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OTTAWA – John Hannaford, the first Gen Xer to head Canada’s public service after decades of Baby Boomer dominance, thinks it’s time for a reaffirmation of the values and ethics of an upstanding public servant.

The new clerk of the Privy Council Office inherits a federal workforce larger than at any time in history with the biggest demographic turnover in years. It includes an upcoming generation of leaders and thousands of new employees who started their careers during the past five years, the bulk of it spent at kitchen tables and in basements. Since the pandemic, these newcomers have had little exposure to the life and culture of going to the office every day.

And they’ve faced constant flux, insecurity and instability – a trend global events may only make worse.

That’s why during a recent interview and in his first discussions with public servants, Hannaford said it’s time to re-ground a new generation on the values and ethics that should bind a professional and non-partisan public service.

“Because so many of us are new, because we are living through times of rapid, perilous change, because not everyone sees government as a force for good, I believe reaffirming our first principles is imperative. Reminding ourselves why we are doing the work we do for Canada,” he recently told a crowd of public servants.

Rise of the Millennials

Millennials, aged 27 to 42, are quickly closing in on becoming the dominant generation with thousands coming on board during the recent hiring binge. Millennials and Generation Xers, who occupy many leadership jobs, account for 80 per cent of the workforce.

Hannaford created a task team of deputy ministers who are leading senior officials on a government-wide a “dialogue” about  values and ethics, something that has not been done in 30 years. The last deputy minister task force on values and ethic produced the Tait report, the foundation of today’s  code governing public service behaviour.

John Hannaford speaks with Policy Options in October 2023. POLICY OPTIONS/Fred Chartrand

In the interview, Hannaford said values and ethics will be his ‘North Star’ in renewing the public service for the future. And the five underlying principles are as relevant today as 30 years ago — respect for democracy, respect for people, integrity, stewardship and excellence.

“Given all that is new in this world and the changing ways we now work, we need to reflect on how to apply our core values, how to ensure we are following our compass in ever-changing circumstances,” he said.

The shift to hybrid work is one of biggest disruptions to the way public servants work in a century. Add to that, the vexing policy and service challenges from constant social upheaval, climate change, a digital revolution driven by AI and automation, and global crises looming around every corner.

Hannaford calls the public service a “team sport” and said a big challenge is to “figure out how you work well with others and how to maximize your value in a team and how maximize the team.”

The art of teamwork

He joined the government 28 years ago, as a young lawyer and foreign service officer. The workplace, he recalled, was like community where he could confer with colleagues, watch managers and executives do their jobs and make decisions.

The public service hybrid plan has most office workers at their desks two or three days a week. Hannaford argued managers have to be mindful and deliberate about how to make the most of those days to build community, along with the common purpose and congeniality that goes with it.

“We must reinstitute the art of teamwork, emphasizing that through the ability to work as teams, through collaboration, we become even more creative, which I believe is the key to success in this digital age of innovation,” he said.

That’s because public servants are the stewards of government and often the “public face of government and the measure by which it is judged,” he said. The values and ethics code are the companions to the “peace, order and good government” Parliament lives by when it legislates.

He also warns that values can’t become an excuse to resist change or “an anchor to keep us moored in the past.”

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Hannaford said public servants have to be in top form to deal with the changes and impacts of global instability coming at them. Being on top of change is not enough. They have to be part of change, get out in front and lead it.

That’s a tall order for a risk-averse and slow-footed public service, which some critics worry is no longer fit for purpose in today’s rapidly changing world. They say Hannaford’s plan falls short of the reforms and overhaul the public service needs.

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But Ralph Heintzman, a former senior bureaucrat and values and ethics guru, argues such a discussion is necessary before any reform: “The public service has to understand what it is before you fix how it works.”

The Liberals’ post-pandemic order to bring workers back to the office for two to three days a week met stiff resistance. It’s still a sore point for many, especially young workers, who claim they were more productive, preferred the flexibility and work-life balance and saved money on the commute.

Stories abound about people flouting the order or getting around coming in every week. One senior bureaucrat said employees in his department are averaging about 1.8 days a week, below the two to three days a week target.

It’s opened a debate over whether the location of work is a right or a privilege. Workers even went on strike over it. It’s a hot-button issue Heintzman says the task force will have to wrestle with: How do workers’ personal preferences square with values and ethics?

“That’s a good example of an issue where public service values come into play. The first principle is not whether this suits you and is a better working environment for you,” said Heintzman.

“Rather, the first principle is we’re here to serve the public interest. We’re here to serve Canadians and the democratic government. The issue should be approached from that perspective, not from that of individual workers. It might turn out the right answer is somewhere down the middle and a mixture of work from home and the office.”

So what is the role of the public service?

But public servants have lots of worries for the future; trust in government; service fiascos that damaged their brand and reputation; a decline in sharing “fearless advice”; a hollowing out of policy capacity; big spending and looming economic reckoning; conflicts between different levels of government; and the need for public service reform.

It’s all supposed to part of the task force’s discussions, but at the centre is the very role of the public service. Many argue Parliament must have a say in that. It was key recommendation of the Tait report 30 years ago.

“The public service cannot decide for itself what its mandate and mission and values are. Those must be decided by the elected representatives of the people of Canada,” said Heintzman.

For now, this is a public service exercise that will take about a year. The task force is expected to a have a preliminary report on the way forward by the end of the year.

“We’re in very early days,” Hannaford said. “Obviously we operate within a broader political environment and we’ll see what that means in terms of Parliament and other interactions. But at this stage, this is a conversation I want to have amongst public servants.”

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Kathryn May
Kathryn May is the Accenture Fellow on the Future of the Public Service, providing coverage and analysis of the complex issues facing Canada’s federal public service for Policy Options. She has spent 25 years writing about the public service – the country’s largest workforce – and has also covered parliamentary affairs and politics for The Ottawa Citizen, Postmedia Network Inc. and iPolitics. The winner of a National Newspaper Award, she has also researched and written about public service issues for the federal government and research institutes. Follow Kathryn on Twitter: @kathryn_may.

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