Today and tomorrow the Deputy Ministers (DMs) of the Federal Public Service will gather to discuss the current state of affairs in Ottawa. In light of this event, I thought I would riff off my APEX speech and write the following post on public service sector renewal.
Towards the end of his famous lecture on Free Culture Lawrence Lessig quotes JC Watts, an African-American Republican Congressmen who once famously said that, in Washington: “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.”
JC Watts could have easily been talking about Ottawa, and the problem of public service sector renewal. On this subject there has been a tremendous amount of explaining, exploring and diagnosing. And it has been going on for a long, long time. So much talk, and for so long, that I sometimes wonder if we’ve come to believe we can literally talk ourselves out of the problem. Sadly this is not the case. Our talking has not solved the problem. In fact, all it has done is repeatedly lift, and then burst, expectations.
At its core, I believe public service sector renewal isn’t that complicated. It’s about creating a better, more responsive and effective culture, a goal that, at its root, is a management problem. However, we can talk this problem until we are collectively blue in the face (and, yes, I’m aware of my own guilty contribution to this discussion) without getting anywhere. So let us instead ask a more basic question. Why has public service sector renewal not already happened? Is it structurally impossible? Or, are those at the apex unwilling or unable to prioritize it? In short, why, after all these years, are will still explaining and not doing?
The truth is that both structural and incentive factors are at work, feeding off one another and making change almost impossible.
At one end the problem lay the very role of the DM and the culture of the public service. As the Public Policy Forum’s recent report “Leadership in the Public Service of Canada” describes, DMs’ essentially have three roles: provide operational and policy advice to their Minister in support of their agenda; oversee program delivery and the management of their department; and help facilitate inter-departmental co-ordination. The problem however, is that for whatever reason Ottawa’s culture is firmly grounded in the notion that policy is the main game in town. Those who want to move ahead, who wish to rise to the rank of ADM or DM all know: do policy. Ask almost anyone, the public service rewards policy experience over operational experience virtually every time.
Which brings us to the other end of the of the problem – a lack of will to prioritize or address the problem. The public service’s culture has created a DM cadre who are more incented to, interested in, and focused on, providing ministers with policy advice than with addressing the operational and management issues of their ministries. This is not a critique of DMs – simply an observation that they are creatures of the culture that reared them. However, given these influences, why are we surprised to see that those leading the public service have so far proven unable to pull the leavers of management to shift the culture of these complex organizations? Is it any wonder that our efforts to date have been to think, intellectualize, or explain our way out of the problems renewal seeks to address? Or maybe it is the logical outcome for a group, who by their own admission (according to Public Policy Forum Leaders Survey), are strong on analytics, weak on management/decision making, and whose time is split between three highly demanding tasks.
The fact is most DMs manage incredibly large organizations that require full time dedicated managers. The notion that a DM should be advising a minister on a day to day or even weekly basis may have been rational back when ministries were composed of 200 people and the relevant information could conceivably flow through one person, but in today’s world it is preposterous. Many Ministries contain thousands of employees tackling an enormous array of subjects. In addition, thanks to modern technology, that information flows at an exponentially faster rate. It is foolish for a DM, or even a Assistant Deputy Minister (ADM), to believe they can advise a Minister on any of the relevant material. Somewhere in the organization, much further down the chain, is a policy wonk who can, and should, explain the issue just as well.
At the same time, the executive cadre of the public service, and public servants more generally, are desperate for better management. And yet, their model, the person from whom they are taking their queue from, is the DM. When a DM opts to sacrifice spending time on mentoring, professionally developing junior staffers, improving operations, and generally solving management problems, and instead focuses on a policy issue, they send a powerful message to everyone in the ministry: policy matters and management doesn’t. It’s a perverse message, and one that is killing the public service. Indeed, can you think of any other large organization in the world where the most senior executives are involved in producing the final product (in our case, a policy document)? Does the head of IBM design or even brainstorm new services? Does the the head of Blackberry think up new products? No, the heads of these organizations manage. Their job is to foster and create organizations that enable those beneath them to do their work – the real work – more effectively.
And this is what – at its core – public service sector renewal should be about, enabling public servants to do “the real work” of making policy and rolling out programs more effectively. However, until Deputy Ministers can fix their own role and acquire the tools to accomplish this end, we’ll be forever stuck explaining, and not doing, public service sector renewal.