Clerk’s Remarks at the 21st Annual Carleton University School of Public Policy and Administration (SPPA) Gala


Check Against Delivery

Thank you for the invitation to be here and share this evening with you. Congratulations to Audrey and the team that put together this event, and a shout out to those of you who give your time and energy to making the school just a bit better for your colleagues.

I will start by acknowledging we gather on the traditional territory of the Algonquin peoples of this area and thank them for their welcome. I also want to extend greetings to administrators and faculty. Carleton University is very special to me and my family – my wife is a graduate, my son is a graduate and both of my kids have taken part in many of the sports and recreation programs here.

I spent seven years on the board of governors and several of its committees, coming over a few times a month and trying to pitch in. I learned a lot about the modern university. I know what a great institution you are and congratulations on the anniversary you just celebrated. I know Carleton has a very, very bright future.

But I assume you invited me here to talk about other things. When I was invited to be here tonight, I was at first pleased and a little flattered, but that soon gave way to a little bit of anxiety – could I say something useful to you, for whom public administration and public policy was your chosen field of study, and for many of you, your chosen career path.

I did the math, and the analogy would be going to my own masters graduation in 1980 (we did not have a dinner) and listening to some old guy who had started his career under Mackenzie King. And I know some of you are asking yourself the same question – you have mentally slotted me away in demographic compartments – 60-year-old white male – and have your own automatic assumptions about how I have lived my life or how I see the world. Many of those assumptions would be wrong.

I accept the challenge – getting ready for this evening was a wonderful opportunity to pause and reflect and to distill some of my favourite themes.

I offer these as reflections as I draw closer to the end of a long journey as part of the federal public service. 37 years this summer – 28 of them as an executive and 16 in the community of deputy ministers. I have worked closely with more than a dozen ministers and three prime ministers.

So let me start there – continuity and non-partisanship really matters.

There are not many places where there is such a strong relationship between partisan political actors and a non-partisan public service.

Yes, it can be warmer and colder at times – but time after time, new governments discover they can count on competent professional support – both to provide advice and to implement decisions.

And we public servants discover that governments may have very different underlying political software – especially about the role of government in society and the economy, and the role of the federal government in our federation. And sometimes they pursue some very different solutions to problems but, by and large, the men and women that Canadians elect are driven by common goals and some common risk-reward calculations.

Governments of all types will be driven by a few underlying aspirations – to keep Canadians safe, to generate economic activity and prosperity, to share that security and prosperity with greater justice and widening inclusion, and to have a positive influence on global affairs.

Governments of all types will want to deliver services that are timely, accurate, and generate positive experiences for users.

That continuity in the underlying relationship with ministers and Parliament – and that continuity in the core challenges we will be asked to take on – is a source of real strength.

We are less prone to the stop and start zigzaggy path many other countries take.

We lose less time to transitions and changes of government. As I often say, in 2015 we went from one functional government to another in 16 calendar days. I was there for every one of them.

In 2006 and in 2015, the new government was up and running and delivering on its commitments within weeks.

We are particularly good at the peaceful change in power within a democratic system. What makes that possible is trust. Political actors come to trust that public servants will loyally and diligently support them, that they can have open and honest meetings and conversations around us and that the public service will do its best to point out traps and speed bumps, and tell them what they need to know and not want they want to hear.

In turn, public servants need to trust that the political actors understand and value their role, that they will not be thrown under a bus for short-term political expediency to get out of a problem, question period or parliamentary committee. And that they can speak up with evidence and advice without being labelled as uncooperative or hostile.

That trust is precious and can be eroded – even lost, by actions on either side. It can also be eroded by slow neglect.

The good news is that Canada has done remarkably well in maintaining that underlying trust and relationship. And that has equipped the country to deal with many waves of change.

So that is one of the messages I leave you with - what we do in public service has been remarkably constant – but how we do it has changed continuously.

The easy version of this story of change is to tell the technology journey – from typing pools to smart phone apps – from mainframes to cloud computing.

The related one is the information management journey – from a time when government held much of the good data and decided how to spoon it out in small dollops in forms that we set, to a massive flow of open data that citizens can use and reprocess as they wish. We are now living in a time of massive flows of open data that citizens can take and reprocess, and use and build. From a time when government was opaque and difficult to decode, to a time when almost everything is proactively posted and on the internet, including our internal processes. It can still be challenging to decode, but now this is because there is so much information to absorb.

For me, the most striking change is the journey we have been on for greater inclusion. There are a few people out there pushing nostalgia that suggest that back in the day, their day, there was some golden age, when giants strolled the earth and there was a different kind of public service.

Nonsense. The public service I joined was run by men – white men. It may have been fun to be part of the league of extraordinary gentlemen but the public service was overtly hostile and discriminatory to LGBTQ Canadians. It had very, very few persons of colour or Indigenous Canadians in positions of authority. Sexual harassment was all too common, as was bullying and abuse of authority. People smoked in their offices and drank at lunchtime. People with mental health issues had no support and drifted off to disability leave or worse.

I am pleased to be able to say how much that has changed. The public service today is so much better than the one I joined.

I will certainly acknowledge some strong leadership over the years by my predecessors and other key figures. 

While there is more to do, the pace of change is fast and accelerating in our country. The public service is a big institution, but it is carried along by the broader currents of change that run through our broader society and call on us to keep up and adapt.

In the span of my career, we have lived through several of them.

I would start with the empowerment of women since the 1980s.

Their growth into positions of leadership is still an unfinished journey. Since the early 2000s, Canada has seen a massive change with respect to LGBTQ. I was in the cabinet room when the Martin government decided to pursue same sex marriage legislation, and I am now in the room with two ministers who have used that legislation and married under it.

In the last fifteen years, Canada has seen a massive shift in how we think about mental health. Within the public service, this was a particular priority of my immediate predecessor, Carleton graduate Janice Charette, that we have pursued aggressively over the past couple of years.

We have lived through growing awareness and concern about climate change and are now committed to reducing the carbon footprint of the federal government by 80 percent.

And we are moving through another massive change – a fundamental reset of our relations with Canada’s Indigenous Peoples. This touches all Canadians in different ways. It is especially impactful on the federal government and the public service because we are the Crown – it is with the Crown that relations with Indigenous Peoples flow and we are compelled to uphold a legal principle called the Honour of the Crown.

I talk about these not as nostalgia for the past or to rehearse my memoirs, but to say you will have your own experiences over the next decades as Canada continues to grow and evolve. Who knows what that big social movement of the 2020s or 2030s will be?

When you work in the public service, you certainly will be caught up in change, and you also have the great privilege of helping shape it. You will work with political actors and harness those currents, and help turn them into laws, policies, services and institutions.

That really is the core public service role – translating an almost infinite set of pressures and possibilities into actionable choices for cabinets and legislatures and tangible services to Canadians.

That role, and the presence of women and men who are driven by identifying a public interest among competing pressures, by stewardship of public assets and public funds, by looking beyond today toward longer-term outcomes, pushing against the attention deficit disorder, hyperactivity and short-termism that has captured our journalists and our markets.

This role is at the core of maintaining democratic inclusive governance and the rule of law, free and fair elections, independent courts, the academies – forces that are under siege or being rolled back in many other countries today.

In many countries, people are putting lives on the line and too often are losing them.

Baby boomers in the room will recognize the cultural reference to “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone”. Well in some countries it is gone, or at least going.

I call on you to resist. Join the resistance. And one of the most effective ways to do that is put your quiet Canadian passion and grit on the line and join, or stand up for, a professional, non-partisan, values driven public service.

One that will be there in 2054, when someone in this room is in my job, drawing near the end of her career and is speaking from the heart to a dinner like this.

Thank you for listening, and thank you for your passion for public policy and public administration.

This is a remarkable country, and a remarkable public service. Looking out at this room, I am filled with hope and optimism that it will be in good hands.

Merci. Thank you. Meegweetch.

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