Thoughts on the 8th Report from the Advisory Panel on the Public Service

Wednesday, April 30, 2014
by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

Last week the 8th Report to the Prime Minister from the Advisory Panel on the Public Service dropped. Each year, this document provides an independent assessment of the state of the Public Service, outlines recommendations, and feeds into the Clerk of the Privy Council’s report to the PM that follows shortly thereafter.

The report begins by outlining the burning platform:

Our… premise is that the world in which the Public Service is operating has changed significantly over the last 10 to 15 years:
  • There is greater demand for transparency and accountability in the workings of government. There are more critics, more rules and greater scrutiny of almost everything done by public servants.
  • The relationship with parliamentarians has become much more challenging for the Public Service. Interaction is more frequent, covers a wider range of issues, and has become more intense.
  • Demographic shifts in society and in the Public Service present both new challenges (e.g. an aging workforce) and new opportunities to renew this national institution to ensure it is fully representative of the population it serves.
  • Globalization has changed the way the Public Service is doing business – most issues have become internationalized.
  • The Government of Canada faces an increasingly tight labour market where there is significant competition for skilled people.
  • Ever-changing technologies continue to transform the public service workplace, bringing a demand for new skills and new approaches to problems.
  • To put it simply, the world of program delivery and policy development has become increasingly complex, for all the reasons noted above.
We believe the overriding imperative for the Public Service today is to adapt to challenging new circumstances and to respond in innovative ways to the evolving needs of Canadians.

Perhaps the bullet on globalization gave it away - that was actually from the 1st Report of the Panel, back in 2007, but largely rings true today. But I think it's important to contextualize the rate of change, and the one thing that hasn't changed is the imperative for renewal:

2008, 2nd report: “The world in which the federal Public Service operates has become more complex and in many ways more unpredictable over the last 15 years”

2010, 4th report: “We believe we are now seeing tangible results of the concerted efforts to renew the Public Service. First launched in 2006, public service renewal continues to be the top management priority led by the Clerk of the Privy Council.”

2011, 5th report: “We believe there is an opportunity today for the Public Service to transform its business model and its approach to service delivery.”

2012, 6th report: “We are conscious that the Public Service is on the verge of significant changes, driven in part by the immediate requirements of deficit reduction, but also by a more fundamental need to renew public institutions for the future.”

The 2011 and 2012 reports shared a theme of investing in long-term thinking and long-term capacity. From 2011:

It must be recognized that one of the Public Service’s most important functions is maintaining a capacity for strategic thinking and policy advice. To this end, the Public Service should:
  • Continue to invest in the sustained examination of issues beyond the current agenda and in developing people with the skills to do this kind of work; 
  • Engage other sectors and other jurisdictions on a continuing basis to understand emerging trends in the domestic and global environment; and 
  • Pay particular attention to the emergence of new ways of adding value, as well as changes in how knowledge is transmitted in the global economy.

2013, 7th report: “In looking back on the past year, we find Canada’s Public Service at an important juncture.”

Which leads us to today.

2014, 8th report: “Canada’s Public Service is on a path of significant change and renewal.”

The theme is Contributing to a Competitive Canada, based on the idea that an effective Public Service can be a competitive advantage for nations. Throughout my first read through, I found myself thinking that this report was more generalized and less bold than that of 2013, the recommendations from which impressed me:

  1. Modernizing the employment model is the key challenge facing the Public Service today.
  2. It calls for sustained attention and a sense of urgency.
  3. Engagement is the key to employee commitment. If public servants can see where their institution is headed, they will be keen to get there.

However, I started to find passages that stuck out: bold, insightful, and counter to the standard dialogue.

The Limits of Efficiency

The Panel cautions against excessive cost focus, and reminds of the necessity for a reasonable level of investment in the Public Service. Which is crucial, especially given the terrible application of the logic of industrial efficiency to an organization increasingly composed of knowledge workers. Interestingly, the seemingly rare assessment that there are limits to "efficiencies" was coupled with a statement that usually accompanies the "we can do more for less" approach: “fiscal pressures can only be met through a deeper rethinking of how work is done inside government.” 

A Return to Service

“Canadians want fast, seamless and e-enabled services from government. The Public Service should redouble its efforts to meet this expectation.”

These two sentences slide by quickly, but carry a lot of weight. Nick recently hit on the service imperative (see: Is Innovation in Service Delivery a Blind Spot in Canada?), as did a Deputy Minister speaking about the need for a return to a focus on service last fall at GTEC. Or, this line from the Canada Digital 150 Strategy:

We will create a new log-in approach to government services that leverages industry investment to provide a client-centric and secure online authentication solution at a significantly reduced cost to taxpayers and in a manner that respects privacy.

Canada can’t quite take the Amazon.com-like Big Data route for personalizing citizen services (see: What Government Can Learn From Amazon)  due to legal and policy issues. So that line, above - referring to a federated digital identity for citizens - could be the game-changer for digital services.

Especially when coupled with the same strategy's plan to expand high-speed internet availability to 98% of Canadians. That said, the interesting question for me is how well we maintain other channels as we increasingly enable digital interactions (I have a point, here - but it’s for later post).

Back to the 8th Report: “Yet we have only begun to explore in this country the implications of the information revolution for Canada’s Public Service.” The panel included this under the heading Facing up to the information age, and I’d agree with their sentiment (see: We Don't Make Widgets Anymore or People Act, Technology Helps). But I’ll leave that one for now, and I’m curious as to whether it caught Nick’s eye.

Middle Management

“What is [the role of middle managers] in a 21st century Public Service?”

Okay, now we're getting pretty bold. 

“Do they have the right training, orientation, experience, skills and span of control? Is organizational design too cumbersome? Are there too many management levels?”

The answers to these questions may shock us. Or they may not. But we’re long past due in asking them.

The Panel continues: “[middle managers] must be… given operational responsibility, held accountable for results, and recognized accordingly.” I couldn’t agree more. I'd even go so far as to say that the the other recommendations of the Panel - and the potential of Blueprint 2020, for that matter - largely hinge on how seriously we take questions like these.

Investing in Learning, Leadership, and Longer-term Thinking

The Panel emphasized the importance of investments in learning - again, the recognition that pursuing cost efficiencies and short-term demands is, well, a short-term approach. Interestingly, in two separate passages about learning, the report segues to the imperative for leveraging the knowledge outside of the Public Service - an idea that also appeared in 2011. The panel also highlights the need to learn from each other, and to facilitate interchange with the private sector. This returns to the 2013 call to reform the employment model, and may be a harbinger of a Public Service whose organizational boundaries are much more permeable than before.

Regardless, an emphasis on continuous learning is the only reasonable approach, if the 7-year arc of these reports is a guide: change, change, change, and after that, more change

Or, as the Panel put it:

“Change on the scale being undertaken today is not a short-term deliverable. Take the time to do it right.”