Clerk’s Remarks at the National Managers Community


December 13, 2016

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Thank you, Karen. To begin, nakurmiik. That was wonderful. I have seen some throat singing and that is throat singing of a very high caliber. Thank you so much for sharing with us.

I would also like to thank you Karen, for the introduction, and the team that organized this event.

To all the volunteers and staff at the National Managers Community who take extra time on top of your busy jobs to make these kinds of events, networks and learning opportunities possible for your colleagues and for all of us, a huge thank you is owed to all of that team.

Greetings to whoever is out there in Internet land, watching through technology. While it is great to be able to participate via the Internet, it is nice to be able to have these face-to-face gatherings from time to time. They’re all too rare, and I hope you are taking advantage of the booths, the exhibitions outside and the chance to do some informal networking. These are precious opportunities, so please make full use of them.

I will not take much time. I have a few messages to share with you but then I would like to get as quickly as possible to an exchange where I can listen to you instead of just talking to you. So if you have questions, start lining up at the microphones now and Karen will moderate and we’ll see where we go. It is your chance to give me feedback which I really appreciate on these occasions.

The first message I would like to share with you is to acknowledge how important this community is. You may not realize it now because you are in such tough jobs sometimes, but you have an enormous amount of influence.

There are about 260,000 public servants in over 300 organizations from coast-to-coast. For most public servants, the face of the Public Service is their frontline supervisors, the managers - the people that have those financial and human resource authorities. However, you create the work environments, and the work plans. Those of us that are presiding over departments and organizations, we often feel we are sitting at our desk, pulling levers, and there are some days, we are not sure what they are connected to, but one thing we know for sure is that they are connected to you.

There are a number of themes that deputy ministers get together and talk about in terms of moving forward the institution. But we always come to a point where we ask: are the managers with us? Are they going to have the training, the support, the capacity to move this initiative forward? So having a day like today is really important.

I would now like to take a moment because this is the season to look back at the year that is drawing to a close.

We had our last Cabinet meeting this morning, so there was a lot of “phew, the year is nearly over.” Parliament is going to rise in a day or two, and ministers are keen to get home and spend some time with their families and their communities, and to recharge for the year to come. At this morning’s meeting, ministers did a bit of stock taking on the year that is coming to an end, and I can tell you that it has been an incredible year of achievements. The government got going quickly last year, and in 16 calendar days, we went from one fully functional government to another one. It was amazing.

There are some advantages, in a world full of change and turmoil, and economic and geopolitical risks. I can go around the map of the world and say I’m glad we are in Canada. One of the reasons that we can be fortunate is that we have a non-partisan, excellent, merit-based public service that is there day-in and day-out in the service of Canadians. Every government comes in and knows that it can count on it for advice, support and implementation. As soon as you go to any other country in the world, you come to really appreciate it.

I am really proud to be the Deputy Minister to the PM. It is really cool to be sitting in the cabinet room as the Secretary to Cabinet. It is also an honour to be the Head of the Public Service. And all of it is because of your hard work and dedication, and I just want to say thank you to all of you.

I can also say that it hasn’t been the easiest year. There have been bumps along the way. The Public Service is incredibly complex. We are the largest employer in Canada, and the largest institution. We have hundreds of business lines, and as a result, it is more difficult to move the Government of Canada or the Public Service forward than it is in any other institutional environment in Canada. It takes a special kind of leadership and persistence, and we have had our rough spots this year.

But we can’t give up and I think what we have to keep doing is just being honest and candid with Canadians about what we do, what we get right, and what we don’t get right. There is a transparency and a candour about results, which is permeating. It is very much the style of this government, but it started before them in terms of open government and accountability. We also have to be clear about what we are trying to accomplish. How we are going to measure whether we are getting there? And when we get that feedback, do we need to be making any adjustments or do we need to be strengthening things that work or in some cases, discarding things that have outlived their usefulness?

These are hard things to do and the expectations of Canadians are that we will do it faster and with more determination. Canadians expect that we won’t wait 10 years to figure out if a program is effective or not. These are not easy issues, and it means a lot of constant feedback.

We are also being asked to develop solutions, policies, and regulations in much closer partnership with the people that are affected by them. I grew up in a public service where you could have meetings in Ottawa, come up with something, send it to cabinet, and then announce it. And if it didn’t go over well, it was the fault of the communications plan. It is not the way things work anymore. People expect to be involved in decisions that affect them, whether it is environmental assessments of energy projects or it is income security programs. So this means that we have to learn the skills of engagement, and consultation. We also have to be good listeners and at times some level of humility is needed.

There is an old saying that you probably have all heard about: “truth to power.” It is not really the bargain anymore because that kind of saying was premised on the idea that the Public Service had all the truth and they had all the power. It is not the case anymore if it ever was. There are plenty of places where you can go and get truth, or post-truth facts, or post-facts truth. We have to have an edge and a comparative advantage in the quality, the rigour and the Public Service perspective, which is not that of a stakeholder, of an interest group or of any particular region, but is the national interest and public interest, and worrying about future generations.

Ministers figured this out very quickly, and as they become an older government – we’ve seen this a few times – they become more and more dependent on the Public Service, to say, “I’m hearing all these different perspectives and points of view – can you help me cut through all the noise and chatter and find the way forward?” That is something we are very good at in Canada, and this takes me back to my earlier point.

This coming year, we will hit our 150th anniversary as a public service more or less at the same time as the country, and I am sure that we will think a lot about where we have come from and where we are going. I hope there will be lots of opportunities for that.

I think of the engagement we had through Destination 2020. The Blueprint consultations and engagements told us a lot about where public servants aspire to be, and what kind of public service they want to work and thrive in. As such, we have to ask ourselves this question: what kind of public service would you recommend your kids join? We also have to identify things that we need to work on. I won’t try to belabour all of them, but there is a couple that maybe I should just touch on because you, women and men in this room, are so crucial to them.

The first one is talent: finding the right people; developing, coaching and mentoring them to make sure they are moved in the right position. You are the people that make those decisions, not me. I pick maybe 50, 60 people in this whole Public Service. You are the ones making those hiring and staffing decisions. So, I implore you to be a little less risk-adverse collectively, make one risky hiring decision in the coming year. Go for young talent. Groom and grow it as opposed to putting 17 experience requirements in a statement of merit. I know that’s easier said than done, and you get big pools and it’s hard to sift and sort them. We have got to help provide tools to do that. But make a bet on young talent in the year to come.

All of us baby boomers are moving out, and we have to be replaced very quickly. People are going to have to move up and into new roles and new jobs faster than anything we have experienced in the last 10 years. If you are at the older end of the spectrum, like me, put some time into mentoring, teaching, coaching. Pass on what you know. You know a lot. You have values. You have knowledge. You have expertise. And it shouldn’t be at your retirement dinner that you’re passing it on.

So again, start active coaching, mentoring, and teaching now if you’re at that end of the spectrum. And if you’re at the younger end of it, listen to them! They have something to offer. I know we all look like we’re a kind of dinosaurs that are technologically challenged, but in fact we’ve actually been through a lot and we have experienced a lot working with ministers, stakeholders, and clients over the years. This year, I challenge you to take your boss out for a coffee. Let’s have a dialogue between the generations in the year to come.

Mental health is another important issue. I am proud of the progress we have made. We now have a national strategy, fully endorsed by the Treasury Board as employer, and by our bargaining agents. A real positive spot in union/management relationships is the work that we’re doing together on workplace well-being and mental health. I have challenged every deputy head to figure out a strategy that’s appropriate to his or her organization, and we are going to do things that touch across the Public Service in terms of training, capacity building, and wellness.

The one thing that mental health experts tell you is, yes, there are all kinds of things out there that affect mental health and workplace well-being, but one of the biggest determinants – probably the biggest one in the equation – is the kind of work environment that people create. And that’s decided a lot by you in terms of the stressors of uncertain direction, uncertain timelines, civility and conduct.  These are things that you have an influence on, both how you conduct yourself, and the norms that you lay down for your teams as to what is acceptable, what is not acceptable, and showing that you have your ears and eyes open to understand what’s going on with the people that you work for.

So if we’re going to make real progress on mental health, it’s not with an email from the Clerk or a plan from Minister Brison. It’s from you. You’re going to turn the Public Service into the kind of workplace that we owe our employees. There’s a national conversation underway about mental health. We are moving very quickly as a society to take it seriously and do something about it. As the largest employer for over a quarter-million Canadians, we have to do better, and this is a big challenge for the year ahead. I thank you in advance for everything you’re going to do about it.

Those are two of my favourite themes – talent and mental health. There are probably others we can talk about. I think increasingly you’re working in a seamless public service. I would encourage you to work really hard on basic management skills. Yes, there are leadership aspirations and programs and some of you undoubtedly will become executives or deputies. But what I really insist on is: sound management of people, resources and information is key; create work flows and work plans that are sound; and set the tone and the leadership. Just be a really good manager and it will make a huge difference, not just to your unit but to the Public Service as a whole.

If I was to leave you with just one message, it would be this one: you have a lot more influence than you think you do. And yes, there will be some days where you will probably feel a little bit helpless, and say to yourself: if only the Clerk knew; if only the PM knew. It happens. We all go through this. However, we accept responsibilities to lead on. You are the real face of the Public Service for 259,000 public servants.  

When I see the kind of people coming in at the recruitment fairs and the events and the networks, I see the kind of men and women that are attracted by the good traditional values that have guided us for 150 years:  excellent, non-partisan service for whatever government Canadians elect under the rule of law through free and fair elections. It’s really encouraging, and I’m incredibly optimistic. As we move into the celebration year of 2017, let’s not just celebrate our country, but let’s make sure to celebrate who we are and what we do for it.

Thank you very much.

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