiny that no private sector organization ever has to face. So building trust is an important goal. And by that I mean not just trust in me, but trust throughout the organization.
Picking up on what you’ve said, you’re obviously building on the extended transformation that the B.C. public service has been going through. Does this mean the organization hasn’t moved as far as you would like and that more needs to be done to get there?
I can’t say it hasn’t moved as much as I would like, but I would say there is still room to improve. I think we have done a lot by focusing on the personnel side of the equation. It’s exactly the right choice when you are thinking about the future to focus first on your people, working on programs and policies that affect your employees and making sure people are engaged in their workplace. That gives you the solid foundation of an engaged workforce and lets you start to think of the other aspects of what the future will bring and what you think the future is going to look like.
For example, I think the future will require us to re-think how we deliver services to the public, partly because of the demographic changes, partly because I think the public is going to expect to engage with government differently. My own view is that so far we’ve focused on how to take things that government is already doing and make them more efficient through technology: you used to be able to fill out a form in paper, you can now fill out the same form online.
As the future unfolds, we’re going to have to think about whether we should do things completely differently with people and with technologies. Maybe you don’t need that process or that form at all. Or maybe there is some other way of doing that business. So some of the processes we have are going to need to be fundamentally different.
Have you had success using technology that way? Are there examples?
Yes. I come from the justice sector which successfully created and operates a case management system for criminal case processing and also has online court filing for civil cases. B.C. also has two very heavily used websites. One is DriveBC which offers information about road conditions. It’s the most visited government website. It’s a means by which people can interact and start to get information from government in a different way.
We also have something called GeoBC, which provides geographic data and pairs it with Google Earth to let you get online maps with the data. I could mention a number of other places where we have systems that work well in a particular sector. I think we have been quite innovative in dedicated applications. But these all exist in pockets within government. They are often great individually, but they are not connected. As a citizen or user you might have to login at 12 different places to get services from government, as opposed to being able to go to one place to get access to the services you need. So I think there’s a lot of work to be done to improve the customer experience.
You’re also head of the B.C. Public Service, and you’ve alluded to the fact that the organization is preparing itself for a human resources future with fewer public servants serving more people. You’ve had layoffs in the last while. How is this going to affect the service challenge you are referring to?
I think the challenge is to come up with a way of using technology appropriately. We’re not trying to displace employees so much as we’re trying to make sure we use employees at their highest talents. We want people to be doing work that is highly engaging as opposed to doing things that citizens would prefer to deal with using technology or the internet. There is always going to be a demand for highly engaged professional public servants to do the tasks that require us to have personal relationships with citizens. But there are also all kinds of transactional things where people just want to get something from government – whether it is their driver’s license or their CareCard – where we can find better ways to access those services. Or, where we’ve got them done well in isolation, of finding the ways of learning what we’ve done so we can provide that same experience across the various places where the public engages with us.
Describe your leadership style.
My preference is to rely on good people to do the job and not to micromanage them. What really good people want to have is a degree of autonomy. So the first goal is to make that work. I’m lucky to have inherited a team of really good people, and not just among deputy ministers, but generally speaking in the public service. I’ve been very impressed since I came to government with the extremely high quality of people who work very hard for the public service.
I think after that you have to create clear objectives so that people exercise autonomy in a way that meets the objectives of the government. It’s autonomy, not anarchy. Sometimes this can be hard in government because directions and expectations can seem to come from many different places. Part of the role for me and my fellow deputy ministers is to make sure we have clear goals on projects and clear operational objectives in clear HR, technology and business