Remarks by Michael Wernick, Clerk of the Privy Council, at the Heads of Communications Annual Retreat
October 10, 2018
Michael Wernick, Clerk of the Privy Council
Check Against Delivery
Good morning everyone. First, I would like to thank Ken [MacKillop, Assistant Secretary to Cabinet, Communications and Consultations] for his leadership of this community and for putting this day together. I would also like to thank Chantal [Maheu] for being a great champion.
We have many conversations about the communications community, its function and role. We have talked about it at Board of Management, which looks at the broader public service, which is a bit like a community of communities.
I would like to get to the questions and answers part of this session as quickly as possible and see what is on your mind. But first, I do have a few messages to pass along, some insights from the centre. In my many interactions with public servants, I am always asked about the “view from the bridge,” or the “view from the centre.” So, if that would add to your already really excellent program, I am happy to do that, and explore a few topics.
I was responsible for the PCO communications function during the Paul Martin government over a decade ago. That is a wry inside joke for people who were there at the time. It was quite the roller coaster. I do not think things have changed very much. We have seen the introduction of social media and changes to the way people communicate with each other.
All sorts of things have happened—for example, changes to the media landscape. I am sure Ed [Greenspon, President and Chief Executive Officer, Public Policy Forum] will be talking to you about the way that governments have interacted with citizens and their publics. We are seeing radical disruption of conventional media as we know it, and that has all kinds of implications.
You are in a very interesting and challenging world these days. You always sit at various intersection points and the problem with intersections is that you can be run over in both directions.
You are often involved in policy making and shaping, or in some aspects of service delivery. The interactions that Canadians have with their governments are usually through service windows. About 85% of those transactions are now online. The other 10% are done through call centres, and only 5% are face-to-face walk-ins.
You are very much involved in the engagement with Canadians, and that is a theme, perhaps, to come back to during our discussion. We used to think of, and talk about communications as how governments talk to Canadians or get their message across. However, this has increasingly become a two-way conversation, a very interactive, iterative conversation with Canadians, whether it is a broader public or a targeted micro initiative.
There are good reasons for that. You are often involved in the hard edge of government—compliance, enforcement, charging people with offences—and in the role of the state in the economy and society, which is not always a fun part of government to communicate. You are close to negotiation processes and to all kinds of relationships.
You are also—and we will come back to this because it is going to come into sharp focus in the next twelve months—at the intersection between the non-partisan public service and the partisan elected people. Those who go out, knock on doors, and get the mandate to sit in the Cabinet room and in the legislature to make decisions for the other 36 million Canadians. You are the non-partisan, values-driven public service, which is there government after government, serving Canadians and serving the people that they choose to elect.
This is not to be taken for granted. It is a bargain, which has eroded and corroded in many countries around the world. We still live in a country where we have a free press. We have independent courts. We have a vibrant legislature. We have Officers of Parliament who hold the executive to account, and I am not going to complain about having too many of them because when you see what is happening to other countries and you see the erosion of democratic governments, in the words of the great Canadian sage [Joni Mitchell], “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.”
I think that the trust in, and legitimacy of democratic government are things that have to be fought for, generation after generation. It is a struggle of our generation right now—both politicians and public servants. How we engage and communicate with citizens is more than just the day-to-day stuff about which we might have had this conversation five years ago.
It goes to the heart of the legitimacy of government and of democratic decision-making. It is important for governments to be listening, to be empathetic, and make sure that "they get you". This means more than just throwing a text up on a website. It also means thinking through processes of engagement. I do not use consultation that much anymore. Consultation means going out there sometimes with a half-developed thought or idea and try to shape it and make it better through engagement. This is not easy. It is vulnerable to hyper-partisanship and to stakeholder capture.
But while lobby groups can try to take over the conversation and drive it to their ends, we are always trying to work with the public and national interests in a very competitive environment. It is important that governments talk the way that people talk. We have to communicate in language that does not simply convey a lot of statistics or acronyms. We have to talk to people the way they would talk about the same issues.
It is not easy for us to do that. We have these "go-to’s"—to lead with money and with activity. We are good at telling people what we do, but we are not so good at telling people why we are doing it, what we are trying to accomplish and what impact we are having on them, and telling them in a way that is not overbearing and paternalistic.
This is a tough thing to work through. It requires different skill sets and different mindsets. This is probably the bigger cultural challenge that we are all living through. I recommend to you David Johnston’s book on trust in public institutions, which just came out last week. It is an excellent book and I know it is coming up in your conversation today.
If citizens start to feel like they are not being heard or nobody really cares what they are going through, then you get Brexit; you get the Trump vote; or you get countries dividing into "them" and "us," looking for somebody to blame. It is dangerous territory.
There is a lot at stake in helping preserve an environment which—thank goodness—we still have in Canada, where people see the processes of government as fair and legitimate. If that goes, then everything you see south of the border can happen here. We are not immune to it—by no means—and we have gone through very ugly periods in Canadian politics and Canadian government.
As I said, there is a lot at stake in getting this right. Trust is also going to be stress-tested in an election year where there is plenty of space for us to be communicating with Canadians about policy, legislation, and programs and services. The basic tenets of deliverology are at the core. What are we trying to accomplish here? How are we measuring it and what are we doing with the feedback we get? They are going to stand up government after government, no matter what stripe the governments are.
There is lots of room for doing that and explaining the results or the goals of something, or what we are doing with an oceans protection plan, or a charge on pollution. In a year where it is just going to get more and more partisan and political as we reach the "vanishing point," which is roughly the end of June next year, and people are competing with each other for political advantage, we are going to have to be very vigilant about keeping that non-partisan objective tone and let the politicians do the political communication.
That line sometimes requires day-to-day judgment on just a turn of phrase or the way things are presented. This government has been impeccable about it. I have no complaints. However, with the pressures of an election year, with nervous ministers running for re-election with thin margins and getting into an environment that is more and more combative, make sure you read the guidelines for an open and accountable government. It is available online.
Make sure you have an honest dialogue with your minister’s office about what is okay, what is not okay, the use of taxpayers’ resources for partisan purposes, and so on. It is not a black and white kind of thing, but there are common-sense guidelines. This community will have to spend some time on that as we get closer to the summer of next year.
You are leading a very important group of public servants. The workload is heavy and this is not going to change. We are going to have a lot to do over the next year. It is a busy government to start with and there is a real sense of "Okay, we have got ten months left." We have about 110 days of parliamentary time. We have about 20 Cabinet meetings.
There will be pressure to get things done and out and announced. It is going to be a very pressurized environment, so the workload is going to be relentless until next summer and then suddenly, they will all disappear and it will seem strange. Many of you have gone through this. The politicians all leave town for four months and then we have to be ready when they come back.
There are specific issues around the caretaker period, which will start officially on September 1st, and how we conduct ourselves in an election campaign. The world does not stop. If you were around in 2015, you will remember that we were negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement in the middle of an election campaign. That was a line we had to walk very carefully and who knows what the world will look like next September to October.
All of the issues around resilience, workplace well-being, mental health, how we have a tired and stretched workforce that is able to renew and recharge and learn and grow its skills are important. This is a key part of the public service, one on which the policy, legislative and regulatory, and service people count a lot.
It is going to be a challenging period and I do not see that it is going to get a lot easier in the medium term, because the pace of the world is faster and the expectations in terms of pace and timelines and quality are definitely staying high. I do not see them ever really subsiding.
I talk to all ministers regularly and I call them about performance review of their deputies and so on. I would say the feedback I have received on the communications role and function has gotten steadily better over the last three years. Either we have adapted, or they have adapted to being in government, or a bit of both. The back-and-forth dialogue about what we are trying to accomplish has been very helpful. Not every minister is happy all the time. I am sure you feel that, but overall, I think there is a high level of confidence and partnership.
The importance of the communications role and function is something I know the Prime Minister and his office care about. It is something that we will spend some time on over the coming weeks. We can talk about any other things you want to talk about—cybersecurity is a favourite theme of mine—or anything else that is on your mind. But there is absolutely a feeling of approaching the three quarter pole as we enter this last year of a fixed mandate.
This will be the second time passing something that has a particular kind of chemistry, as does the first year of a new mandate. That is, I think, going to be part of the fun and the challenge of being in these roles over the coming year.
I am happy to stay, take a few questions and get your feedback.
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