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

Public service institutions have long been challenged to deliver a wide array of programs for governments and the public, and they continue to deliver programs and services as technology and public expectations evolve. However, what is driving change and creating anxiety in public services is the frequency and complexity of emerging new policy issues, as well as structural concerns such as competency gaps and the ability to address future issues.

This is not news to those in public management: cabinets and ministers are attuned to the policy agenda and drive policy as best they can with available resources. Climate change and environmental sustainability, working digitally, migration and immigration and an aging population are issues that have risen to the fore of an already heavy public service agenda.

For the public service to cope with these demands requires change in activities, new decision processes and institutional arrangements, and, most fundamentally, adapting its culture. By this we mean improving leadership, responsiveness and innovative capacity in working horizontally such as through a willingness to share information and responsibilities. This will be essential for consistent and productive transformation.

The time and place for consultants

The never-ending question of contracting in the public service

Multiple perspectives highlight the shifts in the way public services will have to adapt which will have implications on technology, approaches to employment and the characteristics of jobs and how public organizations maintain coherence. Four points must be stressed about the role of public services.

1. The changes in the environment will result in structural shifts in how public organizations work. Public service leaders must be skilled at anticipating shifts and conceptualizing innovative institutional arrangements, including adopting new technology, and managing the transition. Structural changes driven by technology also need capable people who can adapt and learn alongside new technology in order to be effective. This also includes rethinking several outdated administrative policies that do not reflect the evolving work environment.

2. A key driver to effective public services is a motivated and capable workforce. This means that sustainable change cannot take hold without engaged, passionate public servants who look beyond the daily grind of tending files and communicating with other public servants. Being engaged not only means contributing to the strategic direction of government and better public policymaking, but also creating and re-creating organizations to meet new needs of their policy environments. It also means attracting, developing and leading the right talent for new challenges.

3. Relying on large consulting houses to carry out policy and organizational change signals a lack of trust in the public service. One explanation could be that decision makers do not believe the public service can think innovatively. The effect is a decline in internal capability and leadership competence due to years of neglect in effective internal recruitment strategies and training. Focusing on improving service rather than perpetuating a transactional culture would go a long way to repair current dysfunctions.

4. There is always a constituency for systematic change in public institutions and we believe that is true of the Canadian public service. Public servants at all levels want to be more responsive to governments and public needs but are frustrated by the lack of support and recognition from senior leaders on ways to innovate and to improve systems and processes. On the other hand, senior leaders want to build an engaged public service, but may be focusing on the wrong things such as compliance and oversight measures.

The pandemic brought about creative ways of generating ideas and delivering public services but there are questions about leaders embracing these changes for the future. The question is how to understand change, generate reform, produce a sustainable and adaptive culture and to prepare for the future.

Lost opportunities, new possibilities

Governments have initiated high-level periodic institution-wide review efforts focused on diverse areas of public sector management. This included human resources in 2019, ongoing changes to procurement practices, changes to government accountability with the Gomery Commission in 2006 or public service operational practices and results delivery beginning in 2007. These reviews were carried out internally or independently, but rarely convinced decision-makers to institute recommended changes. In addition, the reviews did not take the other reviews and functions into account, often recommending changes that were contradictory.

Embedded regularized spending reviews could be used to drive public service reform, but these were abandoned in 2012 in Canada. The United Kingdom, Australia and Netherlands conduct regular reviews of fixed elements of spending focusing on making room for policy priorities while improving efficiencies in existing program areas. It is apparent that the federal government has initiated spending reviews but it is unclear if and how these will be linked in a coherent way to public service reform efforts. Other countries are beginning to think about linking spending reviews and reform to ensure policy and spending coherence.

Reform is multi-level and multi-faceted         

Embracing change requires adopting a dynamic approach. Multi-level reform means accepting that the public service is highly decentralized and operates in diverse areas of responsibility. Organizational structures and operating environments vary widely, and departments and agencies will know best how to respond to them. What gets in the way of relevant reforms are highly centralized systems and a lack of management autonomy to achieve expected results.

The Functionary

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The public service depends on several important systems to work properly. Human resources involve recruitment, skills development and competency training and retention. Information and technology management is driven by digitalization, worker’s autonomy and mobility, data storage and sharing. Policy development and advice must acknowledge and balance strategic, administrative and operational elements. There needs to be effective procurement of goods and services along with sound financial management, oversight and monitoring.

Finally, there is the machinery of government and performance indicators that track results and assesses risks for their achievement. All of these must be simultaneously considered in any transformation.

Previous reform attempts, however, have tended to focus on defined problems associated with one or two of these systems. They did not recognize the complexity of how public organizations work, how these systems intersect with others, or the unique operational challenges of departments and agencies.

Reform cannot be a one-size-fits all solution. Significant discretion, in exchange for regular reporting, must be given to deputy ministers and their management teams to support administrative and management reform. As highlighted long ago in the Glassco Commission (1963) and Lambert Commission (1979), ‚Äúletting the managers manage‚ÄĚ involves providing space to public servants to improve services and implement policy without creating unnecessary administrative burden and excessive control by central agencies.

The pull and push of the centre that haunts the public service

The black hole of public service contract spending

Leaders must be given room to imagine and propose changes to various systems that can be considered by the center of government in a timely way. This does not suggest a patchwork of changes without coherence, but rather a dialogue that gauges how these changes could be adapted to support the achievement of outcomes, and seriously monitors what sort of progress is being made in a tailored way.

This means looking at what has worked elsewhere and innovating with other executives in the public service to find support when there appears to be no workable solution. The central agencies must be willing to ensure tailored coherence for departments rather than uniformity and perpetuating a compliance culture.

Collaboration and coordination are critical

For change to work in such a multi-level embedded system to work effectively, additional conditions must be met. First, there must be engagement and support between ministers and the public service leadership. There also has to be a greater emphasis placed on learning, rather than managing, from the center of government. Central agencies should take on the role of enablers and coordinators rather than assuming primary leadership over such change.

There should be clear roles and responsibilities for executives so they can use their discretion to implement appropriate systems and processes in concert with others to ensure coherence. Administrative tools such as the Management Accountability Framework, Policy on Results, Directive on Performance Management and Policy on Service and Digital should provide stronger forward-looking emphasis and support on organizational learning in a coordinated way. Reporting on these must also be joined up to demonstrate outcomes.

These changes require a shift in sensibilities, capabilities, readiness to contribute, senior management commitment and the motivation to drive organizational change. It also needs external input from academics, think tanks and other communities ‚Äď and not high-priced secretive and ungrounded consulting contracts ‚Äď to work in partnership. The public service no longer has the luxury to operate as an island.

An adaptive public service for the 21st century

Other countries are using the pandemic as an opportunity to advance reforms. A key criticism of public services is their lack of nimbleness. They are comprised of organizations operating not only in silos but also as rule-bound sub-systems working within centralized, homogenous processes. Although rules and hierarchy are essential for ensuring some level of administrative and management coherence, particularly for democratic governance, they must be balanced with the need for innovation and creativity when change is rapid and often unpredictable.

Our systems must accept that change is constant, and that reform will be ongoing rather than periodic. It also means learning from past mistakes. The public service needs scope to learn and manage, connecting responsibilities more directly to their authorities and resources, joining up otherwise independent reporting, and better monitoring progress. Better monitoring and reporting would ensure that departments are better held to account for their valuable work.

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

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Daniel J. Caron
Daniel J. Caron holds the research chair on information management at √ČNAP, 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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