think big?: the clerk and public sector renewal

Last week I was hanging out with a former public servant who has made the transition to the private sector. As is often the case (please don’t judge me too harshly), the conversation drifted to the subject of public service sector renewal.

It was a bleak topic. And I thought I would repeat what my friend said:

“The Clerk of the Privy Council has made public service sector renewal one of his priorities. Moreover, he’s staked his career on creating change and in pursuit of this, one of his top initiatives is the Government of Canada Fellows Program.

So what do we have to show for it? It took a year and a half to get going and so far. In that time, 4 people have gone from government to the private sector and eight have moved from the private sector to government, each for 6 months terms.

So 12 people in all.

This is the transformative policy that the Clerk has staked his career on? We aren’t going to achieve generational transformation at this scale. If this is all the Clerk can achieve – you can see why I left.”

I’m a fan of the Fellows program, but my friend has a point. This is less than a drop in the bucket. A fact made all the worse when, as he pointed out:

“One fellow who came into the public sector was a Human Resources (HR) expert. And yet they asked him to work on pandemics. The fellow was thinking he would be most effectively leveraged if he focused on HR – exchanging best practices, learning the similarities and differences between the private and public sector – but the government kept pushing pandemics. It seemed to me a great learning opportunity was being lost.”

I’m not certain my friend has all the details right. But it is hard to argue with his conclusions.  If the clerk really is tracking this program, then it says a lot about how serious and widespread public service sector renewal is really going to be. 12 people a change will not make.

This initiative also says a lot about how the government has diagnosed the problem. The fellows program suggests they believe that people simply need more information about how other executives work – in short, that this is an information driven problem. While this is certainly part of the issue, I suspect it is only a small piece. Most executives likely behave the way they do because they are incented to. Showing them alternatives won’t create change.

What the government needs to find are the high leverage points in which a small change can create a series of cascading crises which will force line executives to rethink and adjust how they manage.

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