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OTTAWA – Canada’s top bureaucrat is making values and ethics a top priority, striking a task force of deputy ministers to lead a “broad conversation” on reaffirming the core values of a non-partisan public service in a changing world where crises never stop.

John Hannaford, named clerk of the Privy Council Office three months ago, put together the five-member task force with marching orders to “bring our collective values and ethics to life within a dynamic and increasingly complex environment.” He sent notice of the new task force to all departments last week and outlined the plan in a keynote speech at recent conference that was closed to the media.

“As head of the public service, fostering a renewed conversation on values and ethics will serve as one of my priority areas of focus over the next year and will support the effective management and renewal of our public service,” he wrote in a letter to public servants.

Hannaford said the task force will spend the next several months conducting outreach with public servants, networks and communities — both inside and outside the public service. He expects a “milestone report” by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, he wants every department, branch and division to come up with activities and ways to discuss public service values and ethics and what they mean in today’s world.

The task force will be chaired by Catherine Blewett, a former top bureaucrat in Nova Scotia who is now deputy minister of Economic Development and president of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency.

Other members include: Stephen Lucas, deputy minister at Health Canada, Christiane Fox at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, and Caroline Xavier, the chief of the electronic spy agency Communications Security Establishment (CSE). Donnalyn McClymont, PCO deputy secretary for senior personnel and public-service renewal, will support the task force as an ex-officio member.

A first in 30 years

This marks the first major values and ethics review since the groundbreaking report A Strong Foundation, by former deputy minister John Tait nearly 30 years ago.

That report was also built on a conversation with public servants. It laid the groundwork for values-and-ethics code that came into effect in 2003 to govern how public servants work, behave and their relationship with Parliament, ministers and Canadians.

Tait’s report also grew out of a task force of deputy ministers appointed by then-PCO clerk Jocelyne Bourgon at a time of huge flux. She created nine task forces to study the big challenges for public servants in the aftermath of the  Chrétien government’s historic program review. That review completely rethought the role of government and wiped out more than 50,000 federal jobs to beat a crushing deficit.

Times have changed, but Hannaford said the core values outlined in Tait’s report — respect for democracy, respect for people, integrity, stewardship and excellence — are enduring and are still the compass to guide public servants’ behaviour.

“Our world is increasingly dynamic, complex, and ever-changing,” Hannaford wrote in a letter to departments.

“As public servants, we play an important role in the Canadian democratic system. We continue to rise to the occasion to serve Canada and Canadians. Our public-service values and ethics serve as an important compass to guide our actions and behaviours, particularly as we adapt and evolve in times of change.”

He said the task force’s work will complement other ongoing priorities to improve workplace wellness, accessibility, anti-racism, equity and inclusion and reconciliation. 

Public servants work in much different circumstances today, but like 30 years ago they face challenging questions about what they do and how they do it.

Public servants feel besieged these days by everything from workload to hyper-partisan politics. Federal executives report high levels of stress and burnout with rising levels of cynicism and mental-health problems. A Top of Mind report found public servants at all levels of government worry they can’t speak truth to power and have to toe the party line in giving advice

They’ve come through a pandemic, the convoy protest, service-delivery fiascos, the biggest strike in 30 years, working remotely and are now in the throes of a $15.4-billion spending review. The public service, at 350,000 people, has never been so big, so diverse, and millennials now dominate the workforce with very different attitudes than their baby-boomer predecessors.

Then there’s climate and geopolitical crises after crises. There is war and floods and fires, soaring inflation and housing shortages compounded by the day-to-day distractions of social media, hyper-partisan politics, and the 24-hour news cycle.

Questioning “moral fibre”

Stephen Van Dine, who led the Top of Mind study, asks why the clerk is focusing on values and ethics when public servants are worried about basics like giving fearless advice, eroding policy capacity and the impact on governance. He said this is sure to raise alarms among public servants who will be asking, “What did we do wrong?”

“Why in heaven’s name would you start with values and ethics unless you believe the root problem is the moral fibre of the public service at this stage,” he said. “Why not examine what public-service leadership looks like in the 21st century?”

Senior officials say Hannaford isn’t re-opening the code or picking between new and traditional values. Hannaford also isn’t sounding the alarm about the public servants’ integrity. They say it is about adaptability: he wants public servants to better understand how to apply long-held  values in a rapidly changing world.

Alasdair Roberts, a professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and former visiting scholar at the Canada School of Public Service, studies how countries can adapt and thrive in this turbulent century.

Roberts point to a number of threats to Canada’s adaptability, but the health of the public service and its ability to execute quickly is a key one.

The mountain of controls, rules and new parliamentary watchdogs built up over the decades – all in the name of accountability – stifles innovation and makes publics servants risk averse, he said. On top of that, they face a new layer of political control – which he calls the “political service” of ministerial staffers.

And then there’s the shift to remote work, which raises big questions for leaders on how to build common purpose and values when people are rarely working together in-person.

Although Hannaford is tying the exercise to a renewal of the public service, the preliminary plan falls short of the kind of major reform critics have called for over the years.

Donald Savoie, considered the éminence grise of public administration in Canada, argues the public service has so lost its way that only an independent body like a royal commission could fix it.

Roberts, who supports the call for a royal commission, called Hannaford’s task force worthwhile and well-timed, but five busy deputy ministers, under-the-gun in their day-jobs, will be constrained in what they can do.

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They can’t really tackle legislative barriers, the morass of controls, rules and structures and outdated processes that need to be fixed. They also can’t grapple with the vexing question about the role of the public service, especially its strained relationship with ministers, Parliament and political staff.

Many argue the clerk simply doesn’t have time for the kind of review needed. With an election two years away, if not sooner, he has to be deep in transition planning. And if polls hold out, a Conservative government could come to power with a very different view of the public service and the role of the state.

Others, like Alasdair Roberts, question whether values and ethics can be discussed without sorting out the role of the public service: “I don’t want to diminish the significance of doing this, but it can’t be a substitute for a broader, bigger and independent review about the role and structure of the public service.”

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Kathryn May
Kathryn May is a reporter and 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 covering 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. She is also the winner of a National Newspaper Award and a Canadian Online Publishing Award. Follow Kathryn on Twitter: @kathryn_may.

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