There’s a failure of leadership in the public service

Ian Bron and Allan Cutler

Three years ago, we attended a conference of government administrators in Victoria, B.C. Wayne Wouters, Clerk of the Privy Council and the most powerful bureaucrat in Canada, was a keynote speaker. Someone asked him what he considered the qualities of the ideal public servant. We expected an answer that included things like integrity, devotion to the public interest, competence, and non-partisanship. Instead, we were treated to his reminiscences of the flag debate in the 1960s.

This says much about the current state of leadership in the public service, how distant it is currently from golden age ideals and out of touch with modern public expectations. The latest federal government re-visioning exercise, Blueprint 2020, reinforces this reality. During Wouters’ recent testimony before a Parliamentary Committee, he patted himself on the back for doing such a fine job, arguing that there was no evidence of a morale problem in the public service. “I want to do a good job. I think I’m doing a good job,” he said.

Wouters is hardly neutral on the subject. However, is he really doing a good job? More broadly, are senior bureaucrats leading the public service well, and, by extension, the working in the public interest? And are they being held accountable for failing to do so? We think not.

Wouters’ repeated denials of any problems in the morale of the public service are troubling. He based these on the feedback from the Blueprint 2020 exercise, saying that he was unaware of any problems. This is important as morale is linked to motivation and performance. But Blueprint 2020 was not designed to provide any evidence of this. Better sources are the 2008 and 2011 public service surveys. Although no data was collected on either survey directly regarding morale, other results indicate serious problems. Almost 30% of employees reported harassment in the previous two years. This is a bad sign, with consequences for organizational culture, performance, and accountability. A colleague once told us, tongue-in-cheek, “The second most used tool in the federal government, after computers, is harassment.”

Confidence in leadership is a dismal 50% in both surveys. Worryingly, executives rated quality of management about 25% higher than the rest of the employees surveyed. This suggests that the management cadre as a whole has lost touch with the staff that do the actual work. Moreover, 42% of employees didn’t feel that management led by example in ethics. Again, executives saw themselves as about 20% more ethical than staff did.

And, interestingly, fewer than half of employees felt in 2011 that they had control of their work. Research has shown that control of work is a key driver of job satisfaction.

So Wouters’ use of Blueprint 2020 to bolster his claims of leadership and solid morale ring loudly hollow. Indeed, one wonders whether the survey results might have been even more damning of senior leadership if the survey had been taken out of their hands entirely, to ensure that the best and most relevant questions were asked.

What Blueprint 2020 does show is that the senior public service is still attracted to fluffy proposals that have no real hope of transforming the way government works. As Michael Hatfield very ably argued in last week’s Hill Times, Blueprint 2020 also demonstrates the government’s suspicion of the professional public service and any expertise it may have. Contributors to the Blueprint whose ideas were singled out for recognition wrote about expanding the development of policy beyond the bureaucracy and internal collaborative tools.

Much is missing from any of the “top” proposals selected. There is no mention of using new technologies to provide more public access to government records beyond the much-criticized existing open government initiative (which provides little useful data). Access to such data is, one would think, important to informing external policy input. The UK and the US have much more open government regimes with far greater public involvement. Isn’t that what serving the public is all about?

There is no proposal to rebuild technical expertise and evidence-based decision making, both of which have suffered. Glaringly absent: The promotion of ethics and eliminating toxic workplace environments that breed harassment, These alone would likely do more than any other measures to improve workplace morale and performance.

Currently the PS is blindly married to the mid-20th Century hierarchical command and control management model, emphasizing obedience. There was no mention of public servants acting as professional, collaborative moral agents in their own right. The older model worked well 60 years ago when deputy ministers came from the departments they led and knew what they were talking about (or whom to ask). This rarely happens today. When an official can jump from, say, Health to Veterans Affairs, how can they be expected to know what is good and bad policy, and whose advice to trust?

None of the arguments above are original, and many have been repeated in more detail and with more force by experts and academics. Our perspective is that of accountability. In the past decade, we have seen increasing attacks on dissenters and whistleblowers with countless stories of dysfunctional workplaces and decision making sometimes so irrational that even the governing party’s ideology can’t explain it. This must change. Adding a few tools and technologies to a structure that has been undermined in much more fundamental ways will do nothing. That things seems stuck in place, with no improvement and no hope of change, is Wouters’ responsibility, and that of every senior executive in government. Based on his recent comments, though, the blinders are and will be on well past 2020.

This piece was first published in the Hill Times on June 23, 2014.