Clerk’s Remarks at the Policy Community Conference


March 28, 2017 

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Thank you,  everyone. Thank you for the opportunity. It's really a pleasure to be here and see the community, or a large part of the community, together.

There are some familiar faces, and experienced people, and a lot of obviously new public servants in the room. It’s really nice to see you together.

I want to begin by thanking the team that organized the conference and that has done all the work since last year when we launched the project to renew the Policy Community.

Let me start by singling out Diane Jacovella, Phil Jennings, Chantal Maheu, and the others on the Advisory Committee, for the work that they did. It’s not that you don’t have busy jobs as policy-oriented senior leaders, and to take time out and put some of your experience and energy into building the community, and helping us think through the role of policy in the public service, is a great contribution on behalf of all of us. So let me add my personal thanks, and thanks from the Deputy Minister Community. 

Thank you very much.

I get to announce or maybe you know already – secrets are hard to keep in Ottawa – new co-champions for the Policy Community Project for the next phase of work, Neil Bouwer and Rachel Wernick. They will be taking on this role in the next year. Welcome and congratulations.

I have known both of them for many years. One more than the other, but they’re terrific leaders in the community, and I really look forward to working with them.

The idea for the conference stems from a message that Diane and Phil have consistently heard from political professionals. They want opportunities to talk to others.

I am big on videoconferencing and technology. I encourage you all to get on GCTools.  If there is anybody in this room who is not on GCpedia or GCcollab or any of the other GCTools, you should be by Friday. 

It is important to get together physically in the same room and have the formal and informal exchanges. A lot of what we’re trying to respond to is the sense that there is a community, and the community should be nurtured as individuals and a collective.

How you grow and evolve in the future is really up to the women and men in this room.  It’s not going to come from Clerk’s templates and edicts. We can add our weight to conversations, but really you will have a better sense of the kind of business you’re in, how you spend your days, and what the challenges or the opportunities are that you are facing.

So I am looking forward to a dialogue with the community, on how to go forward.

The Public Service of Canada will be celebrating, as will the country, 150 years together of serving Canadians and their governments. It is a proud tradition and we have built generation on generation, adapting to the circumstances of our country, of the world, of the governments we serve,  and the expectations of Canadians. That journey is not over and will continue into the future. Ongoing renewal of how we go about our business is something that affects all of us as public servants, and it certainly affects the policy role within the public service.

There is this sort of struggle between continuity and change in the public service and getting that balance right. There is a tendency to over-dramatize innovation and change because we do need to constantly improve and constantly think about how we do our work and what are we trying to accomplish, and renew our capacities and competencies. I am very supportive of the policy innovation conversation. But there is also continuity that the role that we play is embedded in Westminster democracy in a federal system that has served Canadians very, very well for 150 years.

Sometimes your role is shorthanded as policymakers. No, empathetically, you are not policymakers. The people that make the policies -- that make the choices about where this country is going are elected by Canadians. They are answerable to legislatures and they are answerable to electorates. They are the policymakers.

If you want to decide the policies of the country, run for office. Get involved in politics. That’s for ministers and parliamentarians. What you are, are policy shapers, and you help the democratic bargain in this country, which has served us so well. It is that interaction with ministers, with parliamentarians that is really the most rewarding exchange that we have as public servants. We are given positions of trust and responsibility, the opportunity to provide advice, analysis, consequences. And then they wrestle with the trade-offs and the choices.

So that is a really special thing. And it is not something that happens in every country. There are other countries that rely entirely on academics or think tanks. There are other countries that rely entirely on the clash of stakeholders and the arbitrage of different views and points of view.

We have a long tradition that the non-partisan professional public service that is there, from Prime Minister to Prime Minister and government to government, is there to help governments execute and deliver the agenda that they were elected for and that they put to Canadians and got a mandate to deliver. I can’t tell you how precious that is and how important it is to preserve that. How we go about it is a process of constant renewal and challenge.

You’re doing policy in a world that is constantly evolving and changing. The pace of change is something that you all know how to go through: globalization, technological change, demographics, and social movements. Those are true. But it’s also that the relative place of a policy community in this room, in our society, continues to change and evolve. When I joined the public service a million years ago, we had an advantage, almost a monopoly, on data, on modelling, on doing computer simulations of different income security models. We had more information and more capacity than a lot of the stakeholders and other people out there, certainly than parliamentarians or ministers. That is not the case anymore, and I think that’s a shift for the better.

My cliché sound bite is: anybody with an iPhone and a Google account is a policy analyst these days. And that can be your minister; it can be their assistants, it can be a parliamentarian, it can be a stakeholder. We have no relative advantage anymore in speed. In fact, we’re probably at a disadvantage, and information, facts, data, background material, anybody with an iPhone and a Google account can provide that.

So it has to lie in something else, and it is that ability to do analysis and synthesis. It’s that ability to transform a fire hose or a flood or a tsunami of advice and analysis into actionable decisions by democratic governments.

That is the challenge I put to you.  As  you think through the policy function, that the test of public policy and policy in the public service environment is: does it translate into decidable choices for ministers, either individually, or as a collective cabinet, and does it translate into implementable decisions and policies?

If you want to pursue curiosity-based research to the northern frontier of your discipline, go to the academy. If you want to work with ministers and elected governments, be in the public service. What we need to have is much more back and forth where people are going in and out; spend some time in the academy;  in the think tank, on secondment or interchange; or work in another level of government; spend time in the private sector;  civil society;  in another country,  and come back in, and apply that knowledge and those skill sets to the task eternal, which is supporting democratically-elected governments.

We’re not great at that. We’re not great at mobility. We’re not great at being open. We have challenges in doing that. That is the kind of problem I would very much appreciate you trying to spend some time on over the coming weeks and months.

I also think there are lessons we can learn from the past. I myself am a veteran of many initiatives, many conferences. One of my predecessors, Jocelyne Bourgon, launched the whole policy research initiative. And other Clerks and other deputy ministers have made a tremendous contribution to the development of this community.

We have to avoid, in a rush of energy and adrenaline, to miss some of the lessons of the past. And I would repeat what I said in my report to the Prime Minister last year, and I know you’ve read it cover to cover, and will recognize the quote:

“It will be important never to return to a time where policy was developed in splendid isolation from the operations and services that implement it.”

You have to find ways to talk to each other or work with each other. Policies have to translate in the real world into implementable programs and services. People that work out there in grants and contribution programs, income security programs, frontline services,  or regulatory offices --  all have views and something important to say about policy. You should be listening to them.

The second part of the sentence is about how policy should never be developed in splendid isolation of “the people affected by it”. So those are all the discussions, which I know you’re going to have,  about engagement, partnership, how to involve people, co-development,  and how to listen to people. This is a government that has certainly given license for an enormous amount of consultation. People are out there experimenting with the techniques of how to involve people. Whether they’re in a foreign country or within Canada. We should continue that, and you should continue to work on how the policy development function evolves.

But then there’s the art of translating that into actionable decisions, and you’re going to get all kinds of conflicting and opposing points of view. We’re going to have to try to work to synthesize those into choices with consequences that cabinet ministers can wrestle with.

So we’re at the return loop in this government of a lot of consultations and engagement that were launched at the beginning of the government. It’s all coming back like boomerangs to the cabinet table. We have to help ministers wrestle with those choices and those issues, and they will be held to account in 2019 for the choices they make.

This is not easy. 

Everything in our nature, in our culture, and in our systems is vertical and departmental.  It is disciplinary, and what we have to find are better ways to do work across organizations, across stovepipes and silos, within departments, across departments. All of the really interesting issues are multi-department and they’re multi-disciplinary. So good public policy is always going to be about bringing disciplines together. 

Cabinet is about to wrestle with, as I’m sure you’ve read, the legalization and regulation of cannabis. There are legal issues. There are public administration issues. There are criminology and crime prevention issues. There are international relations issues. There are pure science issues about how to do blood testing. You need scientists, lawyers, criminologists, policymakers, all kinds of people involved in the formulation of that policy.

And that’s a relatively straightforward one compared to some of the other ones that we’re dealing with, like say resetting the relationship with Indigenous Peoples in this country, or how to deal with climate change, or some of the other big issues. They’re multi-disciplinary, multi-minister, and multi-government, and we are organized and we think in vertical terms.

How do we develop a community, how can we have exchanges of ideas, of personnel, more flexible personnel tools?

So those are the challenges I launch at you. I think there are sort of two clusters of issues, and don’t write this down as a tablet from the Clerk. If you have a better way of doing this then go ahead. But there is a cluster of issues around skills and competencies. The leading edge of policy development, policy research, policy thinking is going to always be moving. It’s obvious today that we’re into the frontiers of data analytics, artificial intelligence, all kinds of applications of technology that manipulate and use information that were inconceivable even 10 years ago.

The skill set around engagement, partnership, outreach, getting out there and not sitting in your cubicles waiting for ideas to come into you, but going out and finding them. And the emphasis on results and impact. At the end of the day, the measure of a policy is not its elegance, but its impact. Did it actually accomplish something? And we are working for a government and I don’t think this is going to go back with any future government that is relentlessly focused on impact and results. The measure is not how much you spent on a program or how many meetings you had; it is whether you had an impact on the society or the economy or the world.

So we need to constantly reflect on what our objectives are and how to measure them, and if we have the data sources to support a dialogue on the impact of the interventions.

If things are working, do we have the ability to scale them and expand them rapidly? If they’re not working, do we have the courage to say: it’s not working, let’s shut it down, which is frankly something we’re not good at as public servants either. Having worked and built a program, we tend to defend it long past its best before date. And so that ability to churn and renew and refresh our program set and our activities, it’s hard for ministers and it’s really hard for public servants. We are going to have to continue to work on that.

You are a community. There are scientists, there are regulators, there are lawyers, there are project managers, there are people who work in all kinds of aspects of the public service. We discovered through the pay system that we have cooks, that we have astronauts, and that we have all kinds of people working in all kinds of classifications.

There is, roughly speaking, a policy community with its boundaries stretching into research and its boundaries stretching into service and programs. You need to develop as a community, whether that’s recognition of peers and the feedback of job well done and the kinds of feedback that any community would want to have. Networking - how do you use the new tools, and the old ones of getting together and replenishing. Mentorship, leadership, career paths, career development.

This has been done very well by the financial community, the communications community, the science community’s working on it. What is appropriate for you? And governance and machinery, and how the policy function should best be organized. I think you’re hearing from Geoff Mulgan and others in the course of the conference -- different governments and countries have tried different things. I’m open. I know the Prime Minister’s open to how he would do that.

My plea is give a thought to the poor Deputy Minister, because the Westminster bargain is that she, or he, is the last line of accountability for your department or your portfolio’s input and advice to that minister. And there is a bit of a tendency to want to stovepipe each of the functions to credentialize them and professionalize them. And there are reasons to do that. We want the rigour, we want the professional development paths, we want career progression, we want to establish greater rigour in say project management or regulation. So you will be pulled towards credentialization and professionalization of the policy function, but be careful. You can create a guild, which is very closed and will be difficult for people to come in and out of. So pay attention to how you go about that.

The Deputy Minister is not going to be helped by having a management table with a Chief Risk Officer, a Chief Strategy Officer, a Chief Technology Officer, a Chief Information Officer, a Chief Policy Officer, a Chief Results Officer. Communities tend to want to institutionalize what they do. It’s not helpful to the Deputy Head all the time. Sometimes you’ve got to do the best you can with your management team and the resources you have. So think about the boundaries of these different roles and how they fit together.

That said, I think we’re all open to better ideas and better ways of doing things. As my boss says, better is always possible, and I agree with him on that, as I do on so many other things.

So, I think I'll stop there. I think it's a very, very positive, very exciting time to be in the Public Service of Canada.

We celebrate 150 years with a great sense of optimism. If you want another version of this, just watch the news and see what’s happening to some other countries around the world and the kinds of problems that they wrestle with. I actually had dinner with an Australian deputy last week who has had 11 ministers in six years. How do you ever get anything done?

When I compare that with my own situation, I take heart.

There are some things that are real assets to Canada. It is a small, compact country where you literally can get people together in a room like this, or in a virtual space, have meaningful substantive dialogue about where we want to go as a country, and those decisions can be taken and implemented, unlike so many other countries. And that can be done in full partnership with a diverse country and that we can involve the people affected by those decisions in shaping them, which means they’re more likely to be seen as legitimate, and they’re more likely to stick and not be reversed by the next wave of politicians. It’s an enormous advantage for Canada.

You are a big part of that future, and I hope you feel some of that excitement. What you do is really important. It’s a great time to be in Canada. It is a great time to be in the public service and it is a great time to be in the policy community. So thank you very much.

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