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CPSRENEWAL.CA WEEKLY COLUMN: Getting Yourself Oriented to Public Service Values and Ethics

Friday, May 30, 2008
While I am no longer a new recruit, for reasons beyond my control I finally had the opportunity last week to attend the Canadian School of Public Service’s Orientation to the Public Service Over two days we discussed why the Public Service matters to Canadians, how Parliament works, how Government works, and values and ethics.

Values and ethics made up the lion’s share of the orientation session, accounting for two and a half hours of each day. What follows is a more verbose version of constructive feedback I have already left with the school regarding the session.

Now, I acknowledge up front that values and ethics are not the sexiest of topics to cover, but I also recognize their importance. A common code of conduct for public servants is necessary because it puts forth a normative framework which guides and supports public servants in all of their professional activities. It helps to maintain and enhance public confidence in the integrity of the Public Service and strengthens respect for the role played by the Public Service within Canadian democracy.

During an ethical dilemma role-playing exercise, our table was hard pressed to reach consensus, eventually settling on the fact that we could agree to disagree. When we presented our findings to the larger group they were also unable to reach consensus.

What our experience illustrated was the need for the orientation session to have a values and ethics subject matter expert to whom we could turn in order to clarify more precarious or ambiguous situations. I doubt we would have been advised to base decisions on the Globe and Mail test or to avoid befriending your subordinates because you may need to reprimand them.

[editorial note: for those of us unfamiliar with all of the government vernacular, the Globe and Mail test essentially dictates that one’s behaviour must be defensible to the Globe and Mail (and presumably its readership) should those actions come under public scrutiny. This sparked a fierce debate over the use of such a term and its implications for risk aversion and avoiding the wrath of the Globe and Mail demographic – but I digress.]

What was most disheartening about our values and ethics discussion was not the unqualified advice but the fact that the need for a subject matter expert was publicly identified on the first day, but no expert was available the second day. It may be stating the obvious, but some advice from the experts or a guide to interpreting the code would have come in handy.

There are two distinct lessons to be learned here in the context of renewal. The first is that the public service needs to realize that first impressions are the most important. The second is that the public service needs to be more responsive. This was a perfect opportunity to show new recruits how quickly government can work to correct itself – a missed opportunity.

The solution was simple – have a subject matter expert onsite the second day. This would have made a better impression on new recruits than unqualified advice (which should be withheld when it is unqualified) and it would have shown that a large organization like the federal government can adapt quickly to address concerns and make a difference to targeted groups (in this case its newest employees).