Remarks at the Start-Up Canada Day Event


October 19, 2017
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Thank you for the opportunity to be with you this morning.

So the obvious question is, what does a 60-year-old have to say to a bunch of young entrepreneurs – what does somebody from the public service have to say to a bunch of start-up entrepreneurs?  It’s a good question.

First of all, if you have any pre-conceived notions about government or the public service, one thing I would say is that there is probably no sentence that you could say that will apply equally to all parts of the public service.  There are over 300 different organizations and they are built for different purposes and roles, and they evolve at different paces. 

We have organizations as big as the Canada Revenue Agency, which is over 40,000 people, down to small boards and tribunals of a dozen people and everything in-between.  They are organized and answerable to you through Ministers to Parliament, and Ministers play a very big role in how these organizations move forward.  Senior public servants have administrative responsibilities for making sure that the financial and human resources of an organization are well-managed.

Some of our institutions have been around for a very long time, and hope to be around for many more years to come.  This year is the 150th anniversary of Confederation.  It is also the 150th anniversary of the Public Service. 

When it started, they thought that the East Block and West Block of Parliament would fit the entire Canadian civil service because there was only a post office and a customs service.  That was it.  I have in my office a book which lists every civil servant in Canada at the time, and there are not many pages.

Today, Canada’s Public Service is comprised of 259,000 people organized in about 300 different organizations in all provinces and territories and every community across the country. In fact, 60% of that public service is located outside of the National Capital Region providing front line services.

My job as Secretary to the Cabinet is a job that goes back several hundred years to the first councillors to the Kings of England and France, and to the Parliament that I answer to. It has tradition and history. 

We are built for stability and continuity, and to be there generation after generation and government after government. Our main connection to the community here today is getting it right in terms of laws, policies, tax codes, trade agreements, all of the winning conditions and environment in which entrepreneurs can thrive and grow.  But we are not going to be an incubator or a start-up.  We cannot shutdown or declare bankruptcy.  We are built for stability.

The question for today is how do you bring entrepreneurial spirit to the businesses of government?  That is a tough question but the tools and techniques are very familiar.

One way of doing this is spotting good ideas and bringing them to scale.  It is being open, being out at various events, and listening to people. In fact, listening to people is key.  We are experimenting with lots of ways to do that online too, including on GCcollab, which is part of GCTools.  There are many other ways for people from different communities to get together, exchange ideas, and our job is to spot a good idea and say, this could have an impact on better health, better safety, or better education.  Spot it and get it to scale and run with it.

It makes sense to have a group of people that come in everyday with a licence to be creative.  We have incubators, we have hubs, and we have labs.  You can look on my website for information about these topics.  We have a central innovation hub, which is there to promote new ideas and new practices, and get them spread across departments as quickly as possible. 

We also have to have innovative tools, such as wikis, for people to talk to each other.  We need to get people out of their silos and stovepipes to talk to people across boundaries. Frankly, this is something that we are not always good at, but we are getting better and are working on things like GCTools, which is a suite of tools for people to connect to each other in an online environment and getting people mobile devices and smart phones so they can connect smarter and faster.

Everyone has heard about the cool high tech environment with the pool table and the ball room and all that kind of stuff. These environments lend themselves to getting teams together across disciplines, and getting generations to mix so that the older mentors can meet with the new people that have just joined. How physical space is organized is something that we are working on.  We need the ability to shapeshift our organizational structures.  This happens to firms when they grow from three employees to 30 to 300 to 3,000.  You need to be able to reorganize managerial accountabilities and responsibilities, create new branches and sections, and get rid of ones that are not needed.  It is something that we are too slow at.

Of course the main thing is talent. How to find it, grow it and retain it. If you find people that are creative, have energy and will challenge the status quo, you will get better results than if you hire a bunch of risk-averse, cautious, “I-need-a-manual-and-a-rule-book” people.  It is not easy to spot those.  If you hire based on risk-taking and creativity, you will get better results over time. I know, however, that is sometimes easier said than done.

It is a challenge to apply the attributes of entrepreneurship to a set of institutions that we expect to be there 150 years from now.  This is a very different public service than the one I joined as a university graduate in 1981.  That was before Al Gore invented the Internet.  It was before mobile devices, laptops and networks.  But guess what?  We were still working on trade issues, tax issues, and supply management then.  There is continuity to those kinds of challenges.

Every government is going to worry about where the wealth, and economic opportunity come from, and how to adapt to the changing environment. How are we going to distribute wealth and opportunity across Canadians so that no Canadians are left out, and how will Canada, which represents only 2% of the world economy and population, influence global issues, like climate change or peace. 

How are we going to sort out those roles and responsibilities between federal governments, territorial governments, provincial governments, and now, increasingly, indigenous governments?  Those are the classic Canadian issues that I worked on 35 years ago, and my successors will work on 35 years from now.    Just because there is continuity to the issues it does not mean that we cannot change and adapt.

According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, which is a multi-country survey of how people feel about their institutions, Canada has the highest trust in its private sector businesses of the 28 countries surveyed.  Canadian businesses are seen as trustworthy, which helps grow business more.  Canadians trust their private sector more because the rules set by the public sector are fair, and corruption and nepotism are not tolerated.  A strong public sector makes for a strong private sector, and vice versa.  All of the opportunities to talk across silos and boundaries are a Canadian asset.

One of the reasons we will do well in the 21st century, is that in Canada, we are compact enough that a videoconference can put people from the private sector, government, NGO’s, unions, and communities together very quickly -- something which is difficult to do in Germany, or Britain, or the United States. Our scale, as a country, allows us to be adaptive.  We can do tax reform, pension reform, new trade agreements, quickly and efficiently, while other countries are in a state of gridlock and unable to take decisions.  That is a Canadian advantage, which will make us all more prosperous and safe in the in the years ahead.

Thank you. Merci.

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