Remarks by Michael Wernick, Clerk of the Privy Council at the ADM Forum


April 11, 2018
Michael Wernick, Clerk of the Privy Council

Check Against Delivery

Good morning everyone.

I have a few things I want to talk about but frankly with Royal’s help I would prefer we get to a Q&A session as quickly as possible. I want to hear what is on your mind and what you think I need to hear from you.

This is such an important event. I am very happy to be here with you this morning. As a start, I would like to congratulate everyone here in this room; not just the new Assistant Deputy Ministers. You are part of a very important community. Being an Assistant Deputy Minister is a professional and personal accomplishment and I hope you are savoring and enjoying it.

Out of a public service of 260,000 public servants, this group of 300 and something individuals, has an enormous impact on the public service, on our country and on the world. You are in positions of a lot more power and influence than you may think. Some days it may feel different, but you have enormous influence on tone, on culture, on decisions and on workflows.

Your role is an important one in the Public Service of Canada, and I really want to thank you for everything that you have done and will do in the year ahead before you gather again.

I would also like to take a minute to thank the organizers of this event and everyone that will be participating in the various elements of the program today. It is such a cool program, and I will be back at the end of the day to hear your distinguished guest speaker.

Today is your day and you are going to hear from some very interesting people. This is a great learning opportunity.

I have to say, though, that I am a bit nostalgic. I was rummaging on the internet last night when I realized that this is my third ADM forum, and in the next couple of weeks, I will be releasing my third annual report to the Prime Minister on the state of the Public Service. This event is also an opportunity for me to plug my book, which I encourage you to read when it comes out.

The first time I addressed this forum, I had been on the job for less than three weeks. I have to admit that it was a bit daunting to come out and talk to you as a group. It was also my first major public speech in the role of Clerk. I can tell you now that one of the real privileges of the job has been to go and talk to groups of public servants, regional, sectoral, communities, professional, and otherwise; and for those of you that are restless on the weekend, this will be the 34th speech that I will be posting on my website.

This means that I can fast-forward a fair bit because you already know what I think about a lot of issues. If you do not, I encourage you to visit my website and look at those speeches. I have talked to thousands of people - regulators, young public servants, policy communities, lawyers, APEX and so on. I hope there is some consistency in what I have said.

Two years ago, I talked about the challenges of the new government, which in itself, was only three or four months into office, and what the expectations would be on this community and on the public service. I am sure you all remember. At the time, I said that we were going to be challenged to be more open, to learn new skills on how to engage with Canadians, and that we were going to be pushed to be much clearer about results - what we are trying to do and how we measure these results. I also said that the pace was going to be brisk and accelerating. Well, all those things came true and I am very pleased to say, and I will say this in my annual report, that overall, I feel very proud that the public service over the last two years has risen to all of those challenges. The public service is better now than it was two years ago, in all of those aspects and in so many more. This is largely due to the leadership that has been exerted by your deputy colleagues and by you.

Last year, I talked to you in the aftermath of the U.S. election, and at the time, things seemed to look a bit gloomy in Europe and other places. I spoke about a struggle between societies and countries that wanted to be open and inclusive, and those that were closing, building walls and shutting themselves off. I have to say that last year was a pretty good year for the world in that regard. The forces of openness and inclusion actually did win in Holland, France, Germany, Costa Rica, New Zealand, but the forces of closure won some countries such as Hungary and Turkey.

Here in Canada, I would say that it was actually a good year for openness and inclusion. This country is squarely in the camp of an open society; open to trade, open to people, open to ideas and open to other cultures.  It is who we are, and it is who the public service has to be as well. We have to continue to commit ourselves to that openness. Some of us may have thought that there was an inevitable flow to history and things were moving in a certain direction. It turns out that every generation has to pick up the torch and fight for its values. You play an important role in that. In fact, if Canada is going to remain open, inclusive, diverse, tolerant, a caring kind of society that we have built through generations of leadership and continue on the path of making good public policy, the whole public service of Canada will have to continue to play an important role.  This is my sort of lofty part of the speech.

I want to take this opportunity to talk a little bit about digital disruption. As a 60-year-old baby-boomer, it may seem a bit of a paradox, but I have been wrestling with these issues over the last little while. First question you would want to ask yourself -- and I was talking to Bill Eggers about this in the green room -- if you look at the ADM forum agendas of the last twenty years, technology and change was the theme or the title of about every third one. There have been many fora on the themes of changes and technology, and the impact it was going to have on our society.  We will all remember the arrival of the Internet, government on-line, to name a few.

One of the things I would challenge you to think about as you listen to people today is: what is it that is different about this particular wave? What makes it the disruptive wave of technology and change? You will hear over the next little while that as we are moving into a period where data and information becomes the most important resource, not just for us but for the economy, the society; and the struggles about who owns, controls and safeguards data are the issues of our time. Money, people, those things continue to be important, but how we manage information and how we think about data, are really going to be the kind of issues that a lot of us in this room will wrestle with.

You heard, I hope, at the Manion Lecture last year, the former Governor General, the Right Honourable David Johnston, talk about trust in the role of the public service, and that really is one of the key things. We are about public interest, public money, public service, and that set of values and interests, and approaches is how we have to think about data. If you are wondering whether this is important or not, you should take a little bit of time and listen to Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony at the congressional committee this afternoon. You will immediately understand how important issues of trust, security around privacy and cyber-security are so important. One of the things that former Governor General Johnston said last year in his speech was:

“We need to better understand the trust that is placed in us, how to build and maintain it, and what weakens and undermines it. It can’t be taken for granted.”

Just ask Mr. Zuckerberg. He would likely tell you that it has to be earned and re-earned, and kept. One of the most valuable attributes to the Public Service of Canada is that we do enjoy high levels of trust and confidence in Canadians. We have very high standards of confidentiality, privacy, cyber-security, and of using information in the public interest. We have to retain that trust. It is essential that we retain it in the years to come.

Technology has disrupted many sectors and industries. I am sure you have seen examples of that in your private lives. Ten years ago, I am not sure I would have predicted the disruption of the music industry or the book industry, or the newspaper industry. It is all around us. We have even seen it in the hotel and taxi industries, or even in travel agencies. Well, it is coming at us too, and the way we think about making laws, policies, regulations, services, negotiations, just about every aspect of government is potentially impacted by the arrival of the kinds of big data platforms, algorithms and artificial intelligence. This suggests some challenges are ahead of us. In particular, as it relates to privacy and security. It is not easy in this country to have an adult conversation about cyber-security, or foreign interference through cyber-attacks, because many Canadians are naive about these issues. It is not something we have been confronted with very much.

However, we will have to have these conversations this year. They are in the public interest. We need public policy-driven conversations about cyber-security and foreign interference in this country. These conversations are not going to be easy. We will have to apply tools of public policy, research and outreach, engagement and consultation, and use other policy development tools to facilitate these conversations. It is going to be important that we do that if we are going to remain an open, inclusive and democratic society.

In the context of artificial intelligence and automation, algorithms are king. Algorithms influence a lot of important decisions, and they are going to have more influence in the future. So, who controls the algorithms? Who writes them? Who regulates them? How transparent are they? What are the incentives, rules and regulations that algorithms have to live by? We are about people, citizens, taxpayers, Canadians, and we have to figure out the interaction of algorithms and humans in a far more sophisticated way than we have right now.

These are the great challenges of your generation of public service leaders. Since we have risen to the challenges of change before, I am quite confident that we will again. This brings me now to one last theme that I would like to discuss with you. It is about continuity and change. I talked about this last year, and I will talk about it in my upcoming annual report.

The public service is a permanent institution in this country. We existed before the creation of this country. Last year, we celebrated our 150th anniversary. Some of our institutions like the Privy Council Office also go back 150 years in this country; 800 years if you really want to think about it. Many other institutions are approaching important anniversaries. What we do in the service of Cabinets, Parliaments and Canadians continues and is driven by values. There is a continuity about that. How we do it is constantly changing, and the tools, the approaches and the techniques are constantly evolving.

I am going to single out one organization as an example, but there are many around town. It is Statistics Canada. Anil has been a tremendous leader to a great team. Statistics Canada is an institution that has been around for 100 years, recently celebrating its anniversary. What it does is provide reliable data and information to Canadians. It has done that for 100 years. But it is changing, and it is going through transformation: how it collects data, how it thinks about data, how it approaches the dissemination and the use of data by Canadians. It is experimenting and innovating. The what of Statistics Canada has been around for a century and it will be around for another century. How it goes about the approach of being the best statistical service on the planet is changing every day and every week.

There are also other institutions that are constantly evolving and transforming. I can think of the Bank of Montreal or IBM in the private sector. Those are companies that are more than 100 years old. In fact, I believe that the Bank of Montreal celebrated its 200 years last year. Imagine how they have had to change how to go about banking or how its businesses have changed, transformed and evolved from generation to generation.

The pace of that change is now accelerating. We can do the same. We are not a tech start-up with eight employees in a garage. We are more like those banks, or IBM, or these big institutions. I strongly believe that if these institutions can reinvent and renew themselves and be proud of their traditions and confident about their futures, we can do it too. We are driven by public service and public interest; and we are capable of great things. We have done it over and over again, and we will do it again.

One of the things I am going to do in my annual report this year, because it is a chance to channel for you all the hard work you have been doing, is to talk about some of the success stories and some of the things that are going well. I will also highlight the enormous creativity and innovation we have in our workplace. I will put all kinds of examples out there, and I need your help to disseminate them and talk about them in the communities. Be proud and talk about it at the hockey rinks, and with your family, with journalists, with parliamentarians, and with your own workforces because of the tendency of the feedback loops is to be negative. We cannot lose the success stories of people who have and continue to work so hard.

There are so many examples of success stories. For instance, the Service Canada interactions: seven or eight years ago, there were about 16 million logins a year, we are now over 30 million logins a year. Another example is on filing out taxes, I know you are enjoying that. About seven years ago, half of Canadians filed their taxes online, now it is almost 90%. An autofill return feature was added only four years ago, about 800,000 people used it in its first year; this year eight million will. This is great work by Service Canada, the Canada Revenue Agency and the tech support that they have. There are many other examples and I am going to single them out and post them out on the website in shareable formats, so please share, retweet, put on the various platforms, and promote them.

Canada is back. Bill Eggers will tell you later today that we were once number one in the world and we kind of slipped, but we are back. We are now a key partner in the Digital 7, something Minister Brison will probably talk to you about today. We are at the front now and we are moving up the ladders of all the rankings. Our work in these areas earned us a fourth place global ranking in the United Nations’ Online Service Index.  Some of the most exciting talent in digital government is coming to work in Canada, and is joining us and providing leadership and advice to people across the country. I know the communities working in these areas are very excited.

You should be confident. I recently talked to audiences of young public servants at the Policy Community Conference, the Canada Beyond 150 event and the Policy and Program Entrepreuners meeting, and they are all very impressive. They are a good source of advice. I would encourage you to get yourself a digital mentor or a coach and to talk to a millennial. Some of the things that were discussed at these gatherings would be helpful. There is an energy, a commitment, and a passion out there, which I run into all the time, and I hope that you share that as well.

This is a really exciting time to be in the Public Service of Canada. What we do is important, what Canada does is important. All over the world, people are turning to Canada for inspiration and frankly for hope that we can do hard things, that we continue to be an open, diverse, inclusive society. “Hard things are hard,” as my boss says, but when you bring people together in good will and well-governed processes of engagement and policy-development, we know how to do this. We know how to run a complex federation and we know how to run parliamentary democracy. We are getting better everyday. You have a workforce that is very passionate and committed. I want you to set the tone of optimism, resilience and perseverance that will bring out the best in them.

We also have challenges, and we are going to tackle them together. Obviously the last year has been overshadowed by the pay system, and our struggles to get people paid accurately and on time. It is causing enormous problems and hardship for our employees. It is also causing morale issues, and reputational damage. One of the things that worries me about the pay issue, apart from the impact it is having on people, is that too many people will conclude that the public service does not have the competence or the ability to get it fixed and get things done, when nothing could be further from the truth.  We are very good at project management. We have extremely successful IT projects. We are good at service, good at change, good at innovation, and I am going to talk about that in my annual report.

That being said, I do not want to deny that we have a problem with the pay system. One of the things that we are going to do, and Minister Brison has taken the leadership on that, is take all of what is emerging in disruptive technology and rethinking technology project management, procurement, and apply it to getting us a pay system that works. This will be one of the signature projects of the next few years, and a very exciting opportunity to prove that we can do it right.  This can make a difference to the 260,000 public servants who come in to work every day. They are motivated by service, by passion, by trying to make a difference to their country, and they deserve better, and we will deliver for them.

I have discussed many themes with you and want to close on my remarks by noting a few more which were crystallized through the #MeToo and #Time’sUP movements, and affects mental health and workplace wellbeing. The harassment numbers in the survey that just came out are completely unacceptable. I can assure you that we are working hard, talking to the HR community, APEX, middle managers, national managers’ community and regional staff. We are going to tackle harassment, bullying and intimidation in the federal workplace. I have heard some horrible stories yesterday about executive-on-executive bullying. You are going to have to change that. This is unacceptable. Together, along with your deputies, your HR community, and your legal community, we are going to fix this. Time is up. We need to do a better job both supporting the individuals that come forward, and stopping workplace harassment and bullying from happening in the first place. This is going to be a big part of 2018.

As I say at all of these events:  we have big challenges and big opportunities ahead of us. I have complete confidence in all of you that we are going to get it done together.


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