Kaczorowski: Real public service reform requires an independent examination. It can’t be left to government ‘insiders’

My experience over a comparable period has been much less negative than that of Kaczorowski. And underlying his viewpoint is a certain arrogance within the public service, one that I learned to confront when working on citizenship and multiculturalism issues under the Conservatives and then Minister Kenney, as they forced me to become more aware of my biases and assumptions.
To a certain extent, some “institutional timidity” is necessary for the public service, given its stewardship role and the risks involved in change. Service Canada offered the potential of citizen-centred service in the mid-2000s but such a major transformation was deemed to be too risky and thus its objectives became more modest.
That being said, a deeper outside look of the public service than yet another internal review has merit:
Real public service reform requires an independent examination. It can’t be left to government ‘insiders’
In his recent Ottawa Citizen essay, Kevin Lynch provides a blunt but necessary critique of the federal public service. The time for root-and-branch reform is long overdue to save the public service from itself.In recent months, we have had ample evidence of a public service seemingly floundering and failing at its most basic task: providing professional, timely and accurate service to Canadians. Stories of airport and passport office chaos abound. The legacy of the Phoenix pay system fiasco remains with us to this day. Whether it is procurement or IT services, the federal government appears incapable of delivering goods and services on time and on budget.

As Lynch notes, some of the problems are of the current government’s own making. Rather than focusing on a few core initiatives, the Trudeau government has too often sought to be all things to all people, trying to appease every constituency seeking attention and resources. As a consequence, the government has too often appeared scattered and unfocused, offering myriad initiatives while failing at implementation and follow-up.

Other issues, such as the predominant role of the Prime Minister’s Office and the influence — not to mention interference — of political staff in departmental business are longstanding problems that predate the current administration but that have grown worse over time. The primary concern of political staffers is optics: how will this or that initiative play to party supporters? How can I position my minister to maximum political effect?  Political staffers are seldom, if ever, substantive experts, and are naturally resented by professional public servants who have spent years in a particular policy field.

Policy expertise, however, is not an excuse for complacency, and here the public service of today is found wanting. I began my own public service career as a university summer student in 1983. I fully subscribed to the ideal of public service as a noble vocation. I had hopes of following in the footsteps of the great public servants of the past, such as Gordon Robertson. After 30 years of toil, I retired from the public service in 2018, exhausted and dispirited. I left not because I had to, but because I simply could not continue shouting into the wind.

Over the years, I witnessed a public service in which innovative thinking gave way to institutional timidity and a culture where contrary thinking was too often deemed unhelpful and unwelcome. This is how public service goes from being an honourable calling to a debilitating grind.

I saw a number of public service “renewal” exercises come and go. Yet each of these — whether it was La Releve in the 1990s, Public Service 2000 or Beyond 2020 — suffered from the same fatal flaw. They were all internal reviews led by the senior managers most invested in the status quo and therefore highly unlikely to challenge that status quo. These “in-house” initiatives produced little that was new or innovative on key issues such as recruitment, the loss of corporate memory, the political-public service relationship, accountability, or the role of the public service as a generator of innovative policy initiatives and advice.

Favouring the familiar over the new breeds inertia and decay.Take the single issue of remote work. I well remember the roadblocks, not to mention the paperwork, senior managers put before staff when it came to what we then called “teleworking.” Too many managers came with the mindset that they could not be seen as effective unless their “minions” were within easy reach. The COVID-19 pandemic put an end to the excuses associated with remote work, as well as the idea that public servants would not be working as hard as in the office. Indeed, public servants working remotely have had to juggle work and family responsibilities, all the while labouring under the assumption that they are available around the clock.

Remote working was a success, yet we already see efforts under the guise of federal “Return to Work” directives which imply a desperate effort to put public servants back in their cubicles.

In the first instance, the “return to work” moniker is insulting. Public servants have not been on holiday during the pandemic. They have been working harder and longer, in makeshift offices (a kitchen counter, a spare bedroom) and with often-outdated and unreliable IT. The notion that pushing public servants back into the downtown core is required to “grow the economy” would be laughable if it were not so bereft of reason.

What is to be done? The federal public service has historically been the subject of royal commissions. The Royal Commission on Government Organization — known as the Glassco Commission — was appointed in 1960 and chaired by businessman J. Grant Glassco. The commission issued a five-volume report in 1962 and 1963. It recommended that government departments be managed on a decentralized basis, that the Treasury Board be reorganized, and that senior management should rotate among departments.

More far-reaching was the Royal Commission on Financial Management and Accountability, established in 1976 and which issued its final report in 1979. Known as the Lambert Commission, it was in part a response to the dire warning issued by the Auditor General of Canada in his 1975-76 Report that “Parliament — and indeed the government — has lost or is close to losing, effective control of the public purse.” The Commission, led by TD Bank Executive Allan Lambert, concluded that a breakdown had occurred in the accountability regime in government, resulting in a lack of coordination in planning, haphazard budgeting and accountability. Many might argue that the situation has not changed.

The common denominator in both of these royal commissions is that they were led by outsiders and so provided sweeping inquiries into key public service reform issues that cannot be done solely by those within the system. Such an independent and wide-ranging examination of the federal public service is long overdue. Indeed, it is critical in the face of institutional timidity and paralysis.

As the former clerk notes, good government is about “turning worthy intentions into reality for Canadians through effective and efficient delivery of government programs and services.” If the public service of today cannot fulfil these responsibilities, then public confidence is lost. The time for reform is now. I hope the current Clerk is listening.

Source: Kaczorowski: Real public service reform requires an independent examination. It can’t be left to government ‘insiders’

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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