Remarks by Ian Shugart, Clerk of the Privy Council, at the 2019 Assistant Deputy Minister Forum


April 25, 2019
Ian Shugart, Clerk of the Privy Council

Check against delivery

Before getting into the substance of my remarks today, I want to recognize Michael Wernick [former Clerk of the Privy Council]. Michael and I have been colleagues for many years. Throughout that time, he has been to me an example of the devoted public servant whose integrity, intelligence, endless curiosity and humanity have been an example and inspiration. Across a wide range of experience, he has always carried a deep belief in the institutions of our model of government. In his uncompromising determination to remove any harassment from the workplace and in his passionate championship of mental health, Michael has displayed a deep humanity. Throughout his time as Clerk, and long before, his selfless devotion to duty, his good cheer, his commitment to innovation and excellence have guided us well. I am very grateful to Michael.

On the first day of spring, Michael tabled the 26th Annual Report to the Prime Minister on the Public Service of Canada. He graciously asked me beforehand if there was anything in this report that would make me uncomfortable. Of course there wasn’t, but quite frankly, the vast majority of the content was unknown to me. It was inspiring reading—if you have not read the Report yet, I invite you to do so.

Beyond2020 is the theme: the continuous and ongoing renewal of the public service, that is the task before us all.

This is the world we live in—a world of constant and rapid changes, many of which are contradictory. Some trends are inspired by others. Some of the changes are the result of long struggles that have finally come to fruition.

To serve Canadians well, we need to keep pace with these changes, and within our context of accountability, political decision-making and inherent complexity, this is not an easy thing to do. But it is necessary.

Beyond2020 calls on us to meet this challenge by being more agile, more inclusive and better equipped. You, the members of the ADM [Assistant Deputy Minister] group, are responsible for meeting this challenge.

And the Clerk’s report tells stories, inspiring and practical stories, about the achievements of the public service everywhere across the country.

You, the members of the ADM group, should be proud to have created an environment that is conducive to the development of this ingenuity and discipline to aspire to excellence.

Surviving and thriving in a digital environment is no longer a cutting edge capability, to be practiced by the few.

Canadians expect government to change and adapt—by delivering the services they need, when and where they need them, through the channels that they prefer.

  • Canada’s authority on cyber security, the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security, offers tools and information, such as interactive apps and videos, helps Canadians better understand how they can keep their information secure.
  • Environment and Climate Change Canada’s new WeatherCAN mobile app makes forecasts and alerts available through real-time weather data.

While Canada’s diversity is a fact, inclusion is an act of will. It can be as simple as how we run meetings or reaching out across teams, and to the many sectors outside the Public Service to seek diverse views.

The Public Service being equipped with updated IT tools, secure networks, reliable servers and proper workspaces is increasingly critical for our mission. We need our agencies and leaders in this domain to succeed—and they are. And, public servants will also have to embrace continuous learning because nothing is standing still.

We have also witnessed important political and legislative achievements for the government during this Parliament.

I was fortunate to see for myself how many of you worked tirelessly in the NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] modernization process with the United States and Mexico.

The successful legalization and regulation of cannabis is another example. Canada has become the second country in the world to legalize the possession and use of cannabis for recreational purposes.

The adoption of Bill C-65, a piece of legislation aimed at eliminating harassment in the workplace, represents an important step forward in terms of modernization and demonstrates the commitment of public servants to creating a safe work environment.

There is no better time to ask how we are going to make the public sector more responsive to the needs of Canadians.

We need to improve the flexibility of our systems and structures, foster greater inclusion, and ensure that our employees are well equipped, now and beyond 2020.

Beyond2020 is a natural evolution of the progress we made during Blueprint 2020 and it is a necessary and practical approach for the future.

I have heard our Prime Minister and his predecessors each, on more than one occasion, talk about the Public Service of Canada as an invaluable asset for the well-being of our country. We believe that is absolutely the case, otherwise we would not be here today.

One of the challenges of holding senior leadership positions in the public service is that we can’t stand still. If we are to remain an asset for Canada, we must keep pace. The global and national challenges we face are too complex, too relentless for us to “rest on our laurels”.

I mention five challenges—not an exhaustive list by any means.

  1. Technology is an inevitable consequence of human creativity, and its use reflects the diversity of human nature—for good and ill. Two specific challenges associated with technology in our era: it is disruptive and the rents from its application are not always fairly distributed. Understanding the nature, the impact, the consequences of technologies will continue to test our awareness of the marketplace, the perspectives of citizens and communities, our resilience as regulators, policy-makers, and service providers.
  2. Large scale disruption from effects of conflict and climate change impacts. Happily, some conflicts come to an end, but generally speaking, large scale displacement from conflicts will mean large movements of people. Whether aggravated or caused by the effects of changing climate, major populations displacement will put enormous pressure on regions and countries seen as possible place of refuge. Much of this is distant from Canada, but the 16th century English poet John Donne captured how connected and immediate global trends really are: 

    No man is an island entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less; […] Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
  3. New alignments of countries. Admittedly, I still have our global threat environment on my mind. It is part of the reality Canada faces that many of the rules of the international order that we have benefited from are under greater challenge than we have know in our lifetimes. Our economy has benefited from these principles and mechanisms of economic stabilization and open markets.
  4. Stresses within the Federation. Canada’s policy and service delivery story is all about the Canadian Federation. Different perspectives, the disproportionate impact of events on the country’s regions, different electoral timetables, all conspire to bring an ever changing dramatis personae to the stage of our national life, with new plot lines. Virtually everything we do in the public service involves close interaction with provinces and territories—and increasingly, municipalities and communities. Place-based analysis and solutions, experiments that may or may not become precedents—well, all I’ll say is that it is never dull in Canadian federalism.
  5. Canada’s imperative, in the face of these challenges, and more, is to be at the top of our game. In every sphere. Private and public institutions, economic performance and social cohesion. Inter regional collaboration. Educational performance. As innovative as any other place on earth.If Canada is to be at the top of its game, so must the public service. And to achieve that, we will all have to be as well—the Clerk; the DM Community; ADMs and the EX Community.

Now, I give all of us a specific challenge in being at the top of our game: every once in a while, the electoral calendar requires us to prepare for a new government mandate. 2019 is such a year, and our Transition planning has already begun.

Of course, the public service is not the only institution engaged and active in an election year: stakeholders press their point of view; Parties prepare to convince the public that theirs is the only pair of hands; and the media sharpens their critical faculties.

What is the unique contribution of the public service? Our only objective is the public interest. And we are statutorily charged with the delivery of public goods. That does not make us the only source of advice and ideas! And it does not make us the arbiter of the right answers.

In his massive work Democracy in America, the French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville made this observation, which I think has implications for us:

Nowadays the need is to keep men interested in theory. They will look after the practical side of things themselves. So instead of perpetually concentrating attention on the minute examination of the secondary effects, it is good to distract it therefrom sometimes and lift it to the contemplation of the first causes.

Because Roman civilization perished through barbarian invasions, we are perhaps too much inclined to think that it is the only way a civilization can die.

If the lights that guide us ever go out, they will fade little by little, as if of their own accord. Confining ourselves to practice, we may lose sight of basic principles, and when these have been entirely forgotten, we may apply methods derived from them badly, we might be left without capacity to invent new methods and will only able to make a clumsy and unintelligent use of wise procedures no longer understood.

What are the “lights that guide us,” the leaders of the public service, in this election year? Professionalism, permanence, non-partisanship.

To be a professional public service means developing and employing the tools and disciplines to give the government of the day our advice based on facts and analysis. And at their direction, to provide excellent services to Canadians. As with all professions, there are practices and methods that have served the public interest over time; there are codes of conduct that shape honourable behaviour.

“Permanent” refers not to the individuals but to the institution! The institution has evolved to put a premium on stability and continuity, so that professional advice and capable experienced service delivery is there when governments change. Permanence does not mean not changing; agility and adaptability are attributes we absolutely need. It does mean that when a new Minister arrives, the institution is there, ready and trained to give expert advice and service.

Permanence should never lead to being stuck. The institution provides continuity and stability; public servants as individuals and teams must stay fresh and current. And the more specialized the Department, the greater the need to get out and be exposed to other parts of the economy, society and the rest of the government.

And the public service of Canada is non-partisan. This is not because public servants have no opinions. On the contrary, non-partisanship is rooted in constitutional principles. Our non-partisan character supports a Westminster model of government. As public servants, our loyalty is to the government that can command support of the House of Commons, in turn sent by the people of Canada.

Our non-partisanship is an accompaniment to our professionalism and the permanence of the institution.

So in this election year, the public service will earn and maintain the confidence of political Parties and leadership through excellence in these four ways:

  1. Assessment of the challenges and opportunities the country faces. Here our commitment is to evidence, including an awareness of how others perceive the issues before Canada.
  2. Analysis of proposals and options, not least including the platforms of the Parties.
  3. Advice to the electoral government of whatever colour and composition-at the outset of the mandate and throughout the terms of office.
  4. Acceptance of the public’s choice.

Let’s do this together—as leaders of this invaluable asset for Canada.

Let’s do it by listening to all voices—reflective of a diverse country.

Let’s do it enthusiastically—inspired by the privilege of serving this fabulous country in these unique roles.

Page details

Date modified: