Living Beyond2020, in 2021
Brought to you by a collaboration with Public Service Renewal: Beyond2020
Take a trip down memory lane with me. Eight years ago, to be exact. Public servants were invited to engage in discussions that would guide the path of the future of the Public Service. The goal: to evolve with the times and continue to effectively deliver services to Canadians. Years later, new ideas for a renewed Public Service emerged and materialized into the Beyond2020 framework and its three areas of focus—agile, inclusive, and equipped.
But absolutely nobody could have predicted how the year 2020 would actually play out, the extraordinary challenges we’d face, and the changes we’d have to adapt to on short notice—cue Friends clip of Ross yelling “PIVOT!” at his friends as they navigate a sharp turn with a big couch. The metaphor practically tells itself. Even so, now that we’re truly beyond 2020, we find ourselves living the Beyond2020 principles more than ever.
“I think it really showed us that these were absolutely the right principles to uphold,” says Interim Clerk Janice Charette, who’s sitting down with us to talk about where we are as a Public Service, and where we might be going. “And our agility in our transition was remarkable.”
In some ways, this applies to Interim Clerk of the Privy Council Janice Charette, too. In March 2021, she stepped in to lead the Public Service, filling in for her good friend and colleague, Ian Shugart, the Clerk of the Privy Council, after four and a half years as Canada’s High Commissioner to the UK.
Leadership is about people
Being in a leadership position amid the pandemic is challenging enough, let alone as the leader of one of Canada’s largest workforces. But leadership isn’t new to Ms. Charette – having had a decorated career in the Public Service already. In fact, this is her second time as the Clerk, and she is only the second person to have held the position of Clerk twice. Leading through this time of crisis and uncertainty has further cemented her three key values of leadership.
“One—leadership is fundamentally all about people. At the heart, it’s about your ability to motivate, encourage, and support people—the scope of which has broadened with the pandemic.” It’s no longer just about understanding people in the office. Now more than ever, it’s about understanding people in the context of their lives. “When I’m in meetings now, I see the art on people’s fridges, hear their kids, dogs, or cats. With this new perspective of my employees, it becomes about supporting them, as a whole person, in a way that is unusual because it’s beyond what I would typically see in an office setting.”
“One—leadership is fundamentally all about people.
Two—it’s about courage.
Three—it’s not defined by hierarchy.”
“Two—it’s about courage. Courage to work outside your comfort zone and to help other people work outside their comfort zones. I think it took courage on the part of public servants and leaders in the Public Service to work outside of our traditional policy and service delivery processes—an outcome, I think we should retain.”
“Three—it’s not defined by hierarchy. I really value those people who are the glue, who are helping us maintain cohesion and strengthen our teams through organizing events and coffee conversations, that’s an example of leadership happening at all levels,” Ms. Charette explains.
Same frame, different lenses
As my colleague begins to ask Ms. Charette how the three areas of focus of Beyond2020 have in some sense “come to life” through the pandemic, I have to remind her she’s still on mute. The irony of this as we discuss the challenges of virtual work doesn’t escape us. “‘You’re on mute’—the most famous words in the English language,” Ms. Charette laughs.
The pandemic has changed many things for the world. The thing about imposed changes is that they leave no choice other than to adapt. For the Public Service, Ms. Charette believes it solidified that being agile, inclusive, and equipped—principles developed well before the pandemic—have proven to be longstanding qualities to which we should continue to aspire.
Prior to the pandemic, it would have been unfathomable for the Public Service to completely change the way it works in so little time. “How did we do it? By being agile, by equipping ourselves differently, and though inclusion is still a work in progress, what it says to me is that those are the right concepts we should be working towards,” Ms. Charette tells us.
All of this led to a greater focus on outcomes. Through crisis, we were reminded of the importance of our duty to deliver services to Canadians effectively—an outcome she believes should always be put above following processes. “I think our transformation is a huge accomplishment. The next step for me is then to retain the best of what we’ve learned during COVID as we think about what the workplace of the future will look like,” she adds.
There’s no diversity and inclusion without equity
Ms. Charette affirms COVID is not the only crisis we are facing—racism, being the other, “a lack of inclusiveness, representativeness, and real understanding on the depth of the reconciliation journey that we’re on. I think this is the area where, as a Public Service, we need to make sure that we are as ambitious about building an inclusive workplace as we are about being agile and equipped.”
“We need to make sure that we are as ambitious about building an inclusive workplace as we are about being agile and equipped.”
Earlier this year, the Clerk of the Privy Council, Ian Shugart, put out a Call to action on anti-racism, equity, and inclusion in the Federal Public Service, calling on the Public Service to take practical actions to invoke change. “We need to make it not just about words, it’s about what we are actually doing differently to build truly inclusive workplaces. In my mind, it goes back to leadership at all levels—it’s about every single one of us thinking about how we do this in our teams and in our organizations,” Ms. Charette states. She’s written to all Deputy Ministers seeking letters outlining actions they have taken in response to the call to action and has committed to posting these letters online to ensure transparency and accountability around organizational leadership. She shares that the next step will be to look at the letters and answer questions such as, “are we seeing progress and concrete actions, or do we have to shift our approach as the Public Service?”
As the work continues, Ms. Charette is engaging with, and listening carefully to, employee networks and working with them to assess progress, sustain momentum, and determine next steps. “We have amazing people, who have been in this space for a long time, helping us determine if real action is being taken, or if we need to further define the actions we expect.”
Ms. Charette makes an important distinction about the approach to addressing equity, diversity, and inclusion; it goes beyond simply increasing representation within the workforce and meeting number targets. “Our actions have to go to the core of how we operate. Hiring people is good, but how do you retain them? How are we actually incorporating diverse points of view and experiences into how we assess and manage risk, how we design our business processes, how we develop polices and deliver services?” she says. “What should really drive us? Outcomes for Canadians. And Canadians are a very diverse population, so how are we making sure that we understand what their needs are and how they want to be served? Part of that is making sure we not only include, but also listen to, diverse voices around the table.”
The words ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ are of hopeful connotation, but racism and discrimination are the reasons we’re here. We can’t aspire to diversity and inclusion without addressing the truths, and that means, as Ms. Charette points out: “we can’t shy away from confronting the realities of our colleagues’ lived experiences of racism, intolerance, and harassment. We have to recognize and acknowledge how, in some ways, we haven’t been an inclusive, healthy, and respectful workplace.”
“We can’t shy away from confronting the realities of our colleagues’ lived experiences of racism, intolerance, and harassment. We have to recognize and acknowledge how, in some ways, we haven’t been an inclusive, healthy, and respectful workplace.”
Ms. Charette then asks me what I think, catching me off guard. I’ve never been asked that in an interview before. But I think so often and so heavily about this topic, for once pressure and nerves didn’t make me draw blanks. I add that I believe everyone has a responsibility to self-educate. Taking the initiative to learn about experiences different from our own is at the root of building understanding. Ms. Charette agrees: “we need to understand that the world view we come to the table with isn’t everybody’s lived experience.”
Mental health and physical health are two sides of the same coin
As things begin to re-open, shared spaces and crowded places still feel like a bizarre and distant concept to me. Ms. Charette asks my colleague, who lives in Toronto, how she feels about getting on the subway to which she promptly responds, “very bad.” Though the delivery of her response in this instance was humorous in nature, it’s exactly the kind of thing Ms. Charette says we need to consider as our workplaces re-open.
“I think we have gone through this most exceptional period since March of 2020, where we have been working in this fundamentally different way, that we are just at the beginning of understanding what this is going to mean for people’s mental health,” she says. A champion for mental health in her personal and professional lives for over a decade, she considers the fact that everyone has had a different experience—facing various levels of responsibility and pressure in their lives.
“I think we have gone through this most exceptional period since March of 2020, where we have been working in this fundamentally different way, that we are just at the beginning of understanding what this is going to mean for people’s mental health.”
Not to mention, the barriers between work and life have been disrupted—that short commute from one area of your home to another makes it incredibly challenging to separate the two physically and mentally. Ms. Charette cautions we can’t just jump right back to where we left off. “We have to be watchful of just how deep and profound the effects are on our people, and make sure we are supportive in ways that match their needs,” she says. “The good news is that we are better off than we were 10 years ago because we talk about these things now. There are better resources available. People are generally more aware, and as a result, I think there is less stigma around accessing help.”
It’s clear that Ms. Charette is a leader who has the best interests of her fellow public servants at heart. Like she said, we’re on a long and challenging journey in many respects, but each of us holds the power to guide the path towards a promising future for our agile, equipped, and most importantly, inclusive Public Service.
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