Values and visions of public service

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

Recently Mark Jarvis (the Mowat Centre’s Practice Lead for Government Transformation) threw a question out to Twitter looking for good quotes on the value of the public service. A few of us responded, and I thought it’d be good to compile the various takes here - partially because they say as much about what public service is in the first place.

Please add others in the comments and I’ll shuffle them into the post for posterity.

Lastly, you may have noticed that there's a public administration book club. A few of the quotes below are from John Tait's 1996 report on public service values and ethics, and later in September I'll set up a discussion over Google Hangouts (or in-person in Ottawa) on how that report holds up over two decades and what has changed, especially with news stories putting public service neutrality and non-partisanship front and centre. Drop me a comment or email if you're interested in joining.

The value and vision of public service

"Modern experience has confirmed that the use of skilled officials is an essential condition of democracy’s existence.  It is clear that to ascertain the will of the people is not sufficient; there must also be the means to ensure that what they desire is carried out in the best possible manner. The real democracy demands a subtle combination of election and appointment, of non-expert minds and expert minds, of control and trust, of responsibility and independence.”
- Graham Wallas, 1921 [h/t Cosmo Howard]

“Public service reminds us all that there exists a genuine concept of the public good in the broad public interest. While we value individual liberty and protect it, as Canadians we also maintain a strong tradition of the public good — that is, what is good for society as a whole, on balance, taking into account disparate interests and adopting the longer view.”
- the Honourable Jim Flaherty, 2011 [source] [h/t Nick Charney]

“The most important defining factor for the role and values of the public service of Canada is its democratic mission and public trust: helping ministers, under law and the Constitution, to serve the common good. Public service values largely derive from and are shaped by the role of the public service, as a Canadian institution, in supporting Canada’s unique brand of parliamentary democracy. Our core values are shaped by an understanding that authority in a parliamentary democracy rests with elected officeholders who are accountable to Parliament.”
- John Tait, 1996 [source] [h/t Ryan Androsoff]

“Public service is a special calling. It is not for everyone. Those who devote themselves to it find meaning and satisfaction that are not to be found elsewhere. But the rewards are not material. They are moral and psychological, perhaps even spiritual. They are the intangible rewards that proceed from the sense of devoting one’s life to the service of the country, to the affairs of state, to public purposes, great or small, and to the public good. The rewards of this special calling, like those of other professions, come at a price. The price is submitting to very high standards of professional conduct; accepting public scrutiny and accountability; learning to hold a public trust and to put public interests ahead of self; respecting the authority of law and of democratic will; and entering into a community that values these as the foundations of good government.  The values of public service are both its price and its reward.”
- John Tait, 1996 [source] [h/t Ryan Androsoff]

“Our sales pitch has literally one component to it — come serve your country and have an impact at scale. We have had so much success in recruiting because people are interested in using their skill sets to actually help others. That’s really all we’ve got going for us at the moment.”
- Haley Van Dyck, 2015 [source] [h/t Ryan Androsoff]

“Speaking the truth is not bad politics. We may all have the right to our own opinions but we do not have the right to our own facts. And the idea that you can longer speak the truth with impunity; that government doesn’t matter; or that repairing trust in our public figures and institutions is an impossible or unworthy task is just plain wrong. And those who offer these opinions as fact must be challenged.

And it is also wrong for those who are tasked with serving our political leaders to offer anything less than the absolute best advice, based on the best analysis, whether they want to hear it or not.”
- Allan Gregg, 2011 [source] [h/t Nick Charney]

Note: I'm leaving a lot of the below speech in because it is simply awesome and should be the standard to which public servant speeches aspire. - Kent

"The values and integrity of the public service have been, are, and will continue to be a source of huge comparative advantage to Canada. And of course, we've discovered how volatile and exciting the world of politics is. I was going to say "Holy shit!" but I know that's exactly what my colleagues at Privy Council were worried about. So I won't say that because it's totally inappropriate. And I want it on the record that I didn't say that. But these are exciting times and I don't need this kind of excitement! It creates stresses. It creates stresses in the departments that are affected. It creates stresses in public service right through the system but it's also an occasion to focus on what gives us greater pride and what we're best at as a non-partisan professional public service.

This is a time for us to achieve a great deal. This is a time for us to focus on our core values, to reaffirm those values: integrity and excellence in everything we do; respect for people, citizens, employees, colleagues, elected officials; embracing diversity as a source of strength; linguistic duality (I'll return to this); and adaptability. If we can't embrace change and lead it, at the very least we've got to adapt to it, but at the same time protect those institutions that make Canada distinct and strong. This is a time for us to return to the skills that we're best at: rigorous policy analysis, creative policy options, innovative service delivery, effective resource management always focussed on value for money, fearless advice, loyal implementation. This is what we're good at. And we've got a real opportunity - in fact an obligation - to turn to that, to re-affirm our commitments, to go to what we've been paid for, to go to what we're hired for, to go to what attracted us to public service. This is a time for us to remind ourselves of the Canadian values and principles that we're charged to uphold: pluralistic democracy; federalism; multiculturalism; linguistic duality; the special place of Aboriginal people; freedom and the inherent equality of all individuals; peace, order and good government; openness to the world; and whatever the "intermestic challenge" means.

You know, we're good at a lot of things but making up words we're no good at. "Horizontality?" "Intermestic?" Hello? This is a time for us to turn to one another, to depend on each other, to rely on each other but also to talk straight to one another."
- Alex Himelfarb, 2002 [source]

"This is the key reason why public service matters. I believe there is a close correlation between good public policy and an excellent public service. The public service can take a longer term view on the policy challenges facing a country, and invest in the analysis to provide governments with a full range of policy options. Further, public service is about just that, services: it provides services impacting on all Canadians, and the more efficient and effective these are delivered, the better off we are as a country. In his book The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Thomas Friedman argues that "One of the most important and enduring competitive advantages that a country can have today is a lean, effective, honest civil service". In other words, public service matters, and an effective, efficient, accountable public service can be part of a country's comparative advantage. This has certainly been Canada's experience. Indeed, the fact of the matter is that the democratic values, the ethic of serving the public good, the professionalism, non-partisanship and commitment that characterize the Public Service of Canada underpins its role as a fundamental national institution. Public servants help governments shape public policy --- whether it is in the fields of science policy, competition, defence, health, the environment, trade, energy, social programs, foreign policy --- you name it, public policy and public servants influence Canadians and Canadian business."
- Jocelyn Bourgon, 2006 [source]

[Public administrations] contribute to shaping societies. They give shape to concepts and values about the exercise of power in society. They give form to the role of government and definition to the functioning of public institutions and organizations. Public administrations embody a concept about the relationship between people and government from subservient vassal to an expanding concept of citizenship. In short, public administrations embody concept, principles, conventions and values.
- Jocelyn Bourgon, 2011 [source]

" If government is a pharmacy, the public service is the four aisles that are always the same. Elected officials are the seasonal aisle."
- Matt Risser, we think [h/t Mark Coffin]