Remarks at the National Managers' Community Learning Session


Check Against Delivery
December 14, 2017

Thank you for the kind introduction.

You are coming to the end of a long learning day. I know that these things are often very demanding - there will be much to process, think about, and reflect upon over the next few days.

The public service is busy on every front these days. Delivering on more than 300 mandate letter commitments, programs and services and dealing with crisis and emergencies. There is no quiet part in the public service. The fact that anybody takes a bit of their time, energy and commitment, and spends it on making their workplace a little bit better, is a great service to the rest of us.

I would like to convey my thanks to Karen Ellis, your champion for the national manager’s community for the past few years who is moving on to retirement. She is a tremendous leader and public servant, and has been a great champion for this community.

This year was tough - not just regarding the workload, pace or demand, but because of the pay system. We took a real hit in terms of reputation as a public service. We really have a lot of work to do in 2018 to fix that, which I will come back to later on in my remarks.

One of my jobs as Head of the Public Service is to be its champion and ambassador, but to also remind us of its state. And I assure you, it is in very good shape.

A think-tank in the United Kingdom called the Institute for Government evaluated the effectiveness of 31 public services from around the world. They measured, probed and tested, and found that on a composite rink of effectiveness, the most effective public service in the world is you. Congratulations! Give yourselves a hand.

It is interesting that the others in the top four were New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom - all of these countries are also Westminster systems of government. This ranking also reflects our capacity, our values and our ability to accept changes and renew ourselves.

There are a couple of things that make us as effective as we are. The first one is that we get a lot of feedback. From Parliamentary officers and committees, stakeholders, media, unions to employee groups and surveys, we constantly receive feedback. We have lots of people telling us that things could have or should have been done better. They do this in transparent ways, such as audit and evaluation functions. This is not a complaint.  On the contrary, in order to continue being effective, we must be open to that feedback and learn from it even if it is not always pleasant to be in the middle of a review and when it comes out, be the subject of criticism.  But as I have said, this feedback loop is important. We must fall down from time to time in order to be better.

The other important things that make us effective are to be part of these kinds of events.  These networks and communities make us better. We are constantly trying to improve our crafts, whether it may be regulation, policy, leadership or communications.

I joined the Public Service in 1981 before the Internet and cellphones. Over the course of time, we have adapted to waves of development. Do not let anybody tell you there were nostalgic good old days of the public service. It is absolutely not true. Today, our government is more transparent in what it does, which relates to the point that our public service is attentive to feedback. It is also more reflective of the country. We have been through wave after wave of change in Canada.

When there is a national conversation on a topic like mental health, and the country is changing, adapting and wrestling with its own issues, we have to be at the front of the pack, leading and reflecting that social change, as the largest institution, employer, and workplace in the country.

When the country decides that it has to buckle down and get greener or reduce its impact on the environment, the federal government must also make commitments, such as our commitment to eighty per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

I want to talk about some things that I would like you to consider as managers and leaders. Everything we aspire to do across 304 federal organizations, composed of 260,000 public servants, will come down to interaction between frontline supervisors, teams and work units. You are the pivot for all of the things that we would like to do within the public service. Particularly with respect to encouraging leadership and change, and whether or not it is going to happen.

Many of the tough managerial issues have to do with culture, patterns of behaviour, attitudes, and expectations. They are not technical issues. You can learn how to tweet. You can learn all kinds of technical things. But changing or reinforcing the values of an organization is the hardest part. And that is the responsibility we have as leaders for the other 260,000 public servants.

It is very clear that workplace well-being, mental health, harassment and discrimination are all intertwined. Workload stress and lack of direction, as well as communications can be a contributing factor to mental health issues. It is your responsibility as frontline supervisors and managers to spot issues and intervene to look after the welfare of your teams. You play a significant role in the well-being of your workplace. It is part of your role as leaders for the people you work with.

We are also a bit risk adverse when it comes to recruitment. Do we hire based on experience or look for somebody who is simply job-ready on day one? This might include screening out people because they do not have enough credentials or diplomas. Perhaps it is that they have not already done the job that they are applying for. This is costing us a great deal.  We are in a world where you have to think about hiring for potential. Hire for energy and values. The technical skills will come. You cannot be ready on day one. You have to be adaptable. These are not easy things to test for, and we are working with the Public Service Commission and others on how to correct that. It is easy to look for diplomas and credentials. It is not as easy to look for potential, energy and values. But that is where we have to go. Take a chance on someone because you think they have the potential. And if you all do that, imagine the pay-it-forward effects you will have across the public service.

Look for diversity and for teams where people have different characters, personalities and work habits. Observe and pay attention at how they learn. If you hire a group that is filled with clones of yourself, you are not going to get the best out of it. You need people who are going to challenge and spark. You have to try to mobilize that diversity of perspectives, viewpoints and life experiences.

One of the things that would probably benefit your teams greatly is becoming someone who is exceptionally strong at chairing meetings. If we shaved 10 per cent off the length of meetings we participated in by getting to the point more quickly, or resolving the task, we would pick up in time gained the equivalent of huge injections of resources. The best leaders that I have worked with and learned from had a real talent in time management.

Another important skill is the ability to give direction and make decisions. People want clarity. They want to know the timeframe and the expectations. Personally, I made an entire career off lists and calendars. Do not be the hero who has everything done in the final 48 hours. That will simply burn out your team. You can do a lot of forward planning, reverse engineering and thinking about what you are going to need in the next one to six months.

That is what people look to you for. If you dither and are not sure, you are adding background level stress to your teams, and it will show up. It will display itself in the health of your team and in the level of absenteeism of your employees.

I am sure that you are wondering how to get to the top. In almost every case, based on the careers that I have seen plateau or flame out, it is because of issues with people management. You need to be a team player and work with colleagues horizontally and vertically.  You need to be able to make tough decisions, provide feedback and deal with discipline or performance issues. Everything is about collaboration and partnership. This may be a tall order, but I am confident that you can do it.

I have asked a lot from you, and I am going to ask you to bear down and help me with one more thing: the pay issue. I am going to ask you to make sure your employees know where they can get help. They must be aware of all the services available to them in your departments and in your organizations. If you are a section 34 manager, you need to process any transactions that require your approval. Do not go home on a Friday while those transactions remain unsigned. Deal with them, and stay until they are completed. It will make a difference in the pace at which people are getting paid. You can do something. If you have some spare time over the quiet period of Christmas, clear out all your Section 34 issues. Find out where your files sit, and do what you can to resolve the backlog. I assure you, it will make a difference.

This is the time of year when we reflect on the last 12 months. 2017 was the 150th anniversary of Confederation. It was also the 150th anniversary of the public service. We have been there generation after generation as the world, and country changed. Even with the changes in government, Parliament, and Cabinet, we are still here with a continuity of values and service. We are the most effective public service on the planet.

You should be very proud that, among the people who work in the best public service on the planet, you are the leaders. Be proud of the difference you make to a very remarkable country.

Merci. Thank you. Miigwech.

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