As eyes have been riveted on the Senate and its future, another federal institution has launched a quieter, more measured process of self-review. In June 2013, clerk of the Privy Council and head of the public service Wayne Wouters launched Blueprint 2020, a process intended to guide the public service on its “journey of transformation” over the next eight years. The launch was accompanied by a vision document developed by the clerk and senior deputy ministers. That document is now being shared with rank-and-file public servants. They, along with other Canadians, have been asked to help find “fresh ways to uphold the tradition of excellence that is the hallmark of Canada’s Public Service.”
The Blueprint 2020 document foresees a “world-class Public Service equipped to serve Canada and Canadians now and into the future.” This vision is unremarkable in itself, except it must now be realized in a changed context – characterized by increasing complexity, rapid technological and demographic change, growing citizen demands for accountability, and shifting workforce expectations. The document then outlines four guiding principles for achieving its vision. Three speak to the operational context, proposing an “open and networked environment,” a "whole-of-government approach," and a “modern workplace” enlisting new technologies. Only one, the fourth principle, speaks of public servants themselves.
This principle calls for a “capable, confident and high-performing workforce that embraces new ways of working.” It foresees agile individuals and organizations and adept public service managers and leaders capable of fostering high levels of engagement, performance and productivity. Beyond this, it calls for modern, flexible working methods, as well as flexible job design and organizational structures to align talent and resources, both within and outside the public service.
To date, there has been limited media response to Blueprint 2020. John Wilkins, associate director with the public management program at York University, notes its arrival on the heels of heavy budget cuts and downsizing. Is the initiative, he asks, simply a grudging response to placate a “battered and disconsolate” public service? Editor-in-chief of Canadian Government Executive Toby Fyfe submits that the process has “raised expectations for real change, a real reinvention of the public service.”
The evolution of excellence as a public service value
Arguably, the most striking feature of the Blueprint 2020 document is its use of the term excellence. Consistent with the 2011 Values and Ethics Code for the Public Sector, the document describes excellence with qualities often associated with the private sector: "Being collaborative, innovative, streamlined, high-performing, adaptable and diverse defines Public Service excellence now and for the future.”
Similar definitions of public service excellence, according to political scientist Kenneth Kernaghan, arose in the mid-1980s along with such values as service and innovation. The New Public Management and corporate culture movements stressed the application of business practices to the public sector. From 1985 to 1996, Kernaghan argues, “pursuit of these ‘new’ professional values was accompanied by diminished sensitivity to the importance of democratic values like accountability and the public interest.”
In 1996, the oft-cited report of the Task Force on Public Service Values and Ethics (Tait Report) identified a tension between democratic values and the new professional values. Following it, the 2003 Values and Ethics Code for the Public Service cited excellence as only one professional value in a group that included competence, efficiency, objectivity and impartiality. These, in turn, were one component of a “balanced framework" that included professional, democratic, ethical and people values.
Excellence gained new prominence in 2011, with the new Values and Ethics Code for the Public Sector. The current code profiles excellence as a "compass to guide public servants in everything they do," together with respect for democracy, respect for people, integrity and stewardship. The Blueprint 2020 vision document elevates it even further. Here, excellence is not only one of five core public service values; it is the mission, goal and foundation, “a philosophy that underpins everything we do, how we think and how we work to serve Canadians.”
Excellence has clearly attained a preeminent place in the public service lexicon. It would seem doubly important, then, to understand what it is.
Time for honest dialogue on public service excellence
How public service excellence is understood will have great impact on that institution over the next ten years. For this reason alone, it would seem that the question should occupy the centre of the Blueprint 2020 engagement exercise. And if – as a growing field of applied ethics suggests – excellence is rooted in individual practice, it is crucial that practicing rank-and-file public servants help define it.
In a previous phase of restructuring, the 1996 Tait Report called for “honest dialogue” to address the important issues the federal public service faced. Initiating honest dialogue would acknowledge the variety of perspectives required to understand an issue or topic. In keeping with that celebrated report and the tradition it represents, the Blueprint 2020 process could seek to generate dialogue on what public service excellence is, before asking how to realize a particular definition of it. To this end, some potential questions might be:
The Blueprint 2020 process is already underway. Surely it can take the time for a necessary dialogue on this concept, which it presents as both lodestar and bedrock of the federal public service.
NOTE: Articles in the series represent the views of their individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the collective views of Stratéjuste, its partners or associates.
Posts in the Series
Indigenous women to the barricades: a book review
Indigenous rights are human rights: a reminder from Argentina
On surfing and strawberry tea: how your spring break could promote reconciliation
The right guy at the right time: Gord Downie's contribution to reconciliation
Encore une Commission...
Munich, 1933: The good bureaucrat, Josef Hartinger
Addressing the language of the Aboriginal/settler relationship
From big to better data through indigenous data governance
Toast to those who showed courage in public life
Excellence is everywhere: Blueprint 2020 and the future of the public service
Time to investigate options for resource revenue sharing
Speaking of accountability: examining the relationship of First Nation voters to their governments
About the Author
Jodi Bruhn (PhD, Notre Dame) is a former federal public servant and a published policy researcher, author and facilitator.