Sean Boots

Technology, public services, and people. But mostly people.

Everything is broken and no one seems to mind

Last week, Kathryn May published an article in Policy Options titled “Speaking truth to power discouraged in public service”. The article recaps a recent report from the Institute on Governance that surveyed senior public servants and examined their views on trust in government in the context of current social issues.

The report includes insights from public service executives in all three levels of government in Canada (municipal, provincial/territorial, and federal) on a range of topics. The key takeaways in Kathryn May’s article – which stood out to me likewise – relate to the relationship between public servants and political leaders.

An impartial public service is a cornerstone of Canada’s democracy. Bureaucrats are supposed to speak truth to power. The ethos of “fearless advice and loyal implementation” is its motto, and public servants take an oath to uphold it when hired. [Note: as a friend pointed out, the actual oath doesn’t mention fearless advice; its focus is loyal implementation and respecting information confidentiality]

“The participants felt rational thought and evidence-based decision-making are being circumvented by politicization, polarization and disinformation,” said [Stephen] Van Dine.

“Do public servants have access to enough truth to give fearless advice? If all their information is coming from above rather than from networks in and outside government, how much truth is there really? What happened to the role of public education in the policy development process?”

Public servants’ limited ability to communicate bad news upwards is a known problem. A public service culture – particularly in the federal government – that prioritizes compliance over critical thinking is also a widespread issue. All of these are problems within the public service, however, rather than outcomes that emerge entirely from the relationship between senior public service executives and politicians. Public servants are frequently unable to provide fearless advice to the more senior public servants above them, let alone to political leaders and ministers several steps further removed.

As Daniel Blouin points out,

The status quo wins again

As an example of what this can look like in practice – last week the CBC published an article on the watered-down end of an effort to reform prescription drug regulations and pricing.

Canada was trying something new to control drug prices, and the outcome might have set an international precedent. That put the global pharmaceutical giants on high alert, experts note.

With those new tools Canada would become one of the first countries in the world to require proof that the pharmaceutical industry’s most expensive new drugs provide value for money.

The new policy would also force pharmaceutical companies to tell the truth about their prices. The final prices are decided only after closed-door negotiations — becoming closely guarded corporate secrets. That means Canada’s drug price agency doesn’t know the actual prices it is mandated to evaluate.

Ultimately, five years later, very little of this panned out:

The pharmaceutical lobby hit back with a constitutional challenge, two federal court challenges and a series of threats, including trade disputes, job losses and a warning that they would delay the launch of new drugs in Canada.

The federal government delayed the regulations ⁠four more times over the next two years, putting Canada at odds with the international pharmaceutical industry at an awkward time — in the middle of a pandemic, competing with the world for vaccines.

The lone surviving policy — the list of 11 comparator countries — is scheduled to come into force on July 1, five years, four delays, and three court challenges later. The estimated drug price savings have been reduced to around $3 billion over 10 years, a third of the original estimates.

There are clearly a lot of factors that led to this outcome: court challenges, stakeholder lobbying, a change in ministerial leadership, dependencies on major pharmaceutical companies to respond urgently to the pandemic. Whether the public servants (senior-level and not) working on the file were pushing for or against the proposed changes isn’t clear from the outside.

But it’s illustrative of a trend that I would guess happens more frequently than it makes the news: an ambitious plan for change, clearly beneficial to Canadians, championed by political leaders… and then, years later, a disappointing and milquetoast outcome. There’s a number of examples I can think of (not limited to the federal government) where a minister championed a new way of doing something, and an unenthusiastic public service hierarchy simply waited them out rather than change.

It reminds me of one of Paul Wells’ rules of Canadian politics (written in 2003!),

Rule 1: For any given situation, Canadian politics will tend toward the least exciting possible outcome.

The same appears to be true for public service work, likewise. Curious how an internal proposal or transformation plan will turn out? Assume it will end up as unexciting and status quo-oriented as possible, and you’re likely to be right.

Formative leadership experiences

We live in a time where having an effective and responsive public service is more important than ever. From climate change to international conflict to supply-chain economic issues to a pandemic that is still very, very much not over, governments’ abilities to do things are critically important. As Brian Kelcey, Paul Wells, Alanna Shaikh, Ezra Klein, and others have written about recently, “state capacity” (or the lack of it) is something keeping policy wonks up at night.

This is particularly an issue for the federal government, as Rishi Maharaj points out:

Being able to do things that respond to unprecedented global and social issues depends on having a public service that is able to think creatively and critically. To propose outside-of-the-box ideas, to take risks, to disagree with established processes, to make the case for faster and more nimble (delegated) decision-making. All of that, in turn, depends on public servants being able to “speak truth to power” to more senior public servants. This isn’t specific to government technology work (although its absence is especially noticeable there). It’s an issue in any domain of public service work.

In conversations with friends across the public service, a few (very speculative) theories come up around why senior public service leaders have such a strong tendency to stick to the status quo.

  • One theory is that (in the federal government, and in some provincial jurisdictions), the current generation of senior public service leadership “grew up” during an era of heavily-politicized, centralized message control and limited public service autonomy. Public service leaders who would have pushed for more independence and creative thinking may have left during that time, and the “survivors” are now in senior leadership positions today.
  • Another theory is that many “lifers” – people who have spent their entire careers in the public service – began in specific job classifications that rewarded a strong adherence to process. (Administrative roles, for example, or analyst roles – including my own EC classification! – where being able to carefully compile budget and funding templates is often rewarded more than creative ideas.)
  • A third theory relates to how senior public servants’ performance is reviewed. At the highest levels, deputy ministers review and sign off on each others’ annual performance reviews. As a result, everyone is strongly disincentivized from critiquing each others’ work – no one wants to be the downer in the room, or to set themselves up for counter-critiques of their own work (with performance pay on the line!).

It’s hard to have these conversations in more detail, partly since the activities and culture of senior public servants are quite opaque further down the hierarchy. Some of them relate – in a kind of “anthropology of the public service” sense – to reactions to, and relationships with, the political leadership of the day. As a nonpartisan public servant, I’ll leave that to others to explore further.

Doing things better

What would it look like for the public service to work differently, and to encourage more creative problem-solving? Here’s a few possibilities: more autonomy, down to front-line levels of the public service; fewer approvals; simpler processes; less prescriptiveness and less compliance paperwork; more of an emphasis on implementation and actual delivery rather than plans and ideas and announceable communications. All of this takes a higher level of trust in their teams from public service leaders; it takes ownership and follow-through, rather than diffused responsibility and committees; it takes a much, much higher appetite for risk among executives than tends to typically be demonstrated. And, it takes a dedicated, persistent effort – starting from the top – to build more empowering structures, to reduce the number of organizational layers, to improve psychological safety in public service teams, to encourage dissent, and to shift power dynamics downwards, working against decades of established public service norms and inertia.

In the rare discussions that I’ve had with senior public servants (which, despite everything written above, I really appreciate!) I often try to get a sense of what the general perception is of “the state of the public service” at that level.

This came up in a recent conversation with an ADM, who replied that generally speaking, things are looking pretty decent. In their words, the public service did a great job overall in the COVID response; a lot of technology modernization happened way more quickly than it would have otherwise; there are a lot of wins and a lot of momentum. Almost bittersweetly, they pointed out that it can be hard to make the case to improve things when things are going along as well as they currently are.

From my end, it was the opposite of what I wanted to hear. If I had heard: the Clerk is gripped with these issues; limited public service capacity is what all of us are talking about at the ADM and DM levels; we really need to streamline our processes and throw out a lot of our old ways of working… That would have been a lot more encouraging, simply to know that senior public servants are as concerned about our effectiveness as a public service as I am.

It’s possible that the “things are decent” perspective is one that gets shared downwards – a complement to the tendency not to share bad news upwards – to avoid spooking working-level public servants who have been through a lot over the past two years (and in many areas are working at an overwhelming pace today as travel and the economy reopens).

But I’d hope that, at least somewhere, frank conversations are happening among senior public servants – acknowledging that how we work is broken, that there’s a lot to fix, and the severity of the issues we face in the world today make all of this urgent.

These issues aren’t unique to the federal government – William Gagnon’s departure from the Government of the Northwest Territories is an important example from another Canadian jurisdiction. And, for an in-depth look at a specific federal department, Daniel Livermore’s recent assessment of Global Affairs Canada is a must-read.