Clerk’s Remarks: Association of Public Sector Information Professionals


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May 25, 2017

It’s very nice to see all of you here so bright and early. I want to acknowledge the organizers and the team of public servants who, on top of being extremely busy, have worked to put this program and this event together. It’s quite magnificent. This is a great program and you are obviously very well-organized. To see that many public servants helping other public servants move forward warms my heart.  Let’s give a round of applause to the organizers.

I would like to get to questions and answers as quickly as possible. I am told you are not a shy group, and that’s the best way to figure out what you want to talk about. I will just deliver a few remarks to launch the discussion. If you have not had your second coffee yet, maybe it will get you going. I want to provoke a bit of an exchange with you.

This year is the 150th anniversary of our country. It is a nice round number and an important celebration. It also means that it is the 150th anniversary of the Public Service of Canada. We have been there since the very first day and, in many ways, before that. One of the reasons this is such an extraordinary country, and one that has been so successful on many levels, is that partnership between the Public Service and the governments that Canadians have elected generation after generation, year after year.

In my Annual Report to the Prime Minister this year I tried to look back on the Public Service - where we have come from, where we are, and where we have to go. I recommend you read the report if you have time, especially the online version, which is very cool. It has a lot more content and you can delve deeper. You can also find on my website speeches I have given to the policy community, the HR community, the ADM forum, and so on. What I have said about the Public Service and other issues is all there. I am not going to go through a repetition of what is in the report. I just recommend to you to go and take a look.

I also think it would be pointless for me as somebody who has worked in the public sector in Ottawa his entire career to lecture you about technology and how it is affecting the economy and society. What I would say is tech support in 1867 was probably pretty limited. It was probably the guy who tuned your abacus or something like that.

Since then, we have adopted, adapted to, and run through waves that have affected society, the economy, and the country generation after generation. Somebody in the Public Works Department had to figure out the telephone I would imagine.

The pace at which technology is affecting what we do as human beings, how we work, how we learn, how we create wealth and opportunity, the kind of jobs that we have, the kind of roles that we play, is clearly fast and arguably accelerating. We are in a world where technology is something we have to understand. This applies not just to people that work with new technology every day, like most of you, but also to people involved in all of the things that the public sector does for Canadians: the delivery of services, programs, regulations, legislation, negotiations, and so on. Understanding technology and what it can be used for, and the challenges, and opportunities that it brings, is the responsibility of every decision-maker in the Public Service.

I want to say one thing about technology in the public service when I started my career years ago. Back then, when you left your home and went to work for the federal government, the cool technology was at the office. We had a quasi monopoly on big computing. We had most of the data sets. We could do modelling that people outside of government could not do. We could decide how information would be packaged, put into reports and tabled in Parliament. The stakeholders, lobby groups, provincial governments and Members of Parliament were supposed to hold us to account could not match us for the kinds of capacity and information that was inside of government.

It is very clear now that you leave your cool technology at home when you go to the office. You work with tools and networks that are not as good in many cases as what your daughter would use to do her homework each night, what a university student would use to learn, what you use to deal with your banking or to book your summer holiday. We have catching up to do as we have fallen behind and we have a lot of work to do in terms of re-capitalizing our technology base. We also have work to do in terms of taking the work processes and rethinking and re-conceptualizing them in light of the new technology tools.

If you want a discourse on how technology is affecting the world, go read Tom Friedman. If you have not read Thank You for Being Late, his latest book, go find it. It is well worth spending a weekend reading the book catching up on the pace of technological change and how the “supernova”, as Friedman describes it, is working through the economy and society.

Let me now talk about Public Service if I can. Please allow me just to indulge in a little explanation of what I do and what my role is, because I am not sure it is that well understood.

I have three hats, three jobs and three roles. I am a Deputy Minister, like any other deputy minister colleagues, and I run a department, which has about 900 employees in it. It is my job to worry about that department’s capacity, well-being and its ability to deliver its mandate. I have a Minister, like other deputy ministers have, but who just happens to be the Prime Minister, which is pretty cool. I get to meet my minister on a regular basis to discuss the work we do to support him in his role. A lot of the time I have spent over the last two years as Deputy Clerk and Clerk has been concerned with the capacity and the tools within the Privy Council Office to support his activities and his role.

He is in Brussels today, and so I have to have several questions front of mind. Are we going to have secure communications back and forth? Can we move documents around within the building complex? What about our physical space, our cyber security or bringing people in and out of the complex?

My second role is Secretary to Cabinet, which is also very cool, because you literally sit in the corner desk at the cabinet meeting every week and watch the discussion of these 30 women and men making decisions. They have obtained the mandate in free and fair elections in a democratic system to make all kinds of decisions about what laws they want to pursue and what programs they want to implement. They went and knocked on doors. They have a mandate and they are delivering an agenda. Our job is to try to make the best use of maybe 150 hours of cabinet time that we have every year. They meet every week for three hours and cover issues from agriculture to veterans. We spend time trying to organize and make sure due diligence has been done, consultations have been done and all of the considerations have been addressed so as to allow, in a very brief period of time, those men and women to make decisions. We then pursue and move those decisions forward.

If you want a visual on this part of my job, go do the Parliament Hill tour this summer. Go to the East Block where you will find the original cabinet room and the original cabinet table. They have been there since 1867. You can see in the corner of the office this little tiny desk, and that is where the Secretary to Cabinet has sat for about 60 years. That is the job.  And if you want to go back further, you should watch one of those Tudor-era TV dramas. There was the king and the council, who were all aristocrats at the time and in the corner, was the Secretary to Cabinet. They often lost their job in a very brutal way in those days. There has been a secretary to the King’s Council for over 600 years and I feel very proud to be part of the continuity in that chain.

My third job is head of the Public Service, and I just want to clarify that I am not the CEO. I have very limited executive power to tell anybody to do anything. I have a little bit within my own department as a deputy head and I have influence over other departments and deputies because I can have a role in the appointment process of people being promoted, moved around and encouraged to leave, and because of this, people do tend to listen to me., but it is a soft power, not a directive power. The real power is with the Treasury Board. They are the ones that pass the policies, the directives and so on.

The fact that I get to talk to the Prime Minister several times a week means people worry about what I think about things, and that is also a source of some soft influence. And I am talking a bit about this because sometimes having influence within your organizations has nothing much to do with the organizational charts and direct lines of authority. You can be an influencer for all kinds of reasons. Because people worry about what you think about things, you can be somebody who is the generator of ideas. You can push the organizations forward. My message to you is whatever your organizational chart looks like, you have more influence than you think, and you should try to use it.

You have talked a lot about innovation, and we will continue to talk about innovation. It is a little bit of a buzzword of the day. Everybody wants to be more innovative. My only reminder to you would be that innovation is not just about being new, novel and different simply because it is new. Innovation is about being better. It is about having better impacts and results. If you are not providing better customer service, offering a better experience, improving the productivity of the internal processes of your organization, being more accurate or being more secure then there is no point being new or different. There is a strong link between innovation and deliverology. We have to think through what we are trying to accomplish. What is the business need? What is the requirement? How are we going to get there? How will we know if we are going to get there? We have to have the courage to scale up quickly things that are working and spread them around and if they are not working to shut them down and walk away from them. It is really hard in organizations that have sunk costs in IT projects to say: “you know what? It is not working; let’s try something else.” It’s hard in the private sector. It is especially hard in government because authority is so diffuse. 

This is part of the challenge that we are going to wrestle with: innovation for results. As my boss says, “better is always possible.”

The second topic I just want to commend you for spending a lot of time on today is workplace well-being: the nexus of mental health, resilience, stress management, harassment and discrimination. All of these things that matter, because no matter how many cool gadgets and tools we have, ultimately the Public Service has 260,000 people, men and women and they all come to work every day as human beings. They are embedded in families; and embedded in communities. They have stressors in their life from their kids, their elderly parents and what is going on in their lives. They do not just leave that behind when they go to work. They come into work environments where there may be poor management practices, where they may have difficult relationships with colleagues, where there is anxiety and uncertainty about where they fit in. There is career stress and other things.

Personal resilience, looking after yourself and thinking of yourself as an asset that needs to be tended and re-capitalized is really important. You cannot just come in and coast for 35 years to retirement on what you knew way back when. You do get older and you have to spend a lot of time keeping mind, body and soul together. I would encourage all of you to invest in yourself. Take about one per cent of your salary and put it back into yourself. You should be doing whatever is right for you and whatever your normal is in terms of looking after yourself.

I think that the public service is part of a society that is changing. This was a conversation conducted by the Mental Health Commission not too long ago. There are leaders in the private sector like Bell and other companies who really give us concrete examples of progress. We have to be better, and as the largest most complex employer in the country, we need to take workplace well-being very seriously. We are past, I think, the “Let’s Talk” phase of reducing stigma and making mental health a discussable topic to much tougher issues about management practices, the interconnection with the recourse and grievance system, harassment and discrimination. We will have results from the annual survey coming out in about a month that are not all a pretty picture to look at. We have to have the courage to confront the feedback we are getting and deal with it organization by organization.

I guess the other thing to say is we have to change the way we work. The theme in my report is change and continuity, continuity and change, and that is not a paradox. For 150 years we have had a public service in this country that served us very well. For the first 50 it was a typical patronage system, based on political favours. You voted for the winning candidate, you got a job in the post office. Most public servants worked in the post office. That was the kind of public service we had for a long time: customs and post office jobs with six people I think in the Privy Council Office. However, about 100 years ago, we moved to the model of a merit-based, non-partisan public service. Ever since, for a century, generation after generation, the people that Canadians have elected have been served by a merit-based public service with a great deal of continuity.

One of the things I dwelled on in last year’s report was that, after the last election, Canada went from one completely functional government to another in 16 calendar days, which is so under-appreciated and taken for granted. We were able to follow the priority shifts that Canadians had chosen in that election. Every government comes in a little bit nervous and a little bit suspicious, and they learn incredibly quickly that there’s a professional, excellent cadre of public servants there to support them and help them achieve their goals. That is really special. There are very few countries in the world that can say that.

I have had the chance to look at public services around the world, and have visited some. People have also come to visit us. There are some things that are done better in some countries, but pound for pound, all in, there is no country in the world where if we switched public services tomorrow and took their public service and they took ours, that Canada would be better off. You are that good. 

One of the reasons we are that good is we have the courage to admit our shortcomings and when things do not go well we try to learn from them. We do hot washes and audits and we have several watchdogs advising Parliament. We are accountable to elected legislatures. We are accountable to independent courts. We are monitored by a free press. These are valuable things. It is part of a healthy democracy. As challenging as it can be to have some of that oversight from time to time, I welcome it because these are the signs of a healthy democratic country. That is increasingly under threat in the world, and we have to work together as Canadians to make sure that we remain a free vibrant democracy for our kids and our grandkids.

The challenge is going to be balancing the support, excellence, and non-partisanship of an organization with 260,000 people in over 300 different organizations with a variety of mandates, from Canada Revenue to a small tribunal or agency, to adapting how we do things, our structures, our work processes, and our tools. The ideal mix, I think, is continuity in our values and role, but change in how we go about them. We have managed that generation after generation, and we will continue to do that in the future.

Right at the middle of that conversation, because it’s at the middle of the conversation in the rest of the country, is information management and information technology. 

Our success as a country depends on our success as a public service, and our success as a public service is going to depend very much on you. 

The good news is I know that we can count on you.

Thank you very much.

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