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Location: Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Monday, September 18, 2006

Public Service Renewal is not just Re-Branding

Responding to the Clerk’s call for higher levels recruitment in the public service

September 18, 2006

On September 15, 2006 Kevin Lynch, the Clerk of the Privy Council, addressed the Dalhousie School of Public Administration with a presentation entitled "Why Public Service Renewal Matters". In it he discussed the direction of the Government’s latest round of public service renewal and the need to ensure that the public service reflected excellence and leadership.

However, the federal government’s recruitment challenge goes way beyond trying to brand the government as a nice place to work. When talented creative people have many opportunities open to them, the government not only needs to pay reasonably well, but it also needs to be a place where people’s skills and decision making abilities are respected and where their abilities can be seen to make a difference. To solve the government’s recruiting problem, Mr. Lynch will have to have to fundamentally reform the way the government does its business and its relationship to citizens. The scope of this work has been identified in each of the 30+ PS renewal initiatives that have occurred in the last forty years but avoided in practice, so from an historical standpoint the odds are against him of making much of a difference.

Mr. Lynch suggested that technology is fundamentally altering how government does things. I think the best response to this that technology is and isn’t changing things. It may be altering some things – how information is stored or how it is transmitted -- but in many other instances technology appears to be having little impact. In particular, the government doesn’t seem to be able to handle the requirements for the business process reform and organizational change that the new technologies demand. Take the previous ‘Government On Line’ initiative. Rather than deal with setting new rules for the exchange of information between departments and with citizens, the deputy ministers opted for the much easier ‘Common Look and Feel’ and then declared success. The latest effort to provide integrated e-services is floundering for the same reason – there is no mechanism to resolve the competing interests of the departments.

The Clerk pointed to a shift in public expectations for public service. This is quite true. Canadians are becoming more sophisticated and less willing to defer to governments when they are self serving. For routine types of interactions most citizens want at least the same quality of service delivery from the government as they receive from the private sector. In times of need, however, they want government services that are quick to respond, helpful and efficacious. The sort of stuff we saw with the SARS outbreak is just not acceptable.

I think most people would perceive that the visible public services -- things like the reliable delivery of pension and insurance cheques, the provision of policing and border patrol, and the collection of taxes -- are well handled. Do citizens passionately care whether their monthly pension cheque comes reliably in the mail or by direct deposit? I think not. (My dad would but that’s a different story!) The big service issue occurs when someone has a problem and when there is a divergence from the government’s service script. Either the citizen can’t find the person they need, or no one will respond to them, or they need to supply details in quadruplicate to many departments, or worst of all they are regarded as guilty felons.

Take tax collection, for example. I admit some people do try to evade paying their taxes but many people just make mistakes in filling out a tax form or have new information come to them later. Being an honest citizen doesn’t pay. I hear the CRA has a quota system and since it’s much easier for them to 'catch' the people who turn themselves in than it is to look for the bad guys who don’t want to be found,they’ll make your life hellish if you bring a ‘mistake’ to their attention. One accountant I know of is horrified by the recent increase in the number of people who are being harassed by the CRA and the equally large number of honest citizens who are being encouraged to be less than forthcoming by CRA’s tactics. These tactics are, in effect, breaking down the level of trust and willing compliance in the payment of taxes. In this kind of environment, why would any normal person with options want to work there?

In a recent Fortune edition, an article described a bank where someone came in asking for something the bank didn’t offer. The bank’s response – “we don’t do this but we’ll take care of you anyway.” The bank’s policy was to own the customer and that started with whomever was in front of an employee. Can you imagine asking someone in government to do something that wasn’t explicitly in their job description? Can you imagine them adopting an attitude of trying to use every opportunity for personal contact as an exercise of citizen building? The Canadian public service is not typically a helping environment. Therefore, for anyone who really wants to help others the kind of service style typical of government is profoundly discouraging. I remember talking to a former ADM who at one time was considered ‘one of the best and brightest’ but left the PS despairing of ever being able to make a difference. He thought he just needed to get higher in the ranks until he got to the top and realized the mistake of his assumption.

Canadians do want more accountability, as Mr. Lynch suggested, but more importantly they want results. It’s only when those results are not forthcoming, that they want those people who were making the decisions to be accountable -- that is, to explain to them in clear, common sense language why the anticipated results did not appear. This is not the same as the childish finger pointing and ‘blame-games’ that are typically engaged in politically and bureaucratically. That’s not the kind of accountability Canadians want. Where no school would tolerate the type of behaviour demonstrated in Question Period, why should citizens? And this has contributed to a PS culture that is fundamentally afraid of being exposed to its citizens. Over the last few years, we have seen ever more restrictions to Access to Information, more outright obfuscation, and more avoidance of direct accountability. When was the last time you saw a Minister take responsibility for his department’s actions and resign? (Actually it was Sinclair Stevens in the Mulroney Government in 1986. It’s been even longer since we’ve seen a Deputy Minister stand up and resign over a conflict between public and political interests). Addressing better accountability will require the Clerk to do more than prepare a good ad campaign that says ‘it isn’t so’.

The Clerk said that Canadians want better management of tax dollars. I disagree. I think that Canadians aren’t as concerned about the better management of revenues as they are about paying fewer taxes, largely because they don’t perceive sufficient value for the money they contribute and because of what they may perceive as others not paying their fair share. “Increase the number of tax collectors,” you might say. Not so. Tax collection depends on the willingness of the governed to contribute their fair share. And as the Russian experience illustrates, where only 25% of citizens pay their taxes, no amount of tax collectors can fix the problem when the population as whole has lost faith in its moral contract with the State. When people begin to feel that there is a disconnect between the taxes they pay and the services they receive, they will at first complain and then later stop complaining altogether as they also stop paying and go underground. By all indications, the underground economy in Canada is growing suggesting a declining trend among Canadians in their faith in government. If Mr. Lynch wants to renew government, increase recruitment, retain existing employees and create a culture of excellence in the PS, then this declining faith in government needs to be addressed head on.

Similarly most people that I talk to don’t think much about core public services. I mean they assume that those services are already being responsibly carried out and they are generally happy with their delivery. What they are more concerned about are the non core service areas – such as the ability to coordinate across multiple authorities on any number of issues including, employment and training, creating safe, coherent communities, dealing with climate change and potential pandemics, and timely access to health care. There are also a host of issues connected to any number of interest groups seeking funding for this or that. But while the complexity of the big problems discourages serious action and investment by government, the government is often willing to buy political support with quick contributions to interest groups.

Interestingly no one in the PS seems to take notice of the inherent contradiction in the desire of citizens’ to pay less for more services. Resources aren’t limitless even though the avenues for spending may be. Where are the trade-off debates? Since politicians are rewarded equally for cutting taxes and fixing problems, the former being so much easier to accomplish than the latter, this puts the PS in the unenviable situation of trying to fix problems with fewer real resources, in an environment of increased risk avoidance, with higher reporting and accounting costs, and with a shrinking windows of political commitment. Is the Clerk prepared to stand up publicly and say “get real” (as it somewhere suggests is part of his job description)?

And if this 'something for nothing' attitude becomes the characteristic dynamic between the citizen and the State, then why should we be surprised when employees (also citizens) want more pay for less work, or when they demonstrate a weak commitment to helping citizens solve their problems. You just can’t build an organization of excellence where acceptance of ‘quick fixes’, ‘risk-free solutions’, CYA, the ‘easy way out’, the ‘cheapest solution’, and ‘flaccid commitment’ abound.

As you can see, the Clerk has a much bigger job to do than he was willing to admit to the students at Dalhousie.

In a follow up note I’ll examine the government’s recruiting position from a SWOT perspective.


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