Change Management
December 18, 2012

Wouters recognized for visionary leadership

In October, Wayne Wouters, Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet, received the Commonwealth Association of Public Administration and Management’s (CAPAM) Gordon Draper Award for “contributing selflessly to the advancement of public administration, demonstrating a commitment to excellence, and visionary leadership that has had a tremendous impact on lives and organizations throughout the Commonwealth.” It’s a lifetime achievement award, given just three times in the last eight years.

Wouters received it for “not just his accomplishments, which are significant, but also how he achieved them, through horizontal government, speedy and effective collaboration, in a whole of government approach.” He was commended for “encouraging innovation and responsible risk taking, leading by example, and being the first secretary to cabinet to set up online dialogue with public servants.”

In his acceptance speech, Wouters emphasized the change drivers of globalization, technological change, fiscal pressures, rising expectations, and the need to deliver better service at lower cost. Governments are responding and embracing social media to disseminate information, engage citizens and provide services. They are collaborating more internally and externally. They are taking intelligent risks, and re-engineering both front and back offices, realizing their core objectives are to improve the lives of citizens while building a strong future for our countries. We need, he concluded, stronger, more adaptable public institutions based on our key values of a professional, non-partisan public service characterized by respect, integrity and stewardship.

Editor Emeritus Paul Crookall was at the ceremony in New Delhi, India and took the opportunity to speak with Wouters.

You once described trust as “the antidote to risk aversion.” The award recognized your skill at encouraging intelligent risk. What are your thoughts on risk and trust now?

I have worked hard to build a sense of trust and community with deputy ministers and I believe that this has facilitated a better working environment. In my view, we work in a more collaborative and horizontal manner than at any point in the past and this is a direct result of fostering a climate of more openness and trust. While I feel good about the progress we have made with respect to the senior ranks of the public service, I am cognisant that the public service itself and our employees may not feel this trust, particularly as we go through this difficult period of downsizing and workforce adjustment. Building trust is an ongoing challenge.

One of the things that we are doing to preserve and protect this atmosphere of trust and openness is ensuring that employees are not left in the dark, or feeling as though they are on their own. For instance, to reduce stress and anxiety stemming from our downsizing efforts, we are communicating to employees in a timely fashion, sharing as many details as possible vis-à-vis their employment status and moving as quickly as we can with respect to workforce adjustment. Throughout this process we are providing assistance and offering guidance to employees so that they feel supported, and are better positioned to make the necessary decisions to move forward with their lives.

To promote a more collaborative working environment, 40 percent of at-risk pay is now allocated to enterprise success and advancing the team as a whole. This has come more naturally or easily to some than others, but overall this tool and approach are proving successful. Tying performance pay to enterprise (as opposed to individual) success is a very effective way to reinforce the importance of team work and team commitment to a common goal. The results thus far are promising and indicate that the “all for one and one for all” message is getting through and being internalized. I am optimistic that this is the right strategy for at-risk pay.

This award indirectly reflects on the outstanding work many public servants do in Canada. The mainstream media consistently profiles our failures but not our successes. When Canadian Steve Nash won the MVP in basketball, it was front page news. Yet your “MVP” award didn’t receive media coverage.

We could perhaps do more to ensure that the public is aware of the high quality and impressive work done by the public service day in and day out and put ourselves on their radar, but it is not our role to speak of ourselves. Having said this, there are occasions when we are able to share good news such as when we receive recognition for a job well done. For example, we do submit the names of the winners of the Public Service Award of Excellence to newspapers across the country so that the public can learn more about us and our achievements.

As the head of the public service, I am pleased that we have an ally in Prime Minister Harper. He is very supportive of Canada’s federal public service. He has referenced the integrity, professionalism and competence of Canada’s public service and noted that he considers us a national asset. I think that over time he has had the opportunity to compare us to other public service organizations around the world and he has said on more than a few occasions that Canada’s public service is second to none. I consider this to be true recognition.

Governments are refocusing on three priorities: improved service to citizens, improved governance/openness/accountability, and contributing to deficit reduction. How is the public service of Canada doing on these?

We suffer from our previous successes. Years of successive budget surpluses created a rather skewed and artificial culture in which success was measured in part by the size of one’s “kingdom.” You added to your budget through new programs or projects, and the size of your budget and department reflected how well you were doing as a manager. Managers were often rewarded by being given enhanced budgets and more projects to manage. Those who overspent were not penalized in the next budget cycle while those who managed below their allotted budget were limited in what they could retain in the next fiscal year.

Thankfully, we are beginning to move away from this mindset. We have started to focus on rewarding managers who are able to manage well within their budgets, identify and reduce inefficiencies and eliminate duplication. Today, high performing managers are those who are able to transform their business model while still providing the public with high quality, timely and responsive service. They are able to do this while keeping in step with the evolving needs and expectations of Canadians.

Perhaps nothing communicates this shift in approach better than the Prime Minister’s decision to establish a new Priorities and Planning Sub-Committee on Government Administration. In a nutshell, the mandate of this new sub-committee is to improve services to Canadians, realize operational efficiencies and increase internal productivity. It has been mandated to consider proposals on whole-of-government opportunities for improved efficiency and effectiveness. While the new P&P subcommittee is in the early stages, I believe that this is the right path. I am optimistic about what we can expect to see over the medium- to long-term and the direction in which this will lead us.  

We are hearing a lot about how the private sector needs to improve productivity. In the public service, this has become “do more with less,” and “cut costs.” How is that playing out?

We do need more measures of productivity and this means being very clear on the outcomes we need to achieve. Having more measures doesn’t mean that we will automatically be more productive – this in and of itself will not increase productivity. Rather we must concentrate on fostering an environment that will lend itself to innovation and promoting a culture that encourages employees to take manageable risks.

In my view, we are getting better at this. Departments are becoming more comfortable at taking measurable risk, pushing the boundaries and being innovative. They are getting better at finding innovative ways to provide services; we have seen this in Canada at both the federal and provincial levels. For example, we are in the process of implementing the automatic enrollment of Old Age Security benefits for eligible senior citizens. To bring this about, we will use data we already have in our system to determine which seniors are eligible for OAS and who should start to receive it. Once implemented, the automatic enrollment system will relieve our senior citizens of having to fill out a myriad of application forms and having to duplicate previous efforts by once again providing us with information that they have already shared. Instead we will be able to send them a birthday greeting and tell them they have been enrolled for OAS! I consider this a good example of how the federal government is employing innovative means to respond to the needs of Canadians.

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