This is the first part in a two-part commentary on the state of the public service. The second part can be found here.

In a December 2022 column in Policy Options, “Canada needs a royal commission to fix problems with the federal public service,” Kathryn May conveyed Donald Savoie’s reluctant call for a royal commission to explore the state of the Canadian public service and its future direction. Many different reasons were highlighted. The public service is overloaded, relying on slow and outdated processes. There has been rapid growth after COVID and yet – despite an arguably quick pivot to implement government policies – it has been slow to handle the demand for essential services. It also seems incapable of responding in a timely manner to access-to-information requests despite politicians’ trumpeting of “open government.”

We could also add that there are long-held concerns about top public servants being too responsive to the government of the day, along with central agencies micro-managing and contributing to the centralization of power in the Prime Minister’s Office. There have been concerns about declining or insufficient skills or resources, and over-reliance on consultants and human resource practices that have led to a risk-averse culture.

These issues are concerning and deserve attention, but a royal commission would not be a productive way to resolve them. Instead, implementing a review process that’s designed correctly from the beginning is important. That means striking a balance between the political side and the department leadership, regional representatives and public servants, aided by some external perspective. Perhaps most importantly, the first phase needs to be taking stock of the changes that have occurred since the pandemic especially, and understanding the motivations for change while assessing gaps in capabilities and opportunities for reform.

Why the lack of enthusiasm for a comprehensive review?

There have been more than 20 federal reviews and reform efforts since 1867, each with their own attributes. Phil Charko and Stephen Van Dine have identified several initiatives since the 1980s. Recent initiatives such as Blueprint 2020 and Beyond2020, were not, in fact, “blueprints,” but invitations to “experiment” in a “bottom-up” way, with no systematic reporting about how the contours and capabilities of the public service and its organizations were evolving.

Likewise, former prime minister Stephen Harper’s embedded strategic and operational reviews (2010-15) were efforts to reduce costs and rethink specific lines of business internally, not efforts to reimagine the overall management of the public service. In short, there has been neither stock-taking nor a rethink of the direction of the public service overall.

One could conclude that political and public service leaders have been disinterested or unaware of the need for reform, but some former Privy Council clerks (for example, Paul Tellier and Michael Wernick) have been among those issuing calls for reform – sometimes after they left the public service. There are also calls for reform coming from academics or civil society that are difficult to ignore.

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A more generous interpretation is that political and public service leaders are too focused on immediate policy priorities with few resources to call for a wide-ranging assessment. Or, like Savoie, they may experience the issues and see the need for reform but have reservations about the merits of relying on a royal commission. Indeed, they have not considered alternatives other than centrally driven, closely held senior-led approaches.

The fact is that the public service is aware of its challenges. Countless internal and external reports have provided direction for needed reforms and when given political and financial support, they can be innovative and accomplish a great deal (look to Citizens First as an example).

Most issues and frustrations are not new, but the call for sustained action and continuous reflection is more urgent than ever. However, even if largely self-managed by the public service and its leaders, concerted reform requires the interest and support of prime ministers, as well as responding to recommendations in a timely way.

Why not a royal commission?

Royal commissions vary in size and scope, are usually convened outside government and are given a mandate and budget. Commissioners are appointed, reflecting their scope, who then refine and operationalize their mandates and appoint staff, commission research, receive submissions, and hold hearings. Sometimes public servants are seconded to assist, and often scholars and experts are asked to provide advice and undertake research. The entity works apart from the public service and can take on a life of its own. It is more of a topical treatment than a cure.

Moreover, though often quoted, royal commissions seldom show tangible results in actual public service reforms or behavioural change. They are excellent for spotting or tapping into talent, developing new advisory networks, consolidating knowledge and identifying new approaches and generating new ideas.

Leaving the comfort zone: Difficult issues in public sector reform

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However, given the changing political environment and working in a social-media environment, governments have not been willing to convene royal commissions. Instead, public inquiries have been the preferred approach – and only if there has been a serious failure or scandal such as the Gomery Inquiry or the Phoenix pay system.

Aside from the mechanics of how to better deliver on its responsibilities, what has not taken place since the 1960 Glassco Commission is an analysis of the organization and delivery changes in public responsibilities. This seems important in the wake of the pandemic.

An understanding of how programs and the public service have evolved, an appraisal of recent practices, new ideas about future directions and removing barriers for transformation is needed. Given the pace of change and the institutional limitations, royal commissions, blue-ribbon panels and task forces are unlikely to be accepted nor perceived as useful internally if they are regarded as one-time initiatives. Likewise, a top-down internal approach modeled on PS2000 (1989) or LaRelève (1997) will not generate the legitimacy and commitment from public servants.

What are some considerations for ongoing review?

Several key elements are critical for reviewing how the public service has evolved and what needs to happen next. The design must acknowledge the realities of working in and around public services, how change takes place and what is required to anchor it over time. These include:

1. Institutional complexity. The federal public service is extremely large, with more than 80 departments and agencies employing approximately 320,000 people in 2020 – a number that is expected to increase to more than 400,000 by 2025. An overly centralized approach is likely to be met with resistance, if not outright rejection. The public service is disparate, disaggregated and decentralized. The process must anticipate the differences in mandates, responsibilities, structures and cultures, and at what level changes or reforms are needed.

2. Engaging the diversity of public-service talent. Public servants from various areas must be engaged and must participate. Different competencies will be needed to understand change and reform efforts while taking advantage of central versus regional perspectives.

3. Tapping into external perspectives. Practitioners leading the initiative may need to heed various external perspectives. For example, including the beneficiaries of programs and services could help to understand the changing nature of relationships with vulnerable communities, the shifting boundaries between public and private, and the interconnectedness of jurisdictions and responsibilities. Current efforts to address public health reforms is a good example.

4. Anticipating how reform actually takes place. Few believe that top-down reforms or “fixes” will have much impact on behaviours. Change and innovation stem from meeting governmental priorities as expressed by ministers through mandate letters or other directives. These should determine how departments and agencies organize themselves if accompanied with appropriate financial and political support, and related accountabilities.

5. Effective reform is ongoing. This is about developing an approach to reform that requires introducing new operational repertoires dependent on data for evidence-based decision-making. Instead of one-time exercises, ongoing reviews must be built into routines with a learning focus that feeds departmental plans.

6. The need for political attention, monitoring and reporting. No approach will be effective if efforts are not properly monitored so that public servants can visualize real-time shifts by leaders and the implications for their place in these changes.

In short, forward-looking decisions must be undertaken that balance the perspectives of politicians and staffers, public service leaders, regional bodies, rank-and-file public servants, and concerned and affected citizens. The way forward is to move away from subjective and sporadic reform efforts to a routine system that generates institutional learning based on ongoing evidence. This will take significant commitment to create but may generate the momentum needed that previous reform efforts could not sustain. For the present, however, an initial analysis of changes occurring, understanding motivations for change, assessing gaps in capabilities, identifying opportunities for reform and future needs should be undertaken – and be done quickly with clear steps throughout.

This is the first part in a two-part commentary on the state of the public service. The second part can be found here.

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Daniel J. Caron
Daniel J. Caron holds the research chair on information management at ÉNAP, where he studies the impact of digital technologies on the functioning of public organizations from the perspective of information.
Evert Lindquist
Evert Lindquist is professor in the school of public administration at the University of Victoria and editor of Canadian Public Administration.
Robert P. Shepherd
Robert P. Shepherd is professor in the school of public policy and administration, as well as supervisor of the graduate diploma in public policy and program evaluation at Carleton University.

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