Clerk’s Remarks at the Leaders Beyond 150 Workshop
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May 29, 2017
Thank you for the very generous introduction and to the Institute of Public Administration of Canada for organizing this event. Thanks also to Claudette: Miigwetch. Claudette is a great friend of the Public Service. She and I cross paths a lot at events in the National Capital Region, which is firmly in un-ceded Algonquin territory. It is always great to see Claudette starting off our day in the right way.
I am very aware of the length of time between me and you, as you start your careers in the Public Service this year. I did the math on the way in, and I will be marking my 36th anniversary next month. I started in the Public Service in June of 1981. If there had been an orientation session that summer, and there was not, there would be some old guy who started his career under Mackenzie King in 1945 speaking to them. I thought, wow, that is a big distance.
A lot has happened in the last 36 years in terms of the Public Service’s work environment, and many of the highlights are covered in my Annual Report to the Minister. I encourage you to go to my website and read the report and my speeches. I have talked to many groups in the last month, including the assistant deputy minister community, policy groups, the HR community, and the IT community. What I have had to say about various things is very clear.
There is a tendency at events like this to talk about the change part of the agenda and what has to be new and different and how we have to innovate and how we have to move forward. That is all true, but it is embedded in a story of continuity as well, and I tried my best to capture that in the Annual Report to the Prime Minister.
This is the 150th anniversary of Confederation. Obviously there were people here before 1867, but the Canadian state is 150 years old. It also means 150 years of the Public Service. We were there on the first day. It has been an arrangement that has served Canadians very well for 150 years.
About 100 years ago, around the time of the First World War, we moved from the kind of public service where the jobs in the post office and the customs offices went to friends of the party that won the election to a non-partisan and merit-based Public Service. For 100 years, that has been the arrangement. Government after government, prime minister after prime minister have been able to count on a non-partisan, professional, merit-based public service that is there to deliver whatever Canadians need at the time and to give advice to the men and women who were elected to make the decisions in the Cabinet room and in Parliament.
Maybe it has been part of your high school civics curriculum or maybe some of you have delved in to it more deeply. Never, ever take it for granted. You just have to look around the world at the governance and the institutions of countries around us. This is something that has served Canada as a relatively small part of the global economy and the world power structures really, really well. We were able, almost two years ago now, to move from one elected government of a particular stripe to another one in 16 calendar days. Nobody else can pull that off, and that is a tribute to the work of the Public Service.
There are values in working in the public interest. In indigenous circles you would talk about seven generations, but there is a Public Service version of that: that we are there for the long run. We are about public assets, public funds, public interests, and public resources, which means that we are not Google and we are not Facebook. We are the Public Service of Canada, and that is a topic I am happy to go on and on about. You are joining that bargain between the public sector and the public service and the men and women that get elected to make the tough decisions.
As the Clerk, I have three key roles. I am a Deputy Minister, like my colleagues who are joining you on the panel. I have a department of about 900 employees. We are the department that serves the Prime Minister, so my minister is the Prime Minister, which is kind of cool. He is also the Minister of Youth and the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs. PCO also serves the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons and the Minister of Democratic Institutions. In this role, I am just a typical deputy minister trying to make a department run. However, it is especially interesting when the Prime Minister is your minister.
I am also the Secretary to Cabinet. About half of what the Privy Council Office does is make sure that Cabinet time is well used. Those are the 30 men and women who get to make the tough decisions and decide the laws, the policies, and the programs. They knocked on doors. They got the mandate. They have the democratic legitimacy. They have every right to make the decisions that they want to make. What we try to do is set up their conversations with as much evidence and facts and due diligence as possible, and consider the legal risks, costings, implications for foreign policy, federal-provincial-territorial relations and our work with Indigenous Peoples.
If you have one three-hour Cabinet meeting a week when the House is sitting, you have got about 100 hours to ration for everything from innovation policy to veterans to NAFTA negotiations. Optimizing that time is really hard work, and that is what we do at the Privy Council Office as the Secretariat to the Cabinet. So it means I actually sit in the corner for every Cabinet meeting. I have now gone to about 300 of them over the course of 10 years. That is a cool spot as well.
That is enough about me. You want advice on what new employees of the Public Service can do to become public service leaders?
The first thing you have already accomplished, which is being engaged and involved. Do not be passive. Do not be a passenger. There are many ways that you can shape your workplace and your community. It could be through IPAC or through an affinity group. It could also be through the charitable campaign or through the unions. There are representative groups for all kinds of people whether it is Indigenous employees, members of the LGBTQ2 community or youth networks.
We have tried to create the electronic resources that make it much easier to do that. By the end of the week, you should have signed up for the GCtools, which are highlighted in my report, such as GCpedia and GCcollab. These are to breakdown silos and make sure that you have full access to what’s going on across the Public Service. Get yourself an account on GCcampus, which is part of the Canada School of Public Service, because they have defined the kinds of learning and courses that are appropriate to the Public Service of today, and they are constantly being renewed.
I was that young public servant who got involved in organizing the staff meetings. I was the volunteer fire monitor for my floor. I got involved in a committee that was redesigning the workspace when we moved from one building to another. There are lots of ways you can be involved. Just get engaged and stay engaged.
My second point is going to sound funny, but it is true: try to relax about your career path. Do not set goals that say you want a specific position by a specific date. It will not happen. Go with the flow. If you follow interesting work and if you follow mentors and people you can learn from, you can navigate your way. You will end up in parts of the Public Service you never imagined and you may come in as a policy person and end up loving management and service delivery; or you may come in services and end up in communications and so on.
That is the great asset of the Public Service with 300 different organizations: we do everything. We have cooks, we have astronauts, we have lighthouse keepers, lawyers, accountants, policy people and the list goes on. You have the opportunity, if you are self-motivated, to go off into different directions and choose your own career path. There is no guiding mind watching you at an individual level. We try our best to develop portfolios and communities and make sure we have bench strength, but it is really up to you to drive your own career path. Just relax if you are not a deputy minister by 40. The people that get stressed about that burn out. You are much better to just come in every day and be mindful about the work you are doing.
I also encourage you to take risks. If you are relatively mobile and you are not encumbered with a mortgage and kids to drive to soccer and a partner who has a job, which reduces your ability to uproot: move. Take a chance; take a regional assignment or do a micro mission. See if you can get an international posting. Life will close in on you and you will find the transaction costs of moving geographically get higher and higher every year. You have an opportunity to take advantage of the fact that we are in every province and territory and in many countries around the world. Your 20s and 30s are probably the best time to do that. We offer all kinds of different roles in different places.
What skills are valuable? They are old perennials, frankly. Learning to program in a particular coding language is great, but I learned fortran in university. It is not terribly useful right now, except in some departments where they still have mainframes. The technology is going to change. However, what does not change is time management. You cannot read everything; you cannot be everywhere; and you cannot go to every meeting. If you try to, you will kill yourself. You have to make choices about the use of your time. You have to be mindful, to use the phrase that is popular today and squeezing the best out of your day is more important than the number of hours you work.
Some of the people who I worked for were just superb time managers. They would come in at a reasonable hour, leave at a reasonable time, take their kids to soccer. They got more out of the day. Just think about time management skills. They are teachable. They are learnable. They’re not just intuitive.
It is also important to be able to communicate in the two official languages. If you are shaky on your second language, work on it. This is a bilingual institution that represents all Canadians in both official languages. There are online training courses. There are opportunities within your departments. There are peer learning groups, but the skills that make people move forward are very straightforward. The ability to take complex material and explain it verbally is very important. You often get five minutes before a meeting to tell somebody the essentials of what will be discussed. It is about boiling down and synthesizing and about taking complexity and turning it into simplicity. If you are doing the opposite, you are not going to do well. What ministers and MPs and other people want is somebody who can explain clearly the trade-offs, the choices, the implications or the rationale. Verbal and written communication skills are some of the most valuable things I can think of.
The other is people skills. I have seen more promising careers derailed by gaps in people skills, which means the inability to work with colleagues, to supervise, to give feedback or the inability to deal with difficult issues and just kick them upstairs.
Poor people skills will end your career. I cannot guarantee good people skills will bring you to the top, but they are very important. It is a much better Public Service than it was 20 years ago in terms of people management. There is always work to do, and I talk about that in my report, whether it is addressing harassment, discrimination or mental health and workplace well-being. A deficiency in people skills will end your career or shorten it. Be kind to each other. Be respectful. These are just traditional, longstanding values, and they really matter.
Take care of yourself. You cannot coast on what you know now. You cannot work all the time. You are a whole human being. You bring that to your workplace and to your colleagues, and you have to start thinking about your health and your resilience. As you get older it takes more work. You should be taking some of your salary, putting it aside and investing in whatever works for you, whether it is a gym membership or a personal trainer or a piece of exercise equipment, which does more than hang the shirts for ironing. You have to invest in you. That big brain that we have invested in is not going to work if your body breaks down and your soul breaks down. Look after yourself. Be resilient and take care of yourself.
Just remember: you are not in the private sector. There are lots of things that the private sector does really well, but they are not accountable to the Legislature. They do not have 17 officers of Parliament telling them constantly what they could do better. They do not have the media following them in the way that we do. This is the bargain we accept. We have ministers accountable for every penny. We manage public funds. We manage public assets that belong to all Canadians for all generations. We are trying to help governments get out of short-term thinking, issue management, and reacting to the tweet of the day. Instead we want them to think about where they want to be 5, 10, or 50 years from now. This means always leaning against the pressures on politicians. That is what we do. They do not have that in a lot of other countries. They just simply bring in senior public servants of the stripe of the government of the day, and every time there is a change of government there’s a massive disruption.
Canadian governments have been very well-served by our system over the years. This is a huge asset for Canada.
It takes work. It should not be taken for granted. We have seen governance breakdown in other countries. We can go around the map of the world. Never take it for granted. We are entrusting to you the stewardship and the leadership of the Public Service for the next generations to come. You have an excellent panel of leaders to talk to you in more detail and they can share their insights.
Those are some of the things I wanted to get across: continuity of values, continuity of role, but constant change in how we go about our work.
Thank you very much.
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