Clerk's remarks at the 2017 Michelle C. Comeau HR Leadership Awards Ceremony


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May 11, 2017

Good evening everyone. I would like to start by congratulating all the candidates and recipients we will be celebrating soon, and to make just a few opening remarks. I have three titles and wear three hats that are often sort of shortened to “Clerk.” 

The first is that I am a Deputy Minister to a Minister, who just happens to be the Prime Minister, which is really cool. I am, however, a typical Deputy Minister running a department. There are almost 900 people at the Privy Council office for whom I have stewardship as a departmental deputy, and I really appreciate the support that I get in that function.

My second title is Secretary to Cabinet. In this position, I try to make sure that the Cabinet keeps moving forward, that things are ready, decisions can be made, and implemented. I get to sit in the corner seat of every Cabinet meeting, and that is very cool, too.

The title that never gets mentioned is the only one that is written into legislation, and that is Head of the Public Service. That is the title I actually treasure the most. On May 8th, I tabled in Parliament my Annual Report to the Prime Minister, required by law, on the state of the Public Service during the previous year, and on our accomplishments and priorities going forward.

This is my most important role. I chair the deputy ministers breakfast and I have an important role in selecting senior public servants for promotion and in managing the community of deputy ministers. About half of what I do, however, is managing personnel issues, for better or for worse. I manage both the easy issues and the difficult ones. I really value the function and the role that human resources plays in leadership positions across the Public Service. After all, everything we do really just depends on people. We are a people business. We are a service. We are a community. We are a family.  We are an ecosystem. It is all about people and it always has been.

This year, we are celebrating 150 years of the country. You might have seen some of the signs around town. There are lots of events, and I hope that you get a chance to participate in them. That means it is 150 years of having a Public Service that has served governments since that day back in July 1867. Over time, we have evolved, supporting governments and serving Canadians, so I’m in a bit of a historical mood these days.

When we started, it was a classic sort of Public Service for the time. Most people worked for the Post Office, for Customs, and for the Agriculture Department. Most jobs were just awarded by the party in power as rewards for having supported the local candidate. It took almost 50 years before we created the modern version of a non-partisan, merit-based Public Service. 

I am not saying this to start a history lesson. I do recommend you read my report because there is a chapter on the history of the Public Service that you might find interesting. It is because it has been part of our journey as a country. The fact that we live in a part of the world that is unusually stable, peaceful, tolerant, prosperous, free, and productive, is because of the partnership between governments and a non-partisan, values-based excellent Public Service that has been going on for a century.

We wrestled with the challenges of the day, whether it was a depression or the world wars or the changes of new technology that have come one after another after another. It’s always been that partnership, and it is a really important one. We do our job very, very well.

I have said more than once to cabinet ministers and the Prime Minister that there are parts of public services in other parts of the world that probably do some things better than us. Maybe we would trade what they do for what we do. However, all things considered, there is no Public Service anywhere in the planet where, if we traded places, Canada would be better off. None. So be proud of what you do as public servants and be proud of what we accomplish together.

That is because of the men and women who come in everyday trying to serve their communities, trying to help their departments and their ministers develop policies, laws, regulations, deliver services, engage scientific inquiry, and stand on guard for thee by keeping people safe at the borders and elsewhere. This is really, really important work.  It is those people who make all the difference.

There is nothing more important in what I am trying to do -- to help the Prime Minister deliver his agenda today and build the capabilities of the Public Service for his government and for all future governments going forward -- than paying attention to the people who come in, the people who are here, and the people who we want to attract and recruit and bring in in the future.

I have set out various priorities, and we can go through them any time you want. I am happy to talk about them or take questions, but the priorities are pretty obvious to people in this room. They include some of the challenges and opportunities that we have to tackle together.  We need to tackle them together. It is not going to be done with a Treasury Board policy or some Clerk’s letter or mandate. These are things that we are going to accomplish collaboratively together with your experience, your wisdom and your ideas, working in partnership with everybody, from frontline managers to the unions to the equity groups, and so on. We’re going to tackle these. I will just reinforce some of them for you.

Mental health and workplace well-being is part of a national journey. Canada is taking this issue seriously. We are burning away stigma and taboo and making these issues discussable. There are other employers that were out there first, but we are catching up quickly. With 260,000 people in 300 organizations, the biggest employer in the country, the Public Service has to be a leader in mental health and workplace well-being.  We are having to move past the ‘let’s talk’ phase. There are some tough issues in management behaviours, in support systems, in the medical model that we use for mental health and we’re going to need to work through those in the years to come.

We obviously have to attract, retain and develop talent. We cannot just come in and coast off our university degree for 35 years and then retire. We are always going to have to learn new skills and we are going to have to be nimble and able to move within and across organizations, learn new things, and tackle things that you never even imagined that you would have to be working on. That means an internal learning system, using all kinds of approaches.

We have to be very attentive not to finding and developing the skills of 10 years ago, but the skills for 10 years from now. For example, where are we going to find these data analysts and big data people? How are we going to work with the post-secondary institutions and the colleges to develop them?  How are we going to take people who are already inside the Public Service and give them some sense of what are the right questions to ask and how to manage the data people who we’re going to hire?  How do they apply to services or to policy development? Finally, there are all of the kinds of capabilities that we have to develop: project management, scientists, communications, social media, and related skill sets. That’s something we are already very good at.  We’ve always been able to renew and learn and get better. Better is always possible, my boss says, and he’s right. So far we’ve been able to keep up with that.

There is a lot of pressure from Canadians for the Public Service to be fast, nimble and agile. They want their services and they want them now. They want them on their smartphones. They want them 24 hours a day. They want to be able to engage decision-makers before policies are made, not after. There are lots of things that we have to do to keep up with what Canadians expect.

I’m very optimistic, however. We are going through a lot of change, and I am sure you are at the frontline to feeling that. You would hear about a lot of the stresses and strains on the Public Service through your systems, surveys, recourse and grievance processes, and hallway conversations. I know you also work hard helping managers find people, move people, deal with cases and so on.  It is really important.

The diversity of our country is a fact. We must now move to inclusion. That is a choice. It is an act, it is decisions that we will take together. We have to reflect the country, we have to look like the country, and we have to make sure not just that we have diverse faces in the room, but that we also listen to them. We have to find ways of wrestling with problems and taking decisions where no voice is left out and no one is left behind as we struggle with these issues, try to give advice, and come to decisions. Inclusion is much tougher than diversity, much more challenging, but that is where we have to go.

The demographic change is pretty obvious. We now arguably have four generations working side-by-side in the Public Service. These generations think differently. They learn differently.  They behave differently.  The most urgent thing we have to do as a Public Service over the next couple of years is to figure out how to run big complex organizations with generational diversity, how to take the wisdom of experienced employees and transfer it to the new incoming cohort with all their energy and idealism and drive through mentorship, teaching, and coaching. This is because the Baby Boomers like me will be gone in the next few years. We are going to be promoting people quickly. We are going to be moving people around more frequently, and we have to make sure that the value system and the wisdom and the judgement that is acquired through years of hard work and service is passed on to the newer cohorts that are coming up behind.

The good news is I know we can do it. We have built a unique Public Service in the world, extraordinary in its achievements and full of potential. I know that we will be there for Canadians for many, many, many years to come. I want to congratulate all of you who support this extraordinary Public Service. The work and people in human resources is amongst the most important work done in the Public Service. We do not say it often enough. We do not thank you often enough. We do not celebrate it often enough, and that is why it is so much fun to be here tonight.

Thanks so much.


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