“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
― Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night
Throughout the Blueprint 2020 campaign, I’ve heard one thing again and again: the public service of Canada is a phenomenal and world-class organization.
I’m not inclined to argue. We have a brilliant, well educated cadre of passionate workers, excellent remuneration. Our benefits are the envy of private industry and we face wicked problems complex and thorny enough to keep the most avid fan of brain-teasers occupied for decades. Our work is topical, engaging and important: it’s the work of making the lives of Canadians better and keeping Canada great.
Why then, does something seem to be so terribly wrong?
APEX reported in September that rates of depression among executives have doubled since 2007. Rates of absenteeism due to workplace stress and mental health issues have also been dramatically increasing for all employees.
We’ve endured the Deficit Reduction Action Plan in addition to ongoing strategic reviews and cost-cutting exercises. We still struggle with increasing pressure to perform and a never-ending need to seek additional efficiencies. Mobile devices tether us to the office, even when we’re at home.
The structural issues, which include how the public service is put together and how we require work be performed, only make it worse.
In the 1950s, the public service was transactional: the work primarily consisting of replicable, repetitive tasks. Today, more public servants are knowledge workers doing “non-routine” problem-solving requiring convergent, divergent, and creative thinking.
Despite the continuing transformation of its workforce, the public service of Canada still retains a post-1950s hierarchical organizational structure that emphasizes command and control. This hierarchy separates the executive from the knowledge workers by up to four levels of management and separates work, expertise and information in silos defined by the reporting structure. Speaking positively, this structure works wonderfully for businesses requiring high levels of consistency, routine and easily replicable products. More negatively, it’s characteristically inflexible, expensive and results in slow decision-making and the duplication of work. Finally, it impedes creativity and innovation and contributes to employee disengagement.
In short, it’s a terrible structure for developing public policy to address complex social and economic issues or recruiting and retaining a modern, healthy, productive workforce. Taking it a step further, the current structure actually hinders our ability to tackle the wicked problems and constantly changing terrain of modern policy. Structure should facilitate and support our work, not block it.
It’s this dissonance between transforming role and stagnant structure that is impacting our workforce and our efficacy.
The good news is, there is a growing realization in government that our structure does not easily incorporate technological or social innovation and no longer enables the knowledge work required of government.
In 2012, the Clerk of the Privy Council’s Nineteenth Annual Report to the Prime Minister on the Public Service of Canada outlined a vision for the public service of the future as collaborative, innovative, streamlined, high performing, adaptable and diverse. In the same year, the Public Policy Forum published a report based on thinking from over 100 leaders from across the federal public service and the private sector that proposed a new vision of work where employees can work anytime with anyone, anywhere. Blueprint 2020 is seeking to engage our employees to develop ways to improve our workplace and workforce.
Despite the tremendous energy being poured into public service renewal and Blueprint 2020 and all the great ideas being generated, we still look for incremental fixes. We tell ourselves that we need a little patching around the edges, a little paint on the walls.
But what if renewal just isn’t enough? What if the true issues go deeper than that? What if what’s wrong with the system isn’t something that can be fixed through the usual rattling and clanking wheels of government progress? What if the problems are the wheels themselves? What if we need to fundamentally rethink the entire system? What if we need actual transformation?
Sometimes, you can’t just renovate. Sometimes, you need to pull the whole building down and start from scratch.
So what comes next? To quote Doctor Who:
Amy: Please tell me you have a plan.
The Doctor: No, I have a thing. It’s like a plan, but with more greatness.
What’s my thing? Watch this space for STRATUS: a proposal for management and policy innovation in the government context.