Remarks by Michael Wernick, Clerk of the Privy Council, at the APEX Recognition of Entry to the EX Ranks


November 7, 2018
Michael Wernick, Clerk of the Privy Council

Check against Delivery

Good evening everyone. Welcome to this celebratory event.

Michel may have said that the fun was over but, I can say that it is truly an absolute pleasure to be here every year. This is an evening of celebration. It is perhaps tinged with a bit of reflection, but it is mostly about celebration. I want to personally, institutionally—and in any way I can think of—congratulate each and everyone of you on this moment of transition and passage.

Being here today means that you have all worked very hard. You have all come from different places, backgrounds, educations, and different parts of the country and even the world.  This is a moment of passage into a very special community, which is the executive community of the finest public service in the world.

This is an enormous personal and professional accomplishment. You should take at least one evening off to savour it, take pride in it and puff out your chest. When you are next with your family and your community at the hockey rink, put just a little bit of extra swagger in your step. You are executives of the best public service in the world. Congratulations of your achievement!

I would also like to take a moment to thank APEX. Thank you Michel (Vermette, CEO, APEX) and Michael (Whittaker, Chair of the Board of Directors, APEX). I want to acknowledge APEX’s contributions, not just for this evening, but for those throughout the year. APEX is an extremely valuable partner. The work that it does with you and in your behalf on all kinds of dialogues about how to make this extraordinary public service even better has been very valuable.

We have engaged APEX on issues from civility to harassment, mental health, work-life balance, resilience and so on. I was at the annual symposium earlier this year, where I encouraged APEX members to be more militant and assertive. Well, you were. I want to thank you for the feedback and I encourage you to do even more.

This is an important community. It has its own special needs and aspirations. I need APEX to speak up for you, and through you, for what public service executives need going forward. If you have ideas about any of these topics or even about the executive community—how it should be structured, compensated, incented and rewarded—develop those ideas. You need to participate in the conversations. Do not wait for things to happen to you. You have to be part of shaping your own future.

While it is not always comfortable for me, I need to hear your feedback and Canada needs it too. For many of you, one of the ways of contributing will be to join APEX, to participate in its events, to get on the board and to be a voice for other people in this wonderful community.

I know what is on the minds of the people in this room—executive pay—and acknowledge that we have work to do. We are paying out the 2017-2018 performance pay of deputy ministers, Governor in Council appointees and executives. However, we will not be in a position to implement the retroactive economic increases until mid-next year. They are in the pay queue. That is what we are able to do at this point and I think you should continue to speak up and to make sure that executive pay issues are treated with every bit as much care and consideration as all of our pay issues in the public service.

I would now like to talk to you about your role as executives. I know that Michel and Michael have already touched on the subject a little bit.

This is an institution with very solid foundations. This is evidence-based and not a newspaper anecdote. Researchers at Oxford University and the Institute for Government, a UK think tank, looked at 31 public services around the planet, undertook a multi-factor analysis and ranked them. Who came out number one? The Canadian public service. Then, the World Bank looks at approximately 80 countries in terms of the effectiveness of their overall government public sector. Who was in the 97th percentile? Canada.  Finally, the Global Government Forum’s Women Leaders Index takes a look at gender participation in public sector leadership. Once again, who was number one? Canada. This is evidence of the achievement that has been built over the last decades, which we have to continue to move forward.

Executives make up about two percent of the public service. Every day, 260,000 men and women come in to work to make a difference in the lives of Canadians and in our country. You have enormous influence and impact. People watch your behaviour. They watch your tone. They watch the signals and the vibes you give off. They seek direction and clarity. They care about the decisions that are in your hands, and about their careers, futures, learning plans, and aspirations. The work environment is shaped mostly by you and the frontline supervisors that you have in your teams.

We now have to think and move the public service beyond 2020. My predecessor set goals for the kind of public service we wanted to achieve. It seemed a long way away at the time, but guess what, we are almost there. This means that we now have to think about the next decade and beyond 2020.

We have engaged broadly across the public service and some themes come up again and again. They probably came up in your discussion. Given the pace of the world and what goes on in the economy, society, technology, the environment, and global affairs, we are going to have to be very agile.

Plans will not survive contact with reality for very long. The point will be to cultivate resilience and agility, moving money, people, ideas, focus and energy around more quickly and more nimbly to where it is needed. It is not the easiest thing to do. But you have a lot of influence on this, both in your own careers and in how you treat your own people.

We need to develop more tools and practices by using micro assignments, interchanges and internal job markets and by pulling “tiger teams” together to pull off a major initiative. We can work intensely on something, such as cannabis legalization or the free trade negotiations, but as soon as we can, we downsize that group and return those resources to work on other projects or the next thing that is coming along. Sometimes, that requires you to let go of some of your best people and say: “I am going to loan them to another person in this room because that is where the greater need is for the government, or that is where the greater need is for that individual.”  We need executives who are not hoarding their best talent, and who can see their talent as a public asset to be shared with others.

As an executive, you also have to delegate down and give people space and clarity about your expectations for them.

Inclusion is another important attribute. Be inclusive. This is not the same discussion about inclusion that we had in the past. Yes, it is still important that our public service be reflective of our country, and our society. It still matters that gender, language and other characteristics are well represented in the public service. However, we have to understand the country we serve. Today’s conversation about inclusion is more about inclusion of voice, talent and energy.  It is also about who is in the room, and who is in the conversation. You chair a lot of meetings and you are going to be involved in a lot of them. This means that you have to set the tone and the pattern. I would ask you to think about it and be very mindful about how you run meetings. Is there a quiet person who does not speak up very much? Can you draw them into the conversation? Is it always those alpha males chirping away, trying to be the first person doing all the talking? This happens more than you think, but as a leader, you have an ability to bring people in and seek out their ideas, their input, and create room for them. There are all kinds of tools you can seek out to make ideas available to you, because you will not have them all.

The real art in leadership—and I will let you in on one of my secrets—is learning to ask the right questions, and asking the right questions consistently tends to generate better answers. This is the kind of public service we are going to need, one that is more collaborative and more agile. It is a public service in which all kinds of voices—including people who just got there, your newer, younger employees, people on interchange, people in other departments—are part of shaping solutions.

We are going to have to work on tools and structures. We are going to need more flexible work arrangements and more modern learning software. However, we have a long way to go, including with public service infrastructure—buildings and technology and tools. I often say this. This is not about taking a 1995 workflow and putting it on a cool device like your iPhone. It is about fundamentally rethinking how we learn, how we collaborate, how we take decisions, and how we shape policies. The real skillsets you need to develop are those of engagement, of bringing people in, of partnering, and of finding win-win solutions.

Challenge your own team and your own organization, and don’t be afraid to question assumptions. Never accept that the answer to the question, “Why are we doing this?” is “Because we have always done it this way.” That is usually a sign of trouble. Be inquisitive, push, challenge your people, challenge their assumptions, poke, and prod.

However, do it in a way that is respectful and inclusive, and that does not harass your people. Those are the arts you will have to learn and master to be an effective leader.

You will also have to listen and engage. It is not easy to do, especially when you have a lot on your plate or when you are in the middle layers of management. You have people who need you and depend on you. Every day you will feel caught in the middle. That is the way the jobs are. You are going to have to find ways to manage time pressures and decide on how you spend your day, and how to best use your time. I always say to deputy ministers at their orientations that they should try to spend their day doing things only deputy ministers get to do. We do not always get there.

Try to spend your days doing the things executives get to do, taking the decisions you get to take and shape for other people. If you are doing your senior analyst’s briefing notes for him or her, you are not adding value. But you are adding value if you are teaching that person how to do a better job, and what the expectations are. These are fundamental things about setting expectations, being clear, making the call, and saying, “close enough. This can go to the deputy now. I am not going to rewrite it for the seventeenth time.”

There is no limit to what I can say on this subject, but it comes down to the fact that you have a very big influence on the people around you. They are waiting for clarity, directions, timelines and deadlines. They also want to understand your expectations. It is not a winning career path to be the person who pulls things out of the fire in the last 24 hours before a deadline. You might get thanked once or twice, but if that is what you are doing all the time, people will notice and wonder why you started the fire in the first place.

About 80 percent of what we do is plannable and predictable. The date is known. The deadline is known. You can work backwards from it. Yes, there are crises, and surprises. We are very good and resilient at dealing with them. But your role as an executive is to scan ahead and anticipate when your unit, your group, or when you personally are going to be asked and called on to do something.

Suit up and go into the fray and be as ready as you can. I have tormented many people over the years with lists and calendars and working backwards from deadlines, and I have made a good living out of it. There are tools of the trade for doing that. Crisis management should not be your daily bread and butter as a public service executive. We have ministers’ offices for that.

Your job is to think ahead, plan, anticipate and be ready for the next thing. This is a period of considerable change for the public service. There is a lot going on. We are caught up in national conversations. We help shape the country but we also are shaped by it. I was thinking about that many times over the last little while.

We are travelling a road as a country and as a society, confronting mental health issues. This debate, which is a pan-Canadian discussion, was launched a decade ago. The country is finally dealing with mental health as a serious issue. The public service is the largest institution, with 260,000 Canadian men and women. It has to be part of that debate and it has to be one of the leading employers on this issue.

Today’s public service is a very different public service than it was twenty years ago. Last year around this time, I delivered an apology on behalf of the public service as an institution for the way we treated LGBTQ employees. The public service I joined in 1981 was an overtly hostile environment for our LGBTQ friends and colleagues.  We have come a long way.

I know we have a way to go.  We are part of many conversations about what kind of country and society we have to be—and we have to be the best of what Canada wants to be. The government has launched the Accessible Canada Act. We have tinkered with different issues around technology, accommodation, and hiring.

Bill C-81, the Accessible Canada Act, makes the statement that we aspire to be the most accessible country in the world for persons with disabilities. As the country’s largest institution, we have to be the most accessible public service in the world. It is going to be tough. We have to make breakthroughs and make a lot more progress on many issues.

“Nothing About Us Without Us” is the big slogan of your friends and colleagues with disabilities. It is about inclusion. It compels us to engage those employees in conversations and in helping shape the rules, practices, and tools to make us that kind of public service.

Let me wrap up with a few words on what it is to become an executive in this public service at this moment in our journey as a country.

These are tough times. I do not watch the news at 10 anymore. If I do, I do not sleep well. It is a troubled world out there. Issues that I thought were settled are back on the table—overt racism, fascism, hate, division, us against them. Canada is a unique place, forged by generations against the run of our geography. People of different languages and religions came together to make country and made it work across five time zones and in a harsh and inhospitable climate.

We have forged a democratic society that runs under the rule of law with a vibrant Parliament, independent courts, a free and independent press, and a non-partisan, excellent public service. However, it cannot be taken for granted anymore.

My generation of public servants are leaving the stage in great numbers. That is why there are 600 new executives. We have had some big challenges. I am very proud of what we have accomplished together. Some of us were there on referendum night in 1995, pulling the country from the brink of breakup and dissolution. We have been through recessions. We have been through the end of the Cold War, and we have been through times when inflation in this country was 18 percent and nobody had any clue whether it would ever go down again.

I can mention much more—9/11, all the financial crises—time and time again, democratically elected governments in partnership with strong public service leaders have helped bring this country through troubled times. They built a unique place of security, prosperity and inclusion. It has to be protected. It has to be passed on to future generations, to my children and their children.

You are part of that. You are going to have some really big challenges long after the likes of me have gone—climate change and the impact on our planet being one example. It will ripple through everything, from migration to agriculture to how you build bridges. We do not have a lot of time for governments to get their act together on that.

We are just seeing the beginning of another wave, with the arrival of digital disruption, predictive technologies and artificial intelligence. Those of you who work in regulation and services are going to help guide Canadians through enormous change. The world will look very different in ten or fifteen years from now.

If Canada is still going to be a free and inclusive society with all of that technology, and not some dystopian prison state, we must keep our values—the rule of law, inclusion, democracy, caring about the governed and caring that every Canadian’s voice is heard. You are going to wrestle with some difficult issues and the governments that Canadians choose will have to make difficult choices. They will have tough challenges thrown at them.

I actually hope you see that as a challenge and an opportunity, a place where your passion, your talents and your energy can be brought to bear. Bring your whole person to work every day and ask yourself what you can do to make this a better country, to serve democratically elected governments, and to serve Canadians.

Make sure that no Canadians are left out. My message to you is to join the resistance in these troubled times. One of the best ways to join the resistance is to work in a non-partisan, values-driven, inclusive public service, serving institutions that work under the rule of law in an open society and that actually care about your fellow citizens.

But more important than what I am asking of you is what Canadians are asking of you. The good news is that this group of executives is as talented and resourceful as any that has ever led Canada’s public service. Looking around this room and talking to public service audiences gives me enormous confidence in you.

You are up to the challenge. Canadians, who count on you, can be confident. This is an amazing country. It is an amazing public service and you are the leaders who are going to carry us into the future. Thank you in advance for everything that you are going to do. Thank you. Merci. Meegwetch.

A picture of the event is available online.

Report a problem or mistake on this page
Please select all that apply:

Thank you for your help!

You will not receive a reply. For enquiries, contact us.

Date modified: