We have some terrific public service leaders in Canada but it's a mixed story. There are huge, unexplored, opportunities and loads of open space for public service leadership. I make the case in Building Better Public Services that it's time for more of our public service leaders to step out of the shadows and practice more conscious and activist leadership - and I offer concrete examples of what that can look like. I think it is the most important chapter in the book.
In discussions with public servants over the past several months I've been struck by a widespread view that they are in many cases feeling sidelined by a plethora of external advisors and risk averse political staff (if not a risk averse culture). The paradox here is that forthright and creative public service advice has never been more important and I see and hear political leaders asking for that all the time. Premier Kathleen Wynne and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are the most obvious examples but I'm sure this is common across the country. Right now though a significant change is occurring in Canada's federal government and it's a context in which public service leaders at all levels should be stepping forward and exercising their leadership responsibilities.
In our system of government public servants are subordinate to their elected political leaders, so they don't go charging off developing and implementing new policies. But it is their job to provide information and data to inform decision-making, and to present honest professional advice on the best available design options to achieve stated political goals -- and to implement them. This is particularly important where this advice is not being requested or is being actively discouraged. It's our professional responsibility to offer it up. You do this diplomatically of course -- I've done it in some hostile and uncomfortable circumstances and earned nothing but respect for doing it.
It is different in other areas of public administration though, such as continually looking for ways to improve service delivery to citizens and users of government services; and in developing the talent, skills processes and capacity the public service needs to support the elected government of the day - whether this is in administration, policy development or designing service delivery mechanisms. Ask any political leader and she or he will tell you that these are the jobs of public servants and public service leaders. Prime ministers and premiers will not be losing sleep over these areas of public administration because they see them as someone else's responsibility.
The book explores key aspects of a more activist form of public service leadership, including the balance between protecting those things that should be preserved, such as public service values, while driving necessary changes; identifying a small number of high-impact priorities and a compelling vision; leading change from the top while providing explicit permission to change-ready staff and managers to innovate at all levels of the organization; and the elevation of a more strategic approach to human resource development and management. This form of public sector leadership is easily within reach and there are oceans of space to explore.
Leadership isn't an add-on to our regular jobs -- it's at the heart of leaders' professional responsibilities. It requires a conscious and deliberate effort. This is not the stuff of a weekly or monthly "update" memo. It requires continuous communications. Like premiers and prime ministers, public service leaders are competing for attention in a busy, communications-rich and distracting world. Nothing comes easily but the organizational and public value dividends associated with public service leadership are more than worth the effort. If you only read one chapter of my book, read Chapter 8 (but while I'm at it consider also reading Chapter 4 on The Shift towards Open and Integrated Policy and Delivery).
See you next time.