Sunday, June 21, 2009

We Need a Strong Public Service

Public servants are challenged. Over the last twenty years, especially in Alberta, there has been a shift from a public service which is focused on the public good, giving independent advice to government and using evidence to support their thinking to a more politicized public service which sees the work of the government as the public good and focus their advice on delivering to Ministerial expectations. Its not good.

The shift is evident in the anxiety and fear that many young public servants feel. If they give advice which is evidence based and thorough and in the public good, but is contrary to the initial desires and expectations of Ministers, rather than being thanked, they are made to feel inadequate and unhelpful. This leads to a degree of fear about their future and anxiety about promotion and career development. It also leads to advice and evidence being developed which they know meets the initial thinking of Ministers and excludes other, often “better” options. Of course, at some stage in the to and fro between Ministers and the public service, the service has to deliver the advice and support the decision of the Minister requires, but only after a dialogue about options.

This shift, which is a constant topic of conversation amongst public servants, results from four developments. The first is the disdain some politicians have for professional public servants. Ralph Klein, for example, was dismissive of many of those at a senior level who advised him or his Ministers and said so. After he had cut 2,500 public service jobs he once quipped “no one will notice that they have gone”.

Second, bonus schemes provide many public servants up to thirty per cent of their salaries. Bonus schemes at this level require a high degree of “fit” and “compliance” with the dominant ideology of a branch or division. Where this is “do what you’re told” and “please the Minister” then this is what occurs. While not all schemes across Canada have this character, the public servants see “play ball, get the cash” as a growing incentive to tow the line.

Third, there has been a lack of investment in the training and development of public servants and in the information support services they need to mine information to provide quality evidence based decisions. Significant decisions on, for example, how best to invest research and innovation funds at the Federal and Provincial level are generally based on scant information. Health care investment decisions are also based on some, but limited evidence.

Finally, governments have persuaded themselves that there is no substantial difference between the governments’ interests and public interest. In Alberta, for example, where one form or other of a conservative government has been in power for so long that many can’t remember what an alternative might look like, this is an especial problem. It shows itself most powerfully in health care where the governments’ interest in reform does not appear to be aligned with the public interest in understanding health care sustainability from a service, not a cost, perspective.

Senior public servants are, relatively, well paid when all aspects of their compensation are taken into account. More junior public servants, especially entry level staff, are not. Attracting and retaining talented people and nourishing them to be independent thinkers, developing their analytic and process skills and equipping them with the self-confidence to stand up to politicians and make their case, before then making the decisions made by the politicians work is getting more difficult. This at a time when many government departments will be losing baby boomers to retirement and seeking to rethink how they do their work.

We are also entering an era of significant cuts to public services. Paying down the debts incurred as a result of “stimulus” and fiscal easing and managing our way out of deficit budgeting will require a refocusing of public services, staff reductions and budget reductions. Tough times all round. This is a time for bold thinking and we should look to the public service to offer that thinking. But they will be focused on job protection and will be even more fearful now about their future than they were just a year ago. We can anticipate early retirement schemes, wholesale job cuts and many smart people leaving the public service for richer pastures.

It is time for a renewal of the “public” side of public service, a strong focus on evidence based decisions, more transparency in government and clearer demarcation of the advice leading to a decision from the task of implementing a decision once made. It is time for the public service to be encouraged to strengthen their commitment to independent advice and evidence based decisions and for politicians to show the respect the professional public service deserves.


0050757 said...

As a central character in your narrative, I have to say you've come extremely close to the mark on a number of points. I do have a question however: How do those of us already in the public service translate these ideas into action without sidelining our careers?

Stephen Murgatroyd said...

We need to have strong Deputy Ministers who go out to bat for their staff and strong ADM's who encourage and enable. If these people cant shape this agenda, then all hope is lost.