Remarks by Michael Wernick, Clerk of the Privy Council, at the Global Heads of Mission Meeting


May 28, 2018
Michael Wernick, Clerk of the Privy Council

Check Against Delivery

Thank you Don [Dr. Donald Bobiash, Assistant Deputy Minister, Asia Pacific] for the generous introduction. I would just correct one thing in your briefing note. That was not my first stint at Privy Council Office. It was actually my third, because I have in this room a visual reminder of the second, which was at Intergovernmental Affairs working for Ambassador Dion as my Minister, which was a memorable time at the Privy Council Office.

It is nice to be here with some former bosses, friends and colleagues, and people that I have crossed paths with over the years. My remarks this afternoon will be brief since I feel the best use of our time together is to have a fruitful discussion. I prefer when people ask me questions and I usually find this is a better way to discover what is on people’s minds. I will, however, take a few minutes to share some of my views on where we are as a Public Service.

One takeaway I would leave with you is the life cycle of the mandate. As you all know, we have fixed election dates in Canada and we are now moving towards the three-quarter mark and the fourth year of the mandate. At the end of June, a year from now, we will be done with this mandate and we will be in for a very long summer: the pre-writ period, the formal writ period, the campaign, and we will be finding out who Canadians give us as their government on October 20th, 2019. We will then have a brief period of government formation.

I get to tell the next Prime Minister—who may or not be the current Prime Minister—that one of the first things they will have to do, within weeks of taking office, is travel to two international summits. This is often where the first impression is made, showing the international face of Canada and the role that we play in the world.

I raise that because the Heads of Mission have been given a lot of latitude by the current government to engage media, to be out there in public, and you have used that extremely responsibly and skillfully over the last couple of years. In an election year though, you will have to be very careful. I am sure your leadership will have more to say about that next spring, but you will have to remember that back home, we will be going through an electoral period.

I would also like to share a few observations about who we are. We are over 300 different organizations, everything from the Canada Revenue Agency with 40,000 employees spread all over the country, to little micro agencies and tribunals built for a purpose, a very special role, and everything in between. We are present in every province, every territory, and in many parts of the world.

But there are some things that pull us together and there are some common priorities. I have been given the latitude and the opportunity to be very public in my role. I think what I have come to realize is that I get to channel your stories more than anything. To some extent I can play them back to other Public Service audiences, parliamentarians, Ministers and Canadians.  I am happy to do that.

I just tabled the Twenty-Fifth Annual report to the Prime Minister on the Public Service of Canada—it was my third report—in which I shared my comments on where we are and where we are going as a Public Service. You should read it. The digital version is built to be shareable, with infographics, videos, podcasts and stories that can be shared on different social media platforms. I would encourage you to use the stories in the report with your interlocutors in other countries, other governments and with your own staff.

I have done about 35 speeches like this that are all on the website. I am sure they are not quite “Kardashian-like” numbers in terms of readership but, frankly, if you want to know what I think about various topics, it is all on there. I am happy to get an email or a message from any of you at any time, and carry on a conversation and get your feedback.

In term of priorities, I would be interested to understand how they work in your part of the world. It needs to be said, and this week is an obvious reminder of that, the thing I worry about the most and the thing I am spending a fair bit of time and energy on is getting people paid on time and accurately.

I wish I could say that the job is complete. However, there remains a lot of work to be done. Tomorrow, we are going to take a very public beating as the Auditor General tables his second chapter on the pay system. I worry about it, not so much for the usual findings of who did what and what could have been done better, but because it could be used to cast aspersions on the quality and the reputation of the Canadian Public Service, its culture and its values. I will not miss the opportunity to respond to that kind of criticism if required.

I have outside validation of how good we are, by the rankings of a United Kingdom think tank. No doubt, other countries are trying to figure out so they can overtake us this year. We were ranked as the most effective public service of the 30-plus that were measured, and I know that we are near top of class in so many areas. I can go on and on, as I did in my report, of examples where we are the best or near the best in all kinds of aspects of government. Unfortunately, good news stories are not particularly newsworthy. I would encourage you to take the ones that you find interesting and share them among yourselves and with the governments and others that you work with.

On a more positive note, there is a new emphasis on implementation and delivering results. This is now a permanent and constant reality, and not just a temporary reflection of the current Prime Minister or government. There is ongoing effort to be much clearer about what we are trying to achieve, how we are going to measure it, and how we use the feedback loops to correct, strengthen what is good and discard what is not.

You are not done when you walk out of the Cabinet room with a decision and you have an enormous amount of implementation to do. This is a permanent fact of our future. We have built governance and systems and I have explained in many conversations what deliverology means.

There is—and I caught a little bit of the previous session—a real emphasis on inclusion. I do not say diversity anymore. Diversity is just a fact. Inclusion is what matters now - the idea that no voice and no talent is left behind or left out of conversations. We need every idea and talent that we have brought to the table, whether that is virtual or real, and that can be challenging, as you were talking about in the last session. In a system built for vertical hierarchy, there are real accountabilities that come with being a deputy minister and having the final sign-off in a number of areas. However, we have lots of scope to make better use of the talents and skills of people inside the Public Service being representative and inclusive of the country. There are many versions of this. Gender parity is the most obvious one, but there are intersectionality issues with other aspects of diversity, which are well worth a conversation.

The fact that we [the Public Service] have to look like the country is only the simplest version of this. It is how we conduct ourselves that matters, and that is about culture and things like the “mansplaining” and “manterruption” that you probably talked about in the last session. It is also about power relationships, and about differences in culture. There are massive generational changes, differences between the way us baby boomers think and talk and the millennials. How you run a workplace that has four distinct, generational patterns inside it may be one of the more interesting challenges.

Pace, agility and nimbleness are skills that we all need to have these days. Canadians and their governments want quick responses to issues as they emerge. The life cycle involving thinking about a problem, coming up with options, getting them in front of the right group of decision-makers, and then executing them, is shorter and will continue to be shorter. We will often have to say “close enough” in terms of advice and have more iterative, gated approaches to rolling things out.

We will have to take a few steps, do some checking, do some correcting, and move forward. That is not easy to do. The ability to take people, dollars and information from one-place to another is hard for us. It is easy to add, get some new money in a budget and say, here are a hundred more full time employees and add them to a new function. It is, however, much harder, as many of you know, to actually take away and say I need these people for that, or I need to move dollars from here to there.

I know your deputy heads will appreciate transparency about resources and the ability to move things internally. We have done that at a government-wide level when the government decided that cannabis legalization would be a priority – we pulled a team together from five different departments and found them a place to work. They worked the problem and hopefully later this year we will be able to return a number of those resources to their departments and move on.

We have to be able to do that. We have to be more shape-shifty and more agile. However, we are not built for that either in terms of some of our human resources rules or even culturally. This is a big challenge.  

Generational turnover or generational blending is another aspect where we need to pay attention. It is not just about encouraging all of us baby boomers to take early retirement and replace them with techno-savvy millennials. It is actually, and I have talked to many people outside of government about this, it is about blending their best, the values, the experience, the judgement, with the energy, the creativity and the shrewdness that the younger, new employees have.

I do not know what the appropriate terminology may be, but the transmission of values, which are enduring and have served this country for the last 150 years, is key. Now, whether we achieve this by being mentors, reverse mentors, trainers or by offering learning development opportunities is up to you. In fact, it is a challenge that I throw to you. We need to make sure that we keep the best of our traditions and values while at the same time, we hire the energetic, creative and individuals with an ability to wrestle with issues like augmented intelligence and data analysis.

I would like to finish with a few thoughts about our workplace and the Public Service as an employer. There are a number of aspects to that. We talked about diversity and inclusion. Learning and development; the ability to refresh your skill sets and learn and to continue to grow. It is something we actually do pretty well. It is an unsung story, but the opportunities for people to start doing one thing in one part of the country, in one department, and move around and do something different and learn and grow and stretch and take risks and pursue very varied career paths is one of the things that makes us interesting and helps us with retention. However, I am not sure we sell it as well as we could as a recruitment tool.

When we recruit, we need to tell individuals that: we do some of the best science in the country; some of the most important and interesting law in the country; and the most interesting negotiations. We get at the heart of various industries and sectors. A lot of the very best and most interesting work is offered within the Public Service, and I am not sure that we tell that story with enough passion and conviction.

There are two very important issues and commitments that I want to raise with you.  As Head of the Public Service, it is important that we talk about them. First, I would like to do a shout-out to Janice [Charette, former Clerk of the Privy Council] who really started the ball rolling on mental health and deserves an enormous amount of credit for that. I am proud to build on that work and I know this department has taken mental health and wellness issues very seriously. There is still work to do within the Public Service as the largest employer in the country, a ton of work to be done in terms of the availability of services in communities, and that is a piece of unfinished business.

The other big thing is the #MeToo, harassment and Time’s Up movement. This is a societal tsunami. It is knocking over leadership in industries right across the world and certainly in North America. It is very serious and very real, and as the largest employer, I have wondered ever since November when it was going to hit us [the Public Service] in the sense of the most grievous Harvey Weinstein/Bill Cosby kind of cases. It has not yet happened which is a good sign.

However, what we have found through digging and talking to people and examining the data we have is that we have a problem with bullying, intimidation and workplace misconduct. It is widespread and unacceptable. We also have a problem providing safe places for people to come forward, and we have a problem equipping our front line supervisors and managers with the skills, the tools and the “know-how” to deal with these problems. It varies across organizations but we are going to be moving aggressively on these issues and there will be consequences.

I do not want you to leave under any illusions. This is a big societal shift that is underway, and we are caught up with it, and anybody in a position of leadership and responsibility is obliged to take it seriously. “Time’s Up” and we are going to have to find ways of appropriate consequences, behaviour correction, and of creating safe empowering workplaces for the men and women who come in and serve their country with such distinction.

I often describe the Public Service as a chameleon. We help shape the country and I have experienced very cool moments when you can sit in the Cabinet room and watch your advice and analysis supporting and influencing the way democratically elected governments steer the country. But we are also caught up with this societal shift. Canada has changed its attitudes to same sex marriage, mental health, greening of the economy, carbon footprint, mental health, and #MeToo. This means that we also have to change our attitude. We are a large, diverse, national institution present in every part of the country and around the world. As our Heads of mission outside our borders, each of you represents the kind of country and Public Service that we are to the global community.

What I detect as a signal coming back is a huge interest in Canada and what we do in Canada, and I think that you play an enormous role giving us feedback, gathering up intelligence and ideas. We have shamelessly stolen ideas from other governments, whether it is the Digital Service of the United Kingdom, and we have stolen people from other jurisdictions. When you spot something that you think is important or interesting going on in the public sectors in other countries, please let us know, because it speeds up that pace of picking up good ideas and implementing them.

Similarly, do not be hesitant to engage your interlocutors about what is going on in Canada. None of these conversations, whether it is climate change, artificial intelligence, or security versus privacy are confined to Canada. These are global conversations taking place in many other countries.

I feel extremely privileged to live and work in a country where democratically elected governments are kept in check by an independent judiciary and a free press accountable to Parliament, especially when I look at what is going on in other places.

As I said earlier in my remarks, we will take a beating tomorrow [with the release of the Auditor General’s second Report on the Pay System] but I would rather have that than the alternative. Part of the recipe of good governance, I am totally convinced, is a non-partisan, excellent Public Service that is there to serve government after government, no matter who Canadians choose, and to represent them in the world. That is you. Therefore, my final message to you is thank you.


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