Remarks by Michael Wernick, Clerk of the Privy Council, at the 2018 Association of Professional Executives (APEX) Symposium


May 29, 2018
Michael Wernick, Clerk of the Privy Council

Check Against Delivery

Good afternoon everyone. It is a pleasure to be here with you. I will only make a few remarks because what I really want is to have an exchange with you. I want to get your feedback, your comments and your questions. This is the best use of our time together.

This is the third year that I have come to this event since becoming Secretary to the Cabinet and Clerk. It is always great to have this type of exchange with the executive community. It is also an opportunity to update you on the year that just ended, and to talk about where we are now and where we are going.

However, as I said, I will be brief and will not go over a lot of material or details. Instead, I would encourage you to read my report to the Prime Minister, my third one as Clerk.

There are also about 35 of my speeches and presentations on my website so you can go and see what I have said to various communities. During the course of the year, I have spoken to scientists, regulators, lawyers, and tomorrow, I am going to speak to the security community. APEX is always a highlight in the course of the year.

Let me start by where the world is at, where the government is in its mandate and where we are as a public service. You can comment on any of those. It is important, every once in a while, to take a step back and look at the big picture. It provides context and a fair bit of comfort and consolation, when we are facing hard times or going through difficult patches. It also helps to realize where we are and it gives me cause for a great deal of confidence and optimism.

The last year was another year—and I am going to be a bit dramatic here but I really believe this—in a global struggle between forces of inclusion and openness, the rule of law, democracy and rules-based trade, and forces of division, separation and intolerance, and closure.

It was a mixed year for the world. There are some countries that went backwards, and for others, these things were fought to a draw. I take some real pleasure and satisfaction that a year later, we can say that Canada is still emphatically among the leaders of the open and inclusive camp.

We are open to trade, investment and immigration. We are also open to ideas. Not every society, not even some of our partners can say that. We still live in a place where Canadians are governed under the rule of law with an independent judiciary, free and fair elections, free press and a vigorous legislature. Sadly, there are countries that have lost ground on those.

Today, we are taking a beating from a free press and an officer of Parliament and a legislature about something we could have done better and it is quite a beating. But I would rather go through that than the alternative. I am glad we have a vigorous legislature, that we have officers of Parliament, that we have a free press, and that Canadians hold us accountable to the highest standards for the services we provide them and the support we give to our government. The feedback loop— and there are many—tell us when we could have done better and point the way to how we can do better.

Better is always possible. It is important to learn the lessons from setbacks. It is important to redouble our energy and commitment to Canadians and to move forward. I am happy to talk about any of those challenges and opportunities.

I pay a lot of attention, frankly, on our own psychology. A lot of the mood in this room is probably driven by the setbacks and the problems and challenges. It is just a phenomenon of human nature that we tend to forget the accomplishments and the things that went well and the things that were not particularly newsworthy. A lot of what the public service does is not newsworthy because things just happened, services were delivered.

Things were built, things were procured, programs were renovated and laws were updated. There is a little political conflict as there should be in a democracy but usually we are not the centre of attention nor should we be.

Despite our setbacks, it has been an amazing year. We are at the three quarter mark of the mandate of the government. Elections will be held in about 500 days, we have just a few weeks from this parliamentary season left, then another season, a budget, and next summer we will be in a pre-election period leading up to the election on October 20, 2019.

Canadians will be evaluating the work of this government and deciding whether they want to keep it or change it. As I said, I am glad we live in a country where we get that choice. Not everybody does. Some people die in the streets of their country for the right to choose their governments.

Canadians are complacent sometimes about the value of democracy. One of the issues that has emerged in the last year is defending our democracy, defending it from threats foreign and domestic, from those that will divide us and those that will go after the institutions of government, including our electoral process, our courts, our press and the public service. We have to be vigilant and never take for granted those institutions. I am actually very worried about interference in our democratic life. It is something that public servants have to contribute to protecting, defending and advocating.

I am not going to be able to touch on all the accomplishments in the room because they do tend to fade into memory. As they say, you are only as good as your last announcement but big things happened through the course of the year. The pattern is that the government has fulfilled most of its mandate and its electoral promises. In fact, they have been transparent about it. All the engagements with Canadians are on the government’s website, and we have started measuring, assessing and sharing progress on those engagements through the <a href="">Mandate Letter Tracker Web site</a>.

Ottawa is a town where things are harvested in the spring and in the early summer. Some of you are feeling this over the course of the spring. Many big things are coming back from Parliament, from the House and the Senate. It is a new experience for some of us. These are big complicated multi-Minister multi-department initiatives. These are not small things. For example, there has been a complete overhaul of our national security legislation, of our environmental assessment legislation and creation of new and renovated institutions on environmental impact and regulation.

We are also moving vigorously into the world of science and innovation. You touched on some of that in your program today. We are into those super clusters, innovation programs, complete consolidation and simplification of the support to business programs. A lot of things are moving forward trying to capture the high ground of the new economy that I know you were talking about in your program.

One of the fundamental things that any government will want to do is create jobs, wealth, opportunity and the revenues that pay for public services. Can we do this in the economy of the 2020’s and the 2030’s? Cannabis legislation may be coming back next week from the Senate. This is another big project and the world is watching Canada. When we do it right, other countries no doubt are going to follow. Trade agreements with Europe and Asia are now in the implementation phase. We are also deep into the implementation of the defence policy and the international development policy. Both were rolled out last year.

Negotiating NAFTA, which is existentially important to Canadians and fundamental to our wealth and prosperity is ongoing. We are at the table with the Americans and the Mexicans trying to find a way through a very challenging environment. I am glad to say that we are doing these negotiations with a tremendous partnership between the political side and the public service, and we have unquestionably the best trade policy and the best trade negotiating team anywhere on the planet. I know that because other countries are always trying to steal them.

You should be proud of that. That is really standing on guard for thee. That is defending Canadian interests and projecting Canadian values. We do not approach it as purely a commercial transaction. We put issues around inclusion, diversity, environment and labour standards on the table. It is a very Canadian approach to these issues around trade and investment.

We are also doing great things on the science front. None of these files is the purview of just one department or one minister. They require partnerships between departments and agencies, and these partnerships are about teamwork. We have learned to work more collaboratively as a team.

We have put groups of public servants together, passed the hat, wheeled the cart round, found people from different departments and agencies, attacked a problem, worked at it—usually over a two to three year process and then moved those resources out to other uses as new priorities inevitably emerge.

It is not something we were terribly good at in the past and we still have work to do but those are all accomplishments of getting out of turf, silos, organizational charts, egos and just doing what is right for Canadians. Moving forward, delivering the services and delivering the mandate of the government that they choose under free and fair elections.

I actually think we had a very good year. There are obviously some blemishes on that and they draw our attention but I think you have to be very careful in what you project to your own teams, your workforces, your neighbours or people at the soccer field. Do not give in to the cynical and more morose side. Do not allow taxpayers and citizens or your union brothers and sisters to project that is what the public service and its leadership is all about. We are—and this is empirical data now—the most effective public service on the planet and you are the leaders of it. Take pride in that, and project that pride.

You should reflect that confidence and spirit. Yes, we make mistakes. We have problems and challenges. We have things we want to tackle together and we can talk about those but we learn and we get better. We are—and I say this as I get older—infinitely better, more capable, more inclusive and a more humane public service than the one I joined in 1981.

I feel confident when I say to the leadership in this room that it is only going to get better. I have enormous confidence in the kind of people that we are welcoming into leadership in the public service year after year. They have the right skills and more importantly the right values and motivations to serve Canadians and our democratic governments.

I am unfailingly positive and optimistic about who we are and what we do and about this country. I know we will meet the challenges and opportunities that come in the years ahead. I was thinking on the walk over about what has changed from a year ago, and NAFTA is probably the big policy file. It is an important file and we will see in the coming days/weeks/months how that turns out.

Something else that may have had an impact on you in the workplace is the global social movement that touches us as this country’s largest employer: #MeToo, Time’s Up. We have to take harassment on, and have to root it out. We have to dig in. Time is up for us as well. It is important that we work these problems together. I invite you individually and/or through APEX to join these conversations whether it is on mental health, workplace wellbeing or harassment.

I also want you to think about what kind of executive community you think you need to be. How many levels and layers, what kind of compensation arrangements do you think you need? What is the right approach to performance pay, amongst other things? Do not wait for me. That is not the public service that I want. You have to take part in shaping options, making proposals, engaging in dialogue with your colleagues, your employers and your deputy ministers. Otherwise, the political side will craft those solutions by themselves.

APEX is a very valuable partner. In fact, I believe, this year’s symposium is the largest in its history, and the 30th event. Congratulations! This is an important accomplishment. Thank you to the organizing team and all of the APEX community for this great event.

APEX is far more than an annual conference that surfaces every year. It is an ongoing voice for the approximately 5,000 people who are the executive community in the public service.

The other communities are very organized, spend a lot of time together and are fiercely advocates of what they aspire to and what they think they need, whether it is the lawyers, the regulators, the scientists, the policy community or the communicators. I encourage you to do the same and to speak up. You need to be a little more vocal. You should be demanding respect. You should be demanding access. You should be advocating for the kind of public service that you want to lead because you are going to be there taking it forward into the next decade.

Thank you.

Pictures of the event are available on-line.

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