In the 22nd Annual Report to the Prime Minister on the Public Service, my first as Clerk, I spoke proudly about the accomplishments of Canada’s public service over the past year — a public service that is increasingly high-performing, innovative and agile. Looking forward, I outlined a small number of priorities to ensure public servants are ready to meet the challenges of the future, including what I see as critical to our success: reinforcing the public service’s policy community.

The public service’s role in providing nonpartisan, high-quality policy advice to the elected government on the challenges facing our country is a core principle of our democratic system of governance. I believe that governments past and present have been effectively served by the public service’s policy community across the range of public policy issues, from fiscal and economic management to the defence and security of our borders, to the health and well-being of all our citizens. As the world changes, so must we.

So what are the challenges facing policy-makers today?

First, many of the public policy issues we grapple with have become more complex, entrenched and resistant to existing policy tools and approaches. The policy “problems” of today, such as terrorism or climate change, are more difficult to define and put boundaries around; they tend to be interdependent and multicausal; and they are constantly evolving, changing even as governments respond with solutions. There is little consensus on how to address these issues, and potential responses are often beyond the capacity of any one jurisdiction or constituency. Finally, the number of issues deemed to require some response from government has increased, as increasingly citizens see the interconnections among the problems they face.

At the same time, advances in new technologies, such as information and communications technologies (ICT) are having a profound impact on the speed of events, the amount of data being produced and the ability to connect communities. For example, every 60 seconds, 600 YouTube videos are posted on the Web, almost 700,000 Web searches are carried out and 160 million emails are sent.

But these challenges are also opportunities for the policy community — more data are available for better evidence; more information is available to benchmark ourselves to the best in the world; and more partners are available to contribute to finding and working through solutions.

For the public service, these advances are changing the context for policy-making and the expectations placed on our policy community. The new ICT platforms have brought more players into the policy discussion, increased the volume of information and data to be considered and decreased the amount of time in which high-quality advice is expected. These platforms have also heightened citizen expectations that their governments will include them in the development of policy responses.

These forces have significant implications for how the public service develops and provides the policy advice elected officials require. Canada needs policy-makers who remain committed to the public interest but are also more networked, open and collaborative: our policy community needs to be set to “open” by default, drawing in all those needed to co-create solutions.

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We need to tighten the linkage between policy objectives, program design and service delivery. This means integrating implementation considerations into the front end of our policy advice. And we need to equip and give licence to our policy community to use the latest innovative tools — social media, big data analytics, behavioural economics and strategic design — while ensuring that analysis is rigorous and based on robust evidence.

Canada needs policy-makers who are more networked, open and collaborative: our policy community needs to be set to “open” by default.

To ensure that the public service continues to offer the high-quality and evidence-based policy advice expected by our elected government, I have committed to reinforcing the policy community as a profession. This will mean identifying the needs of our policy-makers in light of the new policy environment and scoping out real and tangible actions that can be undertaken to strengthen the policy function.

Over the coming months, we will engage public servants in an open and collaborative dialogue that will draw on the breadth and depth of policy, programming and service delivery across the public service. These are some of the key areas we will be exploring:

  • Capacity and competencies: What are the core competencies and skills needed for policy-makers? How do we recruit and maintain these skill sets?
  • Policy innovation: How can new tools, approaches and technologies be integrated into the policy work of all government departments and agencies while the public service remains adaptable and open to new opportunities?
  • Enabling conditions: How do we enable more open and collaborative approaches to policy development? How do we ensure that program and service delivery considerations are integrated into policy advice?
  • Measurement: How will we know that our actions are making a difference?
  • Leaders and leadership: What do senior leaders and policy managers need to support the strengthening of the policy function?

This dialogue will build on other elements already in place to strengthen our policy-making capabilities. For example, Blueprint 2020, a wide-ranging work plan built from the ground up by public servants, sets the frame for the creation of a more innovative, agile, collaborative and high-performing federal public service. We need to develop agility and resilience to meet today’s tough challenges and demands so that we create an environment of continuous innovation and intelligent risk taking. We have created the Central Innovation Hub and a network of labs across departments and agencies. They are working directly with those who are wrestling with tough policy problems, in order to test and experiment with new policy tools and approaches such as behavioural economics and big data.

I am confident that these efforts, taken together, will reinforce the public service’s well-deserved reputation for providing high-quality, timely policy advice to the government and service to Canadians. They will also combine the best traditions of public service — impartiality, professionalism and integrity in service delivery — with creativity, innovation and forward thinking. This is what citizens expect of us, and what we’ll need for a stronger and more innovative Canada.

Janice Charette
Janice Charette is Clerk of the Privy Council.

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