There is an interesting irony in the recent decisions of a number of governments to prevent public servants from accessing Facebook. This website is dedicated to creating networks " precisely what public servants should be doing. Facebook and networks like it are the future " the politicians use it " and the challenge lies in using them properly, not in denying access.
The Facebook issue gives a clue as to what ails our pub- lic service right now. It involves nannying politicians, old- mentality bureaucrats who don’t understand the potential of new technologies and the needs of transparency, and the urgent obligation to vastly improve the government’s ability to network.
The average age of Canada’s federal public service is nudg- ing toward 50, and its senior management is even older. Over the next five years, anywhere between 30 and 40 percent of the essential knowledge workers in our public service will retire. This turnover will not happen in isolation: the change will affect the private sector as well, making the competition to attract creative talent to government all the more difficult.
Still, this transformation presents a window of opportu- nity to change rules and conventions, to find new ways of involving talent from outside and to help those younger people already in the public sector who have patiently waited to see major changes. To enable this process, government must throw open the doors. It needs to recognize and encourage those public servants who will champion a gov- ernment that will work actively with other governments, communities, associations and NGOs to protect and pro- mote the public good.
This turnover in personnel is happening at the same time as a revolution in communications technology that greatly facilitates precisely this kind of collaborative work. Such a combination of new people and new technology cre- ates a unique opportunity to transform the federal public service. But it can happen only if the right kind of people are hired and given a leadership role in the public service.
What kind of people should they be? In their book Governing by Network: The New Shape of the Public Sector, Stephen Goldsmith and William Eggers challenge the old definition of ”œpublic employee.” ”œManaging in a networked environment demands an entirely different set of compe- tencies and capabilities,” they write:
In addition to planning, budgeting, staffing and other traditional government duties, it requires proficiency in a host of other tasks, such as activating, arranging, stabi- lizing, integrating, and managing a network. To do this, network managers must possess at least some degree of aptitude in negoti- ation, mediation, risk analysis, trust building, collaboration and management. They must have the ability and the inclination to work across sector boundaries and the resourcefulness to over- come all the prickly challenges to governing by network.
There is a deep chasm between the reality of today and the necessary reality of the future for ”œgovernment by collaborative networks.” A number of objectives must be met to create a government that responds to and takes advantage of the new opportunities and challenges of the 21st century. In Canada’s Public Service in the 21st Century: Discussion Paper (April 2007), the Public Policy Forum went even fur- ther. It painted a portrait of what the role of government should be in the 21st century and pointed out that ”œin some instances, departments and agencies may have to create external partners or offer core funding to ensure non-government organizations are equipped to undertake their responsibilities” (emphasis ours).
A key barrier affecting the state of the public service today is politicians and especially the low level of ”œrisk tolerance” on the part of the prime minister, cabinet and the government caucus. To meet the issues of the 21st century, the public service needs to be imaginative and innovative in its poli- cy advice and, equally important, in its implementation of programs. There is frequently a trade-off between the level of ”œrisk” and the level of ”œresults”: the lower the risk tolerance, the lower the degree of innovation, and the less the potential ”œreward” in terms of positive results.
Politicians must begin by redefin- ing their expectations of bureaucracy. There must be a clear message from the prime minister, cabinet ministers and deputy ministers that they will be open to advice that brings with it potential risk in exchange for potentially better results. In practice, this means treating public servants at all levels with the respect they deserve. It means asking intelligent questions in committees, not just ”œgotcha” queries. It means consulting with and most of all trust- ing public servants. It means assuming that they are guided by professional inclinations and ethics. It means recog- nizing that the public service does have a legitimate role to play in dealing meaningfully with the public, and that increased contact with citizens by pub- lic servants does not detract from the legitimacy of elected representatives.
Such a redefinition does not mean that the public service gets a free pass " far from it. Indeed, with a higher level of candour and a genuinely adult conver- sation, information will flow and the public sector can be held to the highest standards of accountability. The best place to start is with the approach to the sometimes critical reports of the auditor general. They should not be held up as examples of managerial incompetence, but should instead be seen as exceptions that (almost inevitably) point to a harsh reality: that political objectives do not match budgets allocated to the bureau- cracies, or that the political executive has simply failed in communicating its priorities and in getting out of the way of their implementation.
The current government’s Account- ability Act, with its focus on endless def- initions of ”œaudit, audit, audit,” produces a ”œrisk aversion” message to the public service precisely when imagi- nation and innovation should be encouraged. Fear of failure is the enemy of innovation and of superior results.
Rather than the traditional ”œgotcha” approach, politicians should focus on how to help public ser- vants work with each other to better design and execute policy. What is required is a strategy that has at its core building the capacity and the will to manage in the new networked environ- ment, to foster and manage collabora- tive operational models and administrative processes. It is a strategy of purposefully moulding a public service that possesses the values and the desire to seize the opportunities provided by the rapid expansion of knowledge, of communica- tion technology and of a collaborative culture in order to gener- ate more effective and transparent pol- icy development and more effective delivery of programs to Canadians. It is a strategy that embraces the need to bring about systemic change in order to meet the challenges for Canada of the 21st century.
Change has to start at the top, at the deputy minister level. The way in which deputy ministers are assessed has to change. A new task force on public service leadership needs to be formed, with a mandate to reshape the senior ranks to ensure that they pos- sess the range of experience and abili- ties that are necessary for a new networked, collaborative public serv- ice. In order to achieve this goal, the task force itself would have to reflect these new ideals. It would have to include representatives from both inside and outside the public service, representing a diverse range of skills, backgrounds and positions.
The task force would first focus on the deputy minister level, assessing how each individual’s competencies, personal attributes, temperament and personality align with the traits need- ed in the new public service, as noted above: trust building, mediation, team building, interpersonal skills and a record of managing networks of com- plex interdependent relationships with a host of third-party partners. Their attitude toward taking risks and their performance as innovators " challenging the status quo " would be central as well. The assessments would include the standard ”œ360-degree” process with a sharpened focus on per- sonal and professional ethics and behaviour.
It is most unlikely that the ”œlegacy” deputy ministers would, collectively, have the full range of values, competencies and experiences required to develop the desired new human resources strategy for the public service and to provide oversight during its implementation. For example, most would have pro- gressed through the public serv- ice by managing ”œthe process of decision-making,” leaving a deficiency within the deputy minister ranks in general, and the Committee of Senior Officials (COSO) in particular, of hard experience in actual pro- gram implementation, or of working ”œin the field” across Canada with businesses, other governments and NGOs.
The results of this external assessment of the ”œlegacy” group of 35 senior executives could lead to substantial change among the individ- uals selected by the clerk of the Privy Council to serve as members of COSO. As well, some deputy ministers would likely retire during this phase, leaving an oppor- tunity to round out the senior manage- ment group with new members who possess the desired new characteristics. This selection would be done by the task force itself, which would seek out relevant candidates from among the next layer of senior executives.
The second phase would be to expand this approach to an assess- ment of the assistant deputy ministers in charge of departmental human resources/personnel throughout the government.
In the third phase, the task force would evolve into a permanent nominat- ing committee for senior executives, sim- ilar to a committee of the board of directors of a large publicly traded corpo- ration. While the committee’s personnel would change over time, the breadth of its membership " both insiders and out- siders, and with varying backgrounds and experiences " would be formalized. Its mandate would be to build a collectivity of female and male DMs across the entire government with a ”œfull range of views, experiences, perspectives, formal expert- ise, diversity and personality traits.”
The list could include candidates with proven networking skills, a deep understanding of the history and cul- ture of Canada, and backgrounds in a variety of fields including financial management, law, human resources, science, economics, technology, mar- keting, project management and pro- gram delivery. It would also reflect the changing face of Canada. With such a ”œboard,” collective discussions would be far-ranging, imaginative and inno- vative, incorporating a wide variety of perspectives. Proposals to the government would reflect this diversity, providing a full range of perspectives regarding opportunities and risks.
Deputy ministers would be told that their own performance appraisals by COSO would give equal weight both to their results in implementing the new human resources strategy and to their financial management perform- ance. (We hold that a deputy should spend at least half his time on human resources matters.) They would also be assessed on their success or failure in promot- ing and building collaborative horizontal arrangements for for- mulating policy and program advice to the government. The result would be a transformation- al shift from ”œtalking the talk” to ”œwalking the talk.”
These methods of assess- ment and selection of deputy ministers and the senior professional human resources executives, in departments and in the Public Service Commission, would mean that their assessments of middle managers are also aligned to the new strategy. The same would be true for administrative and front-line personnel.
This process is a necessary means of supporting the many current public servants who want to be empowered and creative in imagining new possi- bilities for policy issues, in solving problems and in delivering programs. It is also necessary to enable the recruitment of new public servants who will reinforce the move toward these new goals.
A significant issue for the current public service is the clash between a sys- tem that currently operates on the tra- ditional departmental ”œtop-down authority” model and one that operates along ”œhorizontal lines of action.” There is an emerging consensus that the former, an ingrained and perversely rewarded silo culture, is a major barrier to addressing the dynamic policy and program issues that increasingly tran- scend the vertical solitudes of depart- mental boundaries and, indeed, of government boundaries. The question is how to make the transformation.
The most important transforma- tion has to take place in the culture of the bureaucracy. The public service must accelerate its shift to a horizontal and collaborative model. As well, there needs to be a shift toward collabora- tion between governments, from the federal government to the provincial and territorial governments, the First Nations and municipalities, to address current issues in their full complexity.
What is needed to deal with such issues, which increasingly cut across the government’s departmental silos and reach outside to other govern- ments and outside groups, is a human resources strategy and implementation plan for the public service that is pur- posefully aligned to understanding and to dealing effectively with them.
It is the front-line public servants outside Ottawa who have been the innovators, especially in collaborating with provincial and municipal govern- ments and agencies in the joint plan- ning and implementation of services. They must be more present in dealing with the many groups, associations and networks that are gestating ideas for better governance.
There is no doubt that executives in the public service were often visible among these groups before. Our point is that more public servants should be allowed to make connections and con- tribute to idea networks. Their work would be more rewarding and policy would invariably be strengthened by consistent, low- to mid-level liaisons. The likelihood of better information would probably have saved taxpayers many dol- lars on failed and expensive policies such as the gun registration fiasco and the recent income trust boondoggle.
Public servants working outside Ottawa regard ”œthe centre” as impossibly far away because suggestions or changes that come from ”œthe regions” are heavily discounted. Time restrictions and budget limitations are the traditional excuses for keeping Ottawa public servants isolated in the capital. Meetings in Ottawa with well-informed advocacy and lobby groups are accorded more value than the input of front-line public servants who know their communities and are acutely aware of what works and what does not work in terms of actual results.
Furthermore, while public ser- vants are at times exhorted to work collaboratively, they quickly realize that their performance appraisals by their superiors in Ottawa do not value collaborative efforts.
In reality, effective public servants already nurture good networks. But why not imagine an example of poten- tial (non-silo) collaboration, for exam- ple the Department of the Environment working on the issue of a sustainable economy in general and of global warming in particular. This issue transcends the vertical departmental boundaries of the government as well as transcending the federal govern- ment itself. Currently, various depart- ments compete among themselves not only for ”œterritory” and budgets, but also for relationships with outside groups. Instead, skill fully designed and implemented strategies, including communication technologies, could assist the department in fostering a net- work that connects a host of involved third parties: other federal government departments such as Industry and Agriculture, provincial governments, international government organiza- tions, parliamentary committees and national and international NGOs.
The deputy minister, senior man- agers and the department’s scientists would have their respective counterparts in this web of relationships, and the detailed processes involved in planning and implementation would overlap. The question is, What is required for these relationships and management process- es to be forged into an effective collabo- rative working relationship?
Revolutionary communications technology is a reinforcing ally or ”œdriver” in constructively shifting to a public service that is built along hori- zontal lines of action, and in the man- agement of broader and deeper collaborations involving a variety of relevant organizations and people. It has a tremendous potential for efficien- cy and accountability improvements.
But the transformation will also require public servants with the val- ues, attitudes, personalities, compe- tencies and incentives to forge effective collaborative working rela- tionships. It is one thing to have the communications technology to help create more effective ”œpeople net- works” for policy and program development and implementation. It is quite another matter to have people who want to use this technology as a tool for effective collaboration and who have the skill to do so.
Here again the question revolves around a human resources strategy relating to recruitment, incentives and promotions that will move toward a horizontal and much broader collabo- rative model. What skills, competencies, experience, personal attributes and per- sonality traits are required to implement such a fundamental shift? And will these attributes be fully recognized at ”œper- formance appraisal time”? Will they be comprehended by narrowly focused financial auditors?
Doing things right requires a fun- damental change in the way government works. New people have to be recruited who possess different skills, and a different kind of training will be required for many existing public servants. The focus of account- ability should be as much on actual results as it is on ex post facto ”œfollow the money” auditing to assess financial probity.
While good governance demands financial auditing of management, to govern effectively we must also be will- ing to take the risks involved in innova- tion and reach out to ”œnetwork collaboratively” with others inside the federal government, with other govern- ments inside and outside Canada and with NGOs, business and others in order to meet the increasingly interwoven issues of the 21st century. For this we need the right kind of people in the pro- fessional public service of Canada.
The history of our country shows that roughly every 50 years the public service has been overhauled and retooled. This is a natural cycle, and it is time for it to happen again.
Canada started with a rudimentary public admin- istration in 1867 that depended on patronage and required little more than the expertise brought to it by politicians. Fifty years later, it was overhauled and substantially depoliti- cized. As Canada celebrated its cente- nary, the public service was professionalized even more and grew spectacularly to deliver everything from postal services to cultural policy. Now, another 50 years later, govern- ment faces two revolutions: an unprecedented scale of management exodus and a momentous communica- tions/information revolution. Society, the political class and the bureaucracy itself must embrace the change and seize the opportunity not just to tinker with the current system, but to trans- form it. The public service has served Canadians well over the past 150 years. It must change in order to help our nation continue to thrive and prosper.