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Moving Public Service Mountains, Part I

Wednesday, May 8, 2013
by Kent AitkenRSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken


This post will be part one of at least two. Next week I'll explain why I believe this is so incredibly important.


At The Museum of Nature in Ottawa, visitors can simulate an earthquake in the Vale Earth Gallery. You turn a crank to pull a spring-loaded hunk of simulated mountain over a surface, and at some point the force overcomes the friction and it slams back into place. The intended lesson is that it's impossible to predict exactly when the tipping point will be reached; each experiment plays out differently.

On To The Dogs or Whoever I referred to a possible “tectonic” shift approaching for public service. I can see the possibility of a very different model for how the bureaucracy functions, develops policy, interacts with Canadians, and creates a competitive advantage for Canada. And in the last few weeks, I've discovered that others have the same hunch. People arrived at this prediction from two very different roads, some on account of mounting evidence, and some from feeling the increasing weight of necessity.

But like the museum counterpart, it's hard to tell if that tectonic shift is actually about to happen. If this mountain worth of inertia is about to move. Or if it needs a shove.



Some of the evidence I would point to:
  • It was recently announced that Deputy Minister Robert Fonberg would join the Privy Council Office with a specific mandate to examine the broader policy development model.
“I believe that we need a clear and shared vision of what Canada’s Public Service should become in the decades ahead,” the Clerk wrote, adding that Deputy Ministers have been tasked with engaging “all public servants in this important dialogue about our shared future.”

Some may greet this litany of anecdotes with skepticism. One could point to Public Service Renewal, the push for a strengthened public service that launched in 2006 or 2007, and ask how far we've come. Is today any different?


Necessity is the Mother of Innovation

On the necessity side, I feel that we have a better grasp now of the mounting need for committed renewal:
  • Deloitte's William Eggers highlights, in his Public Sector, Disrupted report, that government is the one sector of economy where innovation has not pushed down costs.
  • Samara's research suggests that the number of Canadians satisfied in the way Canadian democracy works dropped from 75% to 55%, in only 10 years.
  • Research from Nanos also puts Canadian's level of trust in public servants at record lows. Only 14% surveyed responded that they had a distinctly positive view of the role of Public Servants in developing public policy.
All is not necessarily well. I would go so far as to suggest that the status quo is a risky position. So what's next?


Mountains to Move

So here stand we. Staring at a mountain that may, or may not, be ready to move.

We know that it needs to, and we have some forces pushing. It could be another Public Service Renewal, in which we never quite leaned in enough to overcome our inertia. But we have that lesson learned to build on, and the rules have changed. We have black swans proving the possible: there is a Deputy Minister conversing frankly and openly with public servants of all levels and backgrounds about policy development on GCConnex. Another deputy head has resoundingly proven the worth of employee engagement through honest, personal social media interaction. Pictures of cats and all. And the silo-defying, self-organizing GC community is stronger than ever, and has a science fair of success stories to showcase.

Often, we don't know what we don't know [see: The Importance of Being Earnest (and Open)]. And that (unnecessarily) incomplete picture of the world leads to pitfalls and obstacles; in this case, additional friction holding this mountain back. But today, that cold fact is increasingly recognized, and input is being widely solicited. I think we have a unique opportunity now to create discussion.

I don't want to look back, years from now, and wonder if that mountain was ready to go. If all it needed was one more good shove.



*I'd like to unpack that last one for a moment. When I first heard that figure, I found myself wondering how much was due to a safe and generous benefits system, and how much was due to mental health issues. Not that either exists in a vacuum. If a portion is due to the benefits system, it makes me wonder how many of our private sector peers are suffering through untreated mental illness because they are worried about losing jobs, or because they don't have needed benefits. And I'm certain that the system, alone, doesn't explain the discrepancy between public and private rates. Public servants are also more likely to binge drink, which is indicative of stress and mental health issues (although income and education levels impact here as well). There's a direct, and significant, correlation between engagement levels and absenteeism. And there are links between one's perception of control over their jobs and their health. I believe that mental health issues for public servants are a genuine issue and merit significant concern.