The sense of pride is probably the highest it’s ever been in public service right now.
Civil servants at management and senior management level in Canada are considerably less confident in their organisation’s responsiveness than their leaders or their colleagues in non-management grades. This disconnect between grades was more pronounced in Canada than in any other Five Eyes civil service.
For example, only 22% of managers agreed that bottlenecks are avoided by holding all staff accountable for results, against 61% of leaders. While not a single leader disagreed that failure is tolerated as long as lessons are learned, 28% of managers did.
These results may come as a surprise to Canadian leaders who are, on the whole, quite positive about their organisations’ capacity to adapt to change. Their mean weighted scores put them among the top three of all survey countries on statements about leadership, staff empowerment and risk appetite.
That said, the Canadian cohort in general were relatively upbeat about their organisation’s response to the Covid crisis. Seven in ten leaders agreed that adapting to change has helped to develop significant capabilities that were not present three years prior to the pandemic, rising to almost eight in ten among more junior grades.
Paul Glover, president of Shared Services Canada, the agency responsible for providing IT services across the government, says recent staff surveys have demonstrated that responding to the pandemic has inspired a much greater level of pride in the civil service.
“This has been a pretty invigorating year to be a public servant, to be honest,” he says. “The sense of pride in public service is probably the highest it’s ever been right now – and not just in one department but right across the board.
“I think, for the leadership, they really needed to step up. They needed to be optimistic and positive, because it was a difficult environment.
“But I also think that, for the rank and file, it has been a more mixed experience. Our surveys tell us that in families where one spouse was working in the bedroom while the other one was homeschooling kids in the living room, the stressors and the sense of optimism were not the same. We tried to support them and understand the mental health pressures they were under, but I think that context might explain some of this.”
Canadian leaders were not so confident about their engagement with citizens and end-users, with just 57% agreeing that their organisation has a cyclical process for improving services, which integrates citizen and end-user feedback. Glover contends that the complexity of modern-day policy makes integrating citizen needs more challenging.
“If you think back to people in our jobs many years ago, it was basic – let’s get everyone clean water, let’s get a rail system built across the country. But the needs are more nuanced now, more personal. We pride ourselves on being a very inclusive country, very welcoming, very diverse, and we want to make sure we take the time to address those different voices so that policy is inclusive.”
Canadian leaders were also the least confident of all leadership cohorts that digital technologies are fully embedded in processes from the outset (30% agreement) and little more confident that the technology we require is available or can be developed in time to support our requirements (56%).
Glover points out that Shared Services Canada is only ten years old this year and is just beginning to emerge into what he calls “the opportunity zone”.
He says he inherited a situation where all 42 departments had their own systems and their own ways of working and, despite ten years of consolidation and standardisation, difficulties remain – not least because implementing standard enterprise solutions inevitably removes a degree of autonomy from people.
Introducing new systems gives people “tools that really work for them better than what they had previously, which also address issues around interoperability and security, but that does mean a bit less choice, a bit less ‘do it however you want’,” Glover says.
He is acutely aware that this trade-off must be “net positive”, and that his job is to “recognise when standardisation has gone too far and the trade-off tips from win to lose”, because some departments do have unique requirements. He reflects: “We are starting to find that maturity now.”
Canada: a collegiate approach to technology
Peter Alexander, acting chief executive of Australia’s Digital Transformation Agency, has high praise for Canada’s model of delivering digital and IT programmes.
“They have some really rigorous processes in terms of how they fund digital and ICT and then hold it to account in terms of delivery – it’s a very good model, we’re quite envious of them,” he says. “Rather than separating politicians and bureaucrats, senior ministers and officials have good discussions together and make decisions and then have good assurance and investment management processes.”
Paul Glover, president of Shared Services Canada, says this open, candid approach is all part of the maturity that the civil service is beginning to develop in terms of technology.
“We have realised for a number of years – and certainly over the last year with Covid – that policy is important, but it has to be deliverable. And, increasingly, that implies digital delivery. So we have gone out of our way to make sure that deputy ministers [the top officials in a department] like myself understand not just policy but also digital and operations.”
About two years ago, all deputy ministers took part in a digital bootcamp involving senior figures from the tech industry. “The goal was not to make them experts – the goal was to give them the tools to ask the right questions of their chief information officer, their chief financial officer,” he explains.
There has also been a clear instruction from Canada’s most senior civil servant – the clerk of the Privy Council – that information on existing and proposed digital systems should be included in advice to ministers. “They may have policy ambitions but we’ve got some work to do on those systems and, if they go faster than us, they could break them,” Glover explains.
He says that educating ministers about the technical debt inherent in old systems has led to greater investment, and this collegiate approach was a blessing when designing the response to Covid, as considerations about risk shifted from cost and schedule to execution and outcome.
“With some of the benefits we rolled out, ministers knew that we couldn’t develop a system so tight that there wouldn’t be some things that slipped through the cracks,” he says. “But the risk tolerance was understood and accepted, by both deputy ministers and ministers, because the outcome was clear. There were explicit conversations and I think that’s a game changer.”