Remarks by Michael Wernick, Clerk of the Privy Council,  at a Communications Community Office Learning Days event


February 14, 2019
Michael Wernick, Clerk of the Privy Council

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Good morning everyone. First, I would like to acknowledge, for those of us here physically, that we are gathered on the traditional territory of the Algonquin peoples of this region, and to acknowledge their hospitality in making it possible for us to meet here in this beautiful building.

I want to thank the National Arts Centre. What a fantastic renovation they have done to this place. I hope you get a chance to walk around and look at the premises. It is a terrific capital project delivered on time and on budget and adding incredible beauty and functionality to this building.

I would also like to thank, as I always do, the people who organized this event.

Most public servants are busy all the time doing their regular day jobs, which often spill over into their night and weekend. Those that step out and help their colleagues really deserve a special thank you from everybody, including me as Head of the Public Service. Whether it is through unions, employee groups, affinity groups, the National Managers Community or youth networks, if you are putting some of your time and energy into making this great family and institution a little bit better, we all owe you a great deal of thanks. So thank you very much.

I want to leave a little time for questions, in case there are things on your minds. However, there are a couple of topics that I would like to discuss to get you primed for the conversations over the rest of the day.

First, a little bit about where we are in the world and in history, if I can start on a large scale.

If you watch the news, which I guess many people in your business do, you know it is not great out there in the world. Many countries are going through a lot of distress. Some have rolled backwards from the rule of law and democracy, and some of the great democracies of the world are tied up in terrible crises and are unable to move forward.

When you look at the state of the world, you get very worried—but also very conscious that you live in a remarkable country. I know this is the stuff of Canada Day speeches, but it really means something right now.

We live in a country that has, and I am confident will continue to have, a vibrant national legislature, free and fair elections, which will take place on October 21 of this year, independent courts, a free press and a truly excellent, non-partisan and professional Public Service. None of those things should be taken for granted. They are the fruit of centuries and generations of work, and we have to continue to work hard to preserve them and pass them on to our kids and grandkids. That is the mantle and the torch that all public servants pass on to each other.

In that context, the role of government communications is vital because our whole system of democracy and rule of law rests on trust: trust of the governed in their governments and trust that the system is fair. It may be noisy, it may not always work, but it is fair. The people have a say, and the people are heard. It is not rigged for any special interest. That is important, and when that breaks down, you see the consequences. You see it in the Brexit vote, in American politics, and in the “gilets jaunes” [yellow vest protesters] of Paris.

So that basic trust bargain—­trust of the government by the citizens, whether you call them clients, stakeholders, consumers, users, voters, taxpayers—that bargain is important. So, the role that you play in helping the government communicate in two directions with Canadians and, indeed, with the rest of the world, is incredibly important to the rest of the country. I want you to take real pride in the fact that you do it really well.

I cannot think of a community of the Public Service that has been through more change in its work environment and tools than the communications community. You have been on the leading edge of the technological changes that have rolled through our society and our economy. You have seen disruptive technology wipe out the Canadian media landscape as we used to know it. You have seen the change in the way people interact with their governments: it is here now. They want their services and interactions online 24/7, personalized, customized, in all formats, in both official languages, fast and accurate.

This is a tough challenge, and people’s view of government—the institutions of government, not the particular party that is in power at the time, are often influenced by their last service interaction, in how frustrated they are about how long it took to get their passport. It is important to talk about service experiences and what people go through and to have a dialogue. We are not perfect, and we keep seeking feedback and trying to be better at what we do, and we do that well.

I will get another chance to tell your stories in my Annual Report to the Prime Minister, which is really an annual report to Canadians. It is useful, in terms of keeping confidence and trust, to tell the story of things like Environment and Climate Change Canada’s WeatherCAN app, which is being launched this week: a government-provided app, without all the annoying pop-up ads. You might want to download it this afternoon.

There is also the Parks Canada app, in case you want to get out of town, and the Canada Border Services Agency app that got rid of those silly cardboard cards for when you land in Canada. You can now do it all from your phone. I would encourage you to download these apps. These online service interactions are important to people’s basic relationship with their government, the public sector and they are important to our brand, image and reputation of being competent and responsive to, and inclusive of, all Canadians.

The parts of the Public Service that produce these services get less attention and less shout out and recognition than other parts that work on shiny new policies, laws and other things in the political arena. However, they are significant parts of communicating and listening. Communication must go both ways. More and more—and this is a shift that I have seen and lived—we must seek the views of Canadians. Hear them, and listen to them.

We have been through quite a journey over the last few years. It started before this government and accelerated under this government. It will continue with the next government, whoever it is. You cannot sit in a boardroom in Ottawa and come up with a solution for Canadians and then include a communications plan that you think will work. Canadians have to participate. This changes the nature of your work. It means you have to be at the table with the policy-makers and with the program designers. You have to be integral to those conversations with Canadians about things that affect them, whether it is the weather app, the accessibility legislation or climate change. All of those things now are two-way conversations with Canadians.

Parliament, the courts and the Public Service all have to learn how to do things in a different way. We need to be more open and responsive. This is not easy for everybody. It requires different mindsets, different skills, different behaviors and a certain humility.

Remember, we must be very inclusive.

People can game the system, shout the loudest through social media or email campaigns or bots on social media and drown out other voices. Some people have more money or resources, more power to have their views expressed. This means that governments have to work hard against that to make sure that they are listening to and including as many Canadians as possible in those conversations. I think this is a permanent part of modern governance and keeping that trust. The government is not for other people, it is for all of us.

If I can just shift gears a little bit, to the “keeping it real” theme: there are two things I want to underscore before you have this conversation with your heads of communication. It is going to matter what tone and attitude we project in communicating. And by “we,” I mean all public sector institutions. In a world where facts are contested and where people are throwing stuff out there for their own particular reasons, it is very important that we project cool and professional, and that we not project defensive or argumentative. Our tone must be humble and open, not “we know what is best.” We also have to stay away from the fray of electoral and partisan politics.

There is nothing wrong with partisan politics in a democracy. It is a good thing to have in a country. There are people that die in the streets of their countries so they can have elections where parties contest who is going to be the next government. We should savor the fact that we have partisan politics in Canada. However, it means we have to be very mindful of our role as a Public Service that this and future governments will trust.

There is a difference between communicating as government and communicating as a minister or as a Member of Parliament or as a candidate, and we must keep that clear over the next year. We have a very good track record of doing that; it is something we will have to be very conscious of in 2019.

The other point I would underscore—and I see from the program you have ahead of you over the next days that this is highly relevant: these are hard jobs. The pace of events is fast and reaction times are short. This means that we need to get out with accurate information in the face of deliberate misinformation. We have to have approval processes and response mechanisms that are quick and accurate. However, there is not much boundary between the so-called 9-to-5 world and the rest of the 168 hours in the week. That puts a lot of strain and pressure on people. It also raises issues of well-being, resilience, skills and learning and development, of open communication within workplaces so people have a sense of what they are doing, why they are doing it and where they fit in.

It is always about good management and good leadership. It is particularly important in your community, because you are where the fresh water and the salt water meet: the boundary between a non-partisan Public Service and the partisan politics of a lively democracy. This is not always an easy place to be. These are demanding jobs, and if you have ideas and suggestions about how to improve the workplace and work environment, we need them.

I am often asked for my vision for the Public Service is public servants shape their own future. Join a GCcollab network, and get on GCconnex. You should be building conversations and solutions by yourselves, for yourselves. Moreover, when your leaders are needed to find efficiencies in processes or to provide resources or opportunities, you need to tell them. I have never met senior leaders that are not responsive to that. They do not always know what you are going through.

You have to find the channels to talk to them and engage in two-way conversations. Two-way conversation, dialogue, inclusion and trust are really important to keeping this great institution going.

I will close on, probably, my favourite sound bite. Ken [MacKillop, Assistant Secretary to the Cabinet, Communications and Consultations] knows what is coming.

Facts and evidence: on every objective rating of the public sector, the Canadian public sector and the Canadian Public Service is either among the best or the best and the most effective in the world. That is you. You should tell that story to your neighbours when you are out shoveling snow tonight or at the hockey arenas or the indoor soccer fields or at family dinners. What you do matters to Canada, and you do it really, really well.

Thank you. Miigwetch.

Pictures of the event are available online.

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