Remarks by Michael Wernick, Clerk of the Privy Council, at the Natural Resources Canada EX Retreat


November 7, 2018

Michael Wernick, Clerk of the Privy Council

Check against Delivery

Good afternoon everyone. Thank you, Christyne for the warm welcome. 

I much prefer to have a Q and A session and a dialogue with you than making a long speech.  You can ask and tell me anything you have on your mind. 

But first, Christyne (Tremblay, Deputy Minister, Natural Resources Canada) has insisted that I make at least a few remarks. 

First of all, with the entire team present, I would like to thank Christyne for her extraordinary leadership. She has a remarkable way of working collaboratively with other departments. I would also like to thank you for being very understanding when I stole Phil away from her. However, in exchange, I have sent you Shawn (Tupper, Associate Deputy Minister, Natural Resources Canada) and a pile of “draft picks” for the future. From my perspective, this is a good trade for me, and it is a good trade for you too. 

How many of you are new executives and will be at APEX induction this evening? Please stand up and be congratulated by your colleagues. You will have the long version of this speech tonight. What a tremendous accomplishment it is to join the executive ranks of the finest public service on the planet. It is a huge personal and professional accomplishment and we can talk about many aspects of the role. I want to save some of my remarks for this evening but will give you a few teasers. 

I have attended many events like this one and I am always asked to talk about the view from “the bridge”, or from “the centre” —whatever the case may be. I sit at the corner table in the Cabinet room, watching 35 women and men wrestle with the issues of our times on behalf of Canadians who elected them. It is an incredible privilege. These men and women have some remarkable conversations and make choices on behalf of Canadians. This also means that they must be accountable for them, to legislatures and to the public. They will be facing that accountability test next year. 

We are now past the three-quarter mark and entering the fourth year of the government’s mandate. I am a fan of fixed election dates because they allow us to plan and deliver on a reasonably fixed timeline. I remember going through five federal elections in ten years—somebody here will remember that—and most of them involved minority governments. This does not make for good long-term policy and planning. There is some advantage to fixed term election dates. 

You will see the fourth year phenomenon grow with every passing week as ministers’ minds turn to the stories that they will have to tell Canadians next year. They will be thinking of what kind of record they can deliver, but also what kind of vision there will be for the next mandate. It is always a bit about reputation, brand and the record of what they have done. But it is also about giving Canadians confidence about the future and what is coming. It is going to be a very interesting, creative time. 

Our role is to be there for the government—they are the government until they are not—and to be ready for whatever choice Canadians make on October 21st of next year. You know the coming line; I use it all the time: this public service was able to go from one fully functional Cabinet and government of a blue stripe to a fully functional Cabinet of a red stripe in 16 calendar days. It is remarkable. No one else on the planet does that. We are that good. We have established relationships of trust and confidence with a new group of political leaders and I am sure that we can do it again if we have to. Otherwise, we resume where we left off with the current group. Whatever the scenario may be we will adapt. Planning and preparing for next year’s election will be a big part of the public service next year. 

However, most of the public service does not actually get caught in that world. Many deliver programs, services, regulations, enforcement, and compliance. They will come in and do any number of things every day, even during another long election campaign next year. For 75 days, at least, of the campaign, they will come in every day and continue to deliver for Canadians. 

This department has always been a source of great strength in the public service because of the kinds of things you do. You showed me the video. I will not play back your own list to you. I am just very grateful and impressed by all of the things that have gone on. If you only followed the media, including social media, you would think this was the pipeline department. I am sure some days it feels like that, but the range of things that you deal with is really impressive—lands, minerals, forestry, innovation, energy, clean tech, and more. 

This department has always been an innovator and a source of leadership. You know about the Veterans’ commemorative map that will be unveiled by the minister. It is great and it is based on the geospatial platform that you manage. It was created from the ground up by people that had a vision of a tool that would be useful to Canadians. It is now getting out there and it is better and better as the department innovates. 

The entire GCTools suite of GCPedia, GCConnex and other applications started here, in this department. Your department was also the first one to really have an online Wikipedia-style dialogue with its employees. It was so good that it propagated to go public-service wide. Well done NRCan!   I can only encourage you to keep that up and show that kind of leadership. When you have ideas about what will make the service more effective or more productive, what will help us cope with the relentless flow of work, which is always going to be coming our way, then please step in.  

Earlier today, Christyne may have mentioned that I am deeply preoccupied by workplace and workforce issues. We are the largest employer in the country, with 260,000 men and women who come in every day. We are made up of over 300 different organizations, some of which are built for a purpose and specialized, and others that are quite broad-ranging from coast to coast and around the world. 

Canadians’ expectations of their governments to provide real-time service delivery and advice have continued to rise. These pressures are not really going to relent any time soon. We will always have to, not only find better ways of doing what we do and building on the accomplishments of the past, but also be increasingly attentive to our role as an employer. At the end of the day, it is the creativity, passion and commitment of public servants that make all the difference. 

Addressing issues like mental health, harassment, accessibility, inclusion, and work practices is not the sort of thing you do on the side of your job. They are your job. It is the role of executive leadership in the public service. Your role is to care, nurture and develop your people. We have tools and techniques that you can use and that we can get better at using. These days, we have better practices than in the past but we need to continue to develop those practices. As an executive in the public service you have more influence than you think you have. Collectively, as a team, you can identify priorities and you can drive them. If you unleash the creativity of your workforce, they will come up with good ideas and suggestions for you. Trust them. It is the marriage of the experience of the older people in this room—who have been through things and who know where some of the pitfalls are—and the sheer energy and enthusiasm of a lot of the newcomers. When you blend these together, what you can accomplish is magical. 

So the inclusion part of the journey is not about counting visible minorities, men and women or francophones. That is all necessary to make sure that we look like the country we are serving, but inclusion is much more sophisticated than that. It is about who is in the conversation, who is at the table, who is making the decisions, who you are listening to, and who you are engaging with. This is a much tougher thing to get right. 

Inclusion requires new muscles. This department is in the vanguard of how to engage with Canadians outside the public service, how to listen to them and how to bring them into the conversations so that they are not completely dominated by high-paid lobbyists. Inclusion means that Canadians have a voice in shaping laws, policies, regulations, and services that affect them. This also means that we also have to do it among ourselves and make sure that the people who work here have a voice in shaping our policies and practices, and be attentive to them. I can say much more about this issue, but this is the challenge to executives in the next few years. It is about management practices, about how you bring out the best in the people that work with you, for you and around you. 

There is a lot that you could ask me about or respond to. This was a big year for the public service. It has kind of snuck up on us, not just for all the things the government did. That was very impressive. We bought a pipeline! That was a big surprise. There were bills and initiatives.  This is the third year of harvest if I can go back to my metaphor. You will remember that when this government came in, they started with a lot of consultation and engagement. They took a little stick in the first year or so about consultation and you could hear the chatter in town: “These guys, they just consult a lot.” “When are they going to do something?” Well, year three is here and we are in implementation mode in all kinds of initiatives. 

For example, the implementation of cannabis legislation, which was a two-year journey of consultation and engagement; the national security legislation; the review of environment assessment laws; and the Accessible Canada Act.  Substantive initiatives can take up to two to three years to do, and there is good reasons why it takes that long. It relates to the very fragile sense of inclusion in a democratic society. People need to feel that their governments hear them. When there is a rupture, and people feel that the system is not working for them or for their kids, when they lose engagement, when they lose hope, when they sense there is some amorphous elite out there making decisions and not listening to them, you get what happens south of the border. You get Brexit, you get all kinds of division, and you get “us versus them.” You get perverse decisions made by governments pandering to their bases instead of serving the public interest. 

This is why engaging with citizens is fundamental. It is fundamental to surviving as a democratic and open society. We are, sadly, in a dwindling group of open, inclusive, democratic societies with the rule of law, a vibrant legislature, a free press and independent courts. Some countries have lost that last year. The sad thing is that the battle many of us thought was won in the last decade has to be rethought or reargued. 

We have to stand up again against racism, anti-Semitism, fascism, and the forces of division. I am very confident that this country will get through that, but it will not be without effort and cost. Part of the recipe that does not get talked about much is an independent, excellent, non-partisan public service. It is one that learns from its mistakes, but listens to Canadians and is attuned to the governments that it serves and the democratic mandates that have been given. We are very good at it, but there is no room for complacency in the next year or two, or ten, as the case may be. It will be full of challenges, but it will also be full of opportunities. As I always say, the good news is that I know you are up to it. Thank you very much. 

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