Opinion
May 7, 2012

Unprecedented collaboration needs broader participation

After years of attacking waste and piling new administrative rules on top of old ones, the federal government is now trying to peel back the restrictive “web of rules” that it has woven into the management fabric in the post Gomery era. Under pressure from outside watchdog organizations and inside senior managers, the Treasury Board is making a concerted effort to strike a better balance between enhanced accountability and service to its client groups.  

In an unprecedented expression of collaboration, Wayne Wouters, the Secretary of the Treasury Board, and Sheila Fraser, the Auditor of General of Canada, co-chaired a conference in November on innovation, risk and control. This one day, invitation only, conference was held under the auspices of the Canadian Comprehensive Audit Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to building knowledge for meaningful accountability and effective governance. It served as the first step in altering the current trajectory of increased oversight and rule-bound management in the federal government.  

In his opening remarks, Wouters stated that the objective of the conference was to find ways of “cutting back on rules and processes, as well as encouraging innovation and intelligent risk-taking in our organizations.” His comments were echoed by Fraser who offered that the Office of the Auditor General also wanted to change its way of operating to help the Treasury Board build a more innovative and creative work place.  

The long-term objective is to attain an appropriate balance between “the endless tension of consistency and central control, on the one hand, and flexibility and ‘let the managers manage’ on the other.” This is a dynamic process of searching for a point of equilibrium where the politicians, the public and the auditors are all satisfied with the level of risk being taken by the government.

This new “rapprochement” between the government’s auditor and the central administration illustrates how much of a burden the web of rules has become. At this crucial time, where citizens are demanding greater accountability, improved services, more openness and results from government, the mounting evidence is that current administrative systems are outdated, organizations are bogged down by rules that have created onerous reporting regimes and, most of all, have discouraged any creativity and innovation in delivering services to Canadians.

Dismantling the excessive rule structure is especially important now because public policy problems are more complex, interrelated and expensive than ever before.

“The bottom line is that the so-called web of rules threatens both responsible management and effective program delivery. It stifles innovation, drains scarce public resources and hinders us from delivering results to Canadians.”

At the conclusion of the conference, several concrete suggestions were proposed:

  • Scale back the volume of unnecessary rules, processes and reporting requirements in central agencies and departments in order to relieve the reporting burden;
  • Set up systems of sound stewardship and establish clear accountabilities to free up managers from multiple reporting arrangements;
  • Encourage a culture of innovation and intelligent risk-taking through persistent messaging and demonstrated support from senior management; and
  • Foster new levels of empowerment and explicitly find ways to demonstrate new levels of trust in employees, as part of the culture change.

It is gratifying to note that the co-chairs and their organizations have recognized the seriousness of this problem, particularly now when the economic situation requires governments to be especially responsive and efficient.

However, at this point, we have the pious good intentions of the current public service leadership. It is well known that significant cultural change takes many years of concerted effort and this will likely be a particularly challenging effort since there is a very strong culture of risk aversion at all levels of the federal public service.

Sustained leadership over the long term will be crucial to build the right incentive regimes that will guide the change process. For this reason, the conference organizers should look beyond the current group of public service leaders since this process will outlast the mandates of the current leaders. Looking to the next generation of leaders for ideas and commitment is the only way in which the well-intentioned efforts of the conference participants will have any chance of success.

Moreover, additional stakeholders should be involved in subsequent conversations. These could include the media who usually shape the issue for public consumption, politicians (especially the opposition) who tend to oversimplify and magnify administrative errors, and the government’s auditors who must differentiate between administrative weaknesses and outright fraud as well as explicitly determine their risk tolerance.  

David Zussman holds the Jarislowsky Chair in Public Sector Management in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa  (dzussman@uottawa.ca).

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