Top bureaucrat rejects auditor general’s ‘opinion piece’ on broken government culture

Fairly combative appearance, perhaps reflecting ongoing frustration with auditor general reports. Phoenix, however one looks at it, is a classic large-scale bureaucratic failure.
My memory is long enough (as it the Clerk’s!) to remember the universal classification system (UCS) initiative in the 1990s that consumed an enormous amount of time in reviewing job descriptions and criteria only to be abandoned. IMO there are cultural factors that make such large-scale transformations high risk, and there is enough collective experience to be more wary about proposing these kinds of initiatives given the implementation challenges:
Top bureaucrat Michael Wernick has rejected the auditor general’s assertion last month of a broken culture in the federal government that enabled the Phoenix pay system disaster. While there’s room for improvement, and Phoenix was a failure, the kind of deep malaise that Michael Ferguson described in his message accompanying his spring reports to Parliament does not reflect the reality of the public service, the Clerk of the Privy Council said during a House of Commons committee meeting Tuesday,.
“I believe it contains sweeping generalizations, it’s not supported by evidence, and it does not provide you any particular guidance on what to do to move forward,” Wernick said in his opening comments to the committee, calling the auditor general’s message “an opinion piece which I take issue with.”
Wernick told the parliamentarians who comprise the public accounts committee, many of whom greeted his words with skepticism, that he saw Phoenix as a “perfect storm,” the culmination of multiple factors that have already been laid out in two auditor general reports and an independent study by consulting firm Goss Gilroy Inc.
David Christopherson, a New Democrat MP and committee vice-chair, challenged Wernick on his conclusions.
“With all due respect … either we have a (Clerk) of the Privy Council who has his head buried in the sand and is in complete denial with what the cultural problems are, or we’ve got an auditor general that is off the rails. “Where does that leave us?”
But Wernick said that contrary to what the auditor general observed, the public service does not have a pervasive problem with deputy minister turnover. Of the 33 deputy ministers over which Wernick said he has some influence and the last three terms they’ve each completed, 49 of 99 were more than three years, 27 more than four years, and 16 more than five years.
And Public Services and Procurement Canada, the same department that oversaw the botched Phoenix rollout, delivered parliamentary precinct construction projects on time, on budget, and fully-functioning, he said. “I’m not saying the public service culture is perfect … We are risk-averse, we are process and rules-driven, we need to be more nimble, we need to be more creative, we need to be more assertive,” Wernick later concluded.
“What I take issue with is the insinuation that it is a generalized broken culture, which implies a generalized broken public service, and I have to contest that.”
He registered his belief that the public service needs structural reform. It has too many layers, he said, having climbed 15 of them to get to the position he holds today. The hundreds of classification groups and thousands of special pay groups and allowances make building an effective pay system extremely challenging, he said.
He also recommended the committee consider the incentive structure under which public servants operate. There are numerous layers of oversight and feedback around the senior bureaucrats, Wernick said, and almost all are negative. The exceptions are performance pay and promotion.
“Culture is shaped by incentives and disincentives,” he said, and there are opportunities to create those “which reward innovation, creativity, or that stifle it.”
But MPs continued to raise the question of a larger cultural crisis throughout the bureaucracy. Conservative MP Lisa Raitt pointed out that Ferguson isn’t the first to come to this conclusion.
Last year, public service integrity commissioner Joe Friday flagged a culture of fear silencing public servants from speaking out about wrongdoing. And Kevin Sorenson, committee chair and Conservative MP, cited letters his office had received from public servants “saying this culture has to be fixed.”
Wernick pointed out these letters and emails come from those motivated enough to write, and “officers of parliament have their role and have their opinion, but they are outside observers.”
For the most part, Canada’s public service is free of nepotism, corruption and partisanship, he said.
“It’s important in this day and age that Canadians have some confidence in their public institutions, and I am committed to making them better as we go along.” But, he cautioned, “be very careful on the diagnosis before you start prescribing remedies. There are a lot of governance quacks out there, and I think it’s important to listen carefully to people with some expertise.”
Wernick also extended some cultural advice of his own to the committee: create a space in which questioning the auditor general is possible. For a decade or more, he said, government was taught the only way to respond to auditor general recommendations was with agreement. “It should be OK to challenge the analysis and the findings of the auditor general. It will make for a healthier, richer debate.”

Source: Top bureaucrat rejects auditor general’s ‘opinion piece’ on broken government culture

PS must step up recruitment to offset exodus of retiring baby boomers

Good overview of the latest Clerk’s report on the public service. Parts I found more interesting below, with the culture change the hardest challenge, along with harassment, a perennial issue:

Wernick’s report clearly indicates there will be no single plan when the task force releases its final report.

Rather, each department will develop its own “action plan” rather than shoehorn a master set of rules on all departments. That’s because the nature of federal workplaces varies wildly from white-collar office jobs to employees working in call centres, on Coast Guard ships, in prisons or the military.

Those plans will focus on changing culture with leadership, training, support for employees and managers, and then measuring the impact of those changes.

Wernick’s report noted that the last public service survey showed that harassment, discrimination and lack of empowerment are key barriers to a “respectful” workplace.

“These types of behaviours must be addressed,” he said.  “There is no place for them in society or in the workplace. Every manager and every employee is accountable.”

On the policy front, Wernick has taken exception to critics who argue the public service lost its policy-making skills over the Conservative decade.

His report, however, says the way policy is developed has to be modernized and a policy community project is underway to strengthen policy-making in a rapidly changing world.

“It will be important never to return to a time where policy was developed in splendid isolation from the operations and services that implement it, or the people affected by it. Nor should policy be developed in silos and stovepipes. All of the important issues facing Canada are broad and multi-faceted.”

Source: PS must step up recruitment to offset exodus of retiring baby boomers | Ottawa Citizen

Trudeau tasks top bureaucrat to help reform patronage appointments

Will be interesting to see what system is developed and, after a number of years, whether the quality and diversity of appointments improves.

Just another aspect to implementing the “commitment to transparent, merit-based appointments, to help ensure gender parity and that Indigenous Canadians and minority groups are better reflected in positions of leadership:”

Michael Wernick, recently installed as the new Clerk of the Privy Council and the Prime Minister’s most senior adviser from the public service, has been given an important assignment by the man who appointed him: to advise on how to make a wide range of cabinet appointments – including that of his own future replacement – subject to more scrutiny.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail in his Langevin Block office, the career bureaucrat and head of the public service said the hundreds of political appointments at Crown corporations, tribunals and other agencies are “gifts” handed out by cabinet that should be subject to a more thorough hiring process.

That will mean opening up political appointments, including part-time positions, to more applicants, using more rigorous head-hunting, and setting clearer selection criteria. The goal is to increase accountability, ensure better representation and recruit higher quality talent for appointments to Canada’s public institutions, a reform of mainly patronage jobs that would be in line with the Liberal plan for merit-based appointments to the Senate.

“[Mr. Trudeau] wants to work his way around the appointment powers of the prime minister and put some process, some rigour, some inclusion and some transparency in front of those appointments before he makes them. I completely support that as a matter of good governance,” Mr. Wernick said. “You will see in the coming weeks a more rigorous process around Governor-in-Council appointments, like all of the 1,500 appointments or so that are the gift of cabinet to give.”

…Without any new process in place for appointments, Mr. Trudeau has already made some patronage appointments for senior positions, including new ambassadors and, in the Privy Council Office, Matthew Mendelsohn to head a new unit called “results and delivery.” Mr. Mendelsohn is an academic with the Mowat Centre in Toronto and former Ontario government deputy minister who last year worked on the Trudeau campaign.

Ironically, experts such as Donald Savoie, professor of public administration at Université de Moncton and Canada’s authority on the centralization of government, suggests the appointment of a Liberal campaign worker to a key position in PCO further centralizes power when Mr. Trudeau says he wants the opposite. But Dr. Savoie adds that bringing more transparency to appointments, starting with that of the clerk, would help diffuse PMO power. Transparency could come through a committee that recommends a public list of possible clerks to the Prime Minister who makes the final selection.

….Mr. Wernick has identified two priorities as Clerk. One is delivering the Liberal government’s agenda, and the second is increasing the capabilities of a public service whose employees are passionate and engaged but also frustrated. Without the latter priority, the first will be more difficult.

“We need to get better at being agile and responsive while still providing that sober advice on implementation. We have too many layers and too much middle management. We have too much process. We have people who take refuge in rules and process, and what we want is people to be guided by their values and competencies,” he said. “We have very strong foundations but we’re a bit of a fixer-upper… I’m quite optimistic we can get there.”

Source: Trudeau tasks top bureaucrat to help reform patronage appointments – The Globe and Mail

Top federal bureaucrat targets hiring, policymaking and mental health in her first report

Twenty-Second_Annual_Report_-_Report_-_Clerk_of_the_Privy_CouncilClerk Janice Charette on her three priorities for the public service in her first report to the Prime Minister on the public service:

In her report, Charette said she is “unequivocally and personally” committed to the Blueprint 2020 vision, unveiled by her predecessor, Wayne Wouters, as the road map for the public service in the digital age.

The public service is in the throes of a major transition and Blueprint has a strong appeal to young, tech-savvy public servants, as it is built around new technology and cutting red tape. It’s aimed at making the public service more networked, innovative, efficient, productive, better managed and tech-enabled.

A big complaint about it, however, is that it dodges some of the politically sensitive issues dogging Canada’s largest employer. These include: the lack of trust between bureaucrats and their political bosses; the public service’s diminished policymaking role and relevance; and what many call a “toxic” workplace that has one of the highest incidences of mental health claims in the country.

Charette’s three priorities could go a long way to address those perceived gaps.

The public service has faced an exodus of retiring baby boomers whom Charette said have to be replaced with recruits who bring new skills and fresh ideas to “manage in the modern world” dominated by technology and big data.

Charette said she isn’t setting hiring targets at this point, but departments must keep their human resource plans updated so they know which skills are needed for the future. With downsizing, departments have been preoccupied with shedding jobs.

The number of people leaving or retiring from the public service had been relatively stable over the years, until the 2012 budget cuts kicked in. Nearly 13,000 public servants retired or left in 2013-14, followed by another 12,283 the following year.

Charette said she isn’t looking to “grow” the public service, but new hiring hasn’t come close to replacing the record number of departures. About 4,300 permanent employees were hired last year and about 2,870 the year before. Rather than recruiting, departments are filling gaps with casual, term and student employees.

The recruitment and retention patterns are reflected in the experience levels of public servants. Today, 13 per cent of public servants have less than four years of experience compared to more than 17 per cent the previous year. The proportion with between five and 14 years’ experience, however, increased from 45 per cent to nearly 49 per cent.

The prime minister’s advisory committee on the public service sounded the alarm in a report last month, warning that departments averse to hiring could cause a “demographic hole” similar to the missing generation that dogged the public service for years when it stopped hiring in the 1990s. The report called for “top-down direction” from the clerk and deputy ministers.

“I think it is important for me to send a signal about where I see the priorities,” Charette told the Citizen. “Departments are making their own decisions right now about their HR priorities and I think it is important for me to signal that when I look at the public service as a whole, that this is one area where I think we have a public service-wide need.”

Here’s a quick look at what Charette said.

Recruitment:

Specialists in data analysis will be a key recruitment target.

The public service should also examine how it recruits. It typically relies on a major post-secondary campaign on campuses, as well as online recruitment  The public service also needs an infusion of mid-career and senior talent from the private sector.

Policy development:

The public service is no longer the only or even the primary source of policy advice for ministers. Politicians expect public servants to consult and collaborate with stakeholders and it’s up to public servants to quickly “synthesize” the various interests to come with advice in the public interest.

Public servants also have to strengthen the links between policy and service delivery.

“Who is responsible for integrating that information, synthesizing it and trying to weed through what is in the public interest as opposed to the interests of the person who may be advocating a position is the job of the public service. (That’s) evidence-based public policy,” she said.

Mental health:

Charette has “no tolerance” for the situation in which one in five public servants complained about harassment in the last public service survey.

She also worries about the rising incidence of mental health claims that approach half of all long-term disability claims. Public servants’ reliance on medications to combat mental illness is also on the rise.

Some good use of infographics to communicate range of activities and related data in contrast to the previous text-driven reports as well as tables on employment equity (still using the dated 2006 labour market availability, however, which paints an overly rosy view).

Top federal bureaucrat targets hiring, policymaking and mental health in her first report | Ottawa Citizen.

New PCO Clerk Charette takes on ‘battered’ PS, reform issues in federal election year | hilltimes.com

Lots of positive comment on new PCO Clerk Charette and observations on some of the challenges she faces from previous Clerks, Donald Savoie and others:

“There’s no question the federal public service is crying out for some sense of direction,” Mr. Savoie said. “I think it’s been battered about, not just the past 10 years, but it’s been battered about for the last 20-30 years. In some ways it’s lost its moorings. It’s not anchored like it used to be, in terms of knowing it was there to provide evidence-based policy advice, it was there to deliver programs in a professional manner.”

Part of the problem has been the trend across English-speaking democracies to view “the latest management fad coming out of the private sector as a panacea to dress the public sector to look like the private sector,” Mr. Savoie said, which has undermined the public service’s values.

In his final report as chair of the Prime Minister’s Advisory Committee on the Public Service, former Conservative and Liberal Cabinet minister David Emerson warned that public servants had to work to remain relevant amid the digital revolution and global economy.

The report recommended pushing authority down in the organization and empowering people to make changes; streamlining business processes; investing in learning and leadership development, especially in middle management; and focusing on longer-term thinking.

Former clerk Mel Cappe, who served under prime minister Jean Chrétien, said keeping the bureaucracy relevant and attracting bright young people will be Ms. Charette’s biggest challenge.

“I think the challenge is going to be adapting to the Twitterverse and modern communications and the transformation that’s taking place in the political world, and keeping the public service relevant to be the privileged adviser to government,” he said in an interview.

New PCO Clerk Charette takes on ‘battered’ PS, reform issues in federal election year | hilltimes.com. (pay wall)