Clerk’s Opening Remarks to a meeting of the Cohort XI - Public Sector Leadership and Governance Program


Check Against Delivery
December 5, 2017

Good afternoon everyone.  Thank you for having me here today.

For some time now, I have been thinking about the software of this country. In looking around the world and watching the news, you notice a fairly bleak set of issues tied to governance. This made me realize that we are pretty lucky to be living in Canada right now.

Canada operates within the Westminster software of governance, which has evolved for over seven or eight centuries. This governance software includes the basic principles of the Crown’s powers, the Crown’s taking advice from the Executive, and the Executive being responsible and answerable to Parliament. Over time, this system has turned out to be quite adaptive.

When I compare our system of governance to other countries in the world during the same period, I am struck by the difference.  France, for example, is a very effective and successful country, yet since their revolution, they have had three monarchies, two empires and five republics.  All of it in less than 200 years.

We ask ourselves: why is it that our system of governance has been able to adapt reasonably and effectively to demographic shifts, waves of immigration and depressions? It is by no means to say it has been a perfect journey. There have been many setbacks, but there is something interesting here.

The International Civil Service Effectiveness (InCiSE) Index recently studied the public services of 31 countries and ranked their effectiveness. The most effective public service on the planet last year was us. One of the reasons we are the most effective is because of our continuous renewal of the governance software. I am convinced that this is what Westminster governance is. It is learning and adapting.

Canada ranked first with New Zealand coming second, Australia third and the United Kingdom fourth. There is certainly a pattern here with respect to the Westminster style of governance. These are all effective countries.

The World Bank’s indicator on government’s effectiveness revealed similar results. According to its report, Canada and New Zealand are near the top of the 95th percentile. The U.K. and Australia are in the 90th percentile. Again, there is something about the Westminster system that seems to lend itself to better governance.

We are a unique hybrid in Canada. The most striking thing about other Westminster models is that they have no Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  With respect to conversations about immigration, Indigenous Peoples, and LGBTQ2 rights - there is no charter among other Westminster models, and there is no going to the courts.

We are a Westminster style of governance with a Charter. This makes us very different from the U.K. or Australia. When immigrants or refugees come to Canada, they have the Charter of Rights and Freedoms the second they step off the plane.

The stresses and strains on the Public Service today boil down to pace, the speed at which issues come to governments, as well as the ability governments have to turn analysis, advice, consultation and engagement into actionable choices in Cabinet.

That is the value-added that we provide. There is a real art and science to that.

There is a growing expectation, which the current government doubled down on, that people who are affected by laws, policies, regulations and services should be involved in the creation of them. I am going to talk to the regulators’ community about that next week. Currently, all of us in the Public Service are learning new skills regarding consultations and engagement, and how to move forward with them.

The art for us is going to be making sure that we have our eye on the public’s interest. If we do not engage the people who are affected by regulations, we are at risk of stakeholder capture.

It is difficult for a minister to make everyone happy. The minister has to choose across a broad spectrum of issues and views. That is what Cabinet is for and I revert back to the Westminster model of governance.

At the end of the day, it is the women and men in the room that matter. I have seen very different conversations develop based on who was in the room, where they came from, and what their backgrounds were. Their life experiences mattered very much.  Ultimately, that process of who is involved in running for office, as well as who is getting into the legislature and making it into Cabinet, makes a big difference.

We have been on a journey of ever-widening circles of inclusion.

I will close with a point regarding the false nostalgia of the golden era of the Public Service. It still upsets me – the idea of some mythical times when senior executives would sit around and whisper into the ministers’ ears. They would whisper and make deals among themselves.

Well in those days, the senior Public Service was all male.

In 1984, 90 per cent of deputy ministers were male. Additionally, they were all white and mostly Anglophone. Now, to be fair, there were mechanisms where kids of humble backgrounds could rise up and move forward. That is how we got David Johnston as Governor General. There are many social mobility stories. But it was for many a hostile environment - as the recent LGBTQ2 apology reminds us.  No space was made for Indigenous Peoples or people of different races in any positions of executive authority. There were very few women, until recently.

Canada has become more inclusive.

I realized long ago that, in order to make better decisions, you need more voices and perspectives around the table. Sometimes, we are prone to blind spots or biases, and it helps to have a diverse set of views. Good leaders will seek out diversity. They will go hunting for it.

There was really no such thing as the ‘good old days’. I strongly believe that you are living the good days now.  You are in the most interesting country. People around the world are turning to us and asking: how do you do it?

People come to Canada to learn about how to conduct public administration and public policy in various fields. We have the best tax collection and statistical agencies on the planet.

Obviously, we can improve on many areas.  The key is to open up, learn from our mistakes and improve for next time.

If you are moving into positions of leadership, know that it takes a kind of humility and willingness to admit that processes and decision-making are not perfect.

Avoid becoming cynical, defeatist or jaded.

We are, in fact, a very efficient and productive Public Service, in a very optimistic and unique country.

Thank you.

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