Celebrating public service

Alex Himelfarb, a former Clerk of the Privy Council of Canada and a current board member of the Public Services Foundation of Canada, recently gave this excellent speech about why the public service in Canada is an institution that deserves celebrating.

Ottawa (23 May 2013) - The following are notes for a talk at a Public Policy Forum Dinner, April 11, 2013, by Mr. Alex Himelfarb, a former Clerk of the Privy Council of Canada a current board member of the Public Services Foundation of Canada

Celebrating Public Service

I am delighted to be here with family, friends and colleagues this evening – an evening that can only be understood as a celebration of Canada’s public service. Such celebrations are pretty rare these days though the public service is an institution that deserves celebrating, and may need it now more than ever. 

My hunch is that I can speak for all the former clerks here this evening that for us public service was deeply satisfying, a privilege, a source of pride, an opportunity to make a difference. Public service was more often than not fulfilling, and, believe it or not, even fun. 

I wonder what proportion of public servants would say this today.

Things were much easier for us. Public service was more valued. Public servants were treated with respect. Politicians sometimes got angry at our advice but they kept asking. The media often ignored us – we liked that – but they sometimes reminded Canadians that we existed and that we mattered. When I left academics to join the federal public service, I didn’t have to explain my decision. My friends and colleagues didn’t think it was strange. They thought joining the public service was worthy, maybe important, at the very least, respectable. 

Things do seem different today. The public service is no less important but it sure seems more than ever under attack and from every side. Less valued. Less trusted. More under the gun. It must be less fun. 

I know I have to be careful here. I’m aware that as the distance increases from my time in public service, I become increasingly vulnerable to the seductions of nostalgia. When I was in public service nothing annoyed me more than former public servants telling us how bad things had become. How much better things were when they were in charge. Oblivious to the present, to the challenges we faced, they often urged us to find solutions in the past – a past of their own invention. The historian Charley Maier once described nostalgia as history without guilt, where we exaggerate the good and filter out the bad, history as we wish it had been. The public service doesn’t need more nostalgia. 

It certainly doesn’t need more critics. Almost every day another article tells us that our public service is broken. Public service has to act more like a business, say some. Public service is trying too hard to be like a business, say others. Public service is too risk averse and must be more innovative say some. Public service makes too many mistakes say others so we need more oversight, more control, less risk. 

The advice is often contradictory; the tone is increasingly derisive. In the media and popular discourse, the words “public service” have been replaced by the phrase “bloated bureaucracy”. It seems one cannot utter the word “bureaucracy” if it isn’t preceded by the word “bloated”. Public service is described increasingly as overhead, a drain on the economy rather than a competitive advantage. This derisiveness is wrong. It is dangerous for Canada. I do not intend to join that chorus. 

Everyone in this room knows that the public service is vitally important. It is, we know, the police, the soldiers, the firefighters, the healthcare providers and the teachers. it is also the folk who negotiate our international deals, write and enforce our laws and regulations, help us when we are in trouble overseas, keep our food and drugs and kids’ toys safe, maintain our parks and wilderness areas, help our artists and make sure that Canadians have access to Canadian perspectives. It is the people who deliver our benefits and help those in need, and yes, collect our taxes – to the extent they can. 

The public service is also a key source of policy advice, different from those who are focused on re-election or who are committed to the prevailing ideology. Public servants try at least to suspend their biases, to offer advice based on evidence and direct experience. After all they live and work in every part of Canada and the world, delivering our policies and programs. it would be strange not to want the benefits of that experience. 

Simply, the public service continues to be critically important to our quality of life, to our economic performance and to our international standing. We have to stop treating this vital institution as overhead. 

Let me give you an example. The Fraser Institute recently published a report suggesting that public servants were being paid more than their private sector counterparts. This report came out at the same time as the annual publication of the “sunshine list” of Ontario public servants earning more than one hundred thousand dollars. This is all well and good. Compensation must be just and fair. These are fair questions and the more transparency the better. 

Just the same, the Ottawa Citizen’s Glen McGregor, in one of his excellent blog posts, reversed the tables and published the Fraser sunshine list. McGregor reported on the considerable, though no doubt well-earned, salaries of the Fraser Institute researchers and executive, reminding us as well that taxpayers also subsidize this organization and therefore these considerable salaries. The Institute responded, appropriately, that they are competing for talent in a global market, and to get excellence they have to pay for it. No dispute there. Would that they had added a similar note in their report on public service pay. The failure even to consider what it takes to attract and retain excellence in the public service is illustrative of a larger problem: the devaluing of public service, looking only at what it costs, not what it gives. 

Of course the public service, at every level, must change with changing times. All large organizations in every sector are working out how to make the transition from the old bureaucratic models, closed systems where authority came with position, and information was tightly controlled, to more open network models, where authority is earned and information shared. 

The public service faces particular challenges. Today’s public issues are more complex, often with no historical precedent, and with multiple poles of conflict. And trust in government – and therefore public service – is arguably at an all time low. You cannot build a resilient, lean, open organization on a foundation of distrust. Distrust is every bit as damaging as blind deference. Distrust leads to ever more layers of costly and stifling control and to a culture of fear. 

On top of tougher issues and declining trust, every public service is also dealing with endless incremental cutting – relentless, often nickel and dime cutting, with no end in sight, that feeds insecurity, makes excellence in delivery more difficult, and pushes public servants to focus internally when they need to be looking outward and to the long-term. 

In short, I expect it’s a lot harder to serve these days, and a lot harder to have fun doing so. 

Of course it is right and proper to ask what should be the role of government, how big should government be, and how do we get the best results at the lowest cost. Indeed there are no doubt savings to be had in transforming the public service and cutting the costly layers of control that reduce efficiency and stifle innovation. 

But we should free ourselves from the mythology that government has in recent times become over-large and unaffordable. In fact the growth of public service has not been keeping pace with the growth in population. Public servants are a declining portion of the workforce and government spending is becoming a much smaller part of our economy. The cost of direct federal government spending as a percentage of GDP keeps hitting new lows, so too federal revenues. Public servants are pretty frugal. And as economists such as Hugh Mackenzie have documented, the public services we get for our taxes are one of the last great bargains. 

Yes, the public service must change. Yes, it must help close the distance between government and citizen. It must be more creative. It must be more open. The public service has risen to the challenge of reinventing itself more than once in our history and, of course, will do so again. But that can happen only when we all recognize its value, only when we all stop treating it as overhead but rather as a key competitive advantage, key to our past success and key to our future. Only when we stop treating every mistake as an opportunity to berate the institution and public servants. Mistakes are inevitable especially as public service transforms itself. Accountability must not be reduced to naming and blaming. A creative organization will take reasoned risks and learn from good-faith mistakes. 

We need to revalue the public service and those who work within it. Somebody has to stand up for the public service, its contribution, its importance, its value. Public servants cannot do this themselves. Even former public servants are suspect. The people in this room, however, leaders from every other sector of Canadian society, can do this. Can speak out. Can stand up for public service. 

It is in all of our interests. 

Thank you for this evening of celebration.


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