ADMs have become too insular and inexperienced: study

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07/15/2015

KATHRYN MAY, OTTAWA CITIZEN
Published on: July 10, 2015

Many executives in the pool from which the next generation of Canada’s deputy ministers will be picked are too insular, change jobs too often and don’t have the skills and depth of experience for the top positions of the future, says a new University of Ottawa study.

The study, by former senior bureaucrat James Lahey and Mark Goldenberg at the Centre on Public Management and Policy, calls for a major rethink and “structural” overhaul of how senior talent is recruited, developed and managed to get the leaders needed to modernize the public service.

The pair examined the changing job of assistant deputy ministers, whose scope and authority have dramatically diminished over the past 25 years as power increasingly shifted to the Prime Minister’s Office and its bureaucratic arm, the Privy Council Office. The shift has left the once-powerful ADM job too “small and narrow” as a training ground for future top leaders. Many of today’s 400 ADMs find themselves doing work and vetting files once done a few layers below, with much of the authority bumped upstairs to the minister and deputy minister. They recommend fewer ADM jobs but say these jobs should be “bigger” — focused more on shaping and delivering change and less on process.

“ADMs used to own the business of the government. They were the ones who led and delivered on the key files. They were indispensable to setting and delivering on the policy agenda,” said one senior bureaucrat interviewed for the study.

“Today, ADMs are in danger of becoming no more than a glorified older executive assistant to the deputy (minister) … We have been forced to become form-fillers rather than decision-makers.”

The report also calls for fewer associate deputy ministers, associate assistant deputy ministers, directors general and other direct reports to ADMs and directors that have mushroomed over the past 25 years.

“The overall objective must be to achieve a de-layering and flattening of organization structures,” concluded the report. “To clarify roles and expectations and to position ADMs to lead in a more forceful way than at present. There would be larger ADM jobs and, over time, fewer ADMs.”

These conclusions are echoed by public administration expert Donald Savoie, who, in a new book, calls the public service a “big whale that can’t swim” because of too many management layers, oversight bodies and time spent churning out performance and accountability reports.

“The public service has to come clean, look at its organizations and say mea culpa,” said Savoie, of the University of Moncton. “There are a lot of things the public service can’t change, like the role of the Prime Minister’s Office, but what it can fix is the too many management layers.”

Lahey and Goldenberg tracked the profile and composition of ADMs over 25 years, from the 1980s to 2012. The authors conducted roundtable discussions and interviews with current and former deputy ministers, experts, and academics as well as officials in other levels of government, the private sector and the United Kingdom about their executives.

Canada’s public service has seven levels of executives. There are 6,500 executives at the first five levels (Ex 1-5) with associate deputy ministers and deputy ministers at the top of the heap.

The assistant deputy ministers – known as Ex 4s and Ex 5s – earn between $179,000 and $200,000 a year. About seven of them a year will be promoted into deputy minister ranks.

The role of ADMs became smaller as the executive cadre grew over the past 25 years. Executive numbers soared nearly 50 per cent in that period, outpacing 12-per-cent growth in the overall public service. The big surge came in the 2000s when the size of the bureaucracy grew 35 per cent. The number of ADMs shot up 49 per cent while the numbers of those at Ex 1 to 3 levels jumped 68 per cent. The number of deputy ministers, led by new associate deputy minister positions, increased 25 per cent over the past decade.

But the study shows the makeup of ADMs hasn’t changed much in the past quarter-century. They are older and include more women but their career paths are largely the same. They are almost exclusively recruited from the public service and rise through the ranks in the same department and in the same type of position. They typically work in the public service for 20 years, with 12 years as an executive in six different positions. They are pushing 50 years old when first promoted to ADM from within their departments. Most work the National Capital Region and nearly half work in programs, services and operations. About 15 per cent work in central agencies and 13 per cent are in corporate services. Only five per cent work in the regions where most services are delivered.

Once they have become ADMs, they tend to move from job to job and spend less than two years in a position. Most of those moves are within their own departments.

“ADMs move too much and don’t necessarily make the right moves. ADM churn needs slowing down. They are moving too frequently, and not always making the kinds of moves that can broaden and deepen their knowledge, experience and skills,” said Lahey.

“It is absolutely wrong to have ADMs who are generic managers divorced from policy and content. There has been a kind of managerialization of ADM jobs … bringing those jobs down below what they should be.”

The report offers five areas of reform to “raise the bar” for managing and recruiting these senior executives so they have more responsibility, experience, knowledge and leadership skills. It says future ADMs should be a strategic thinkers and visionary; should focus on results, effectiveness and economy; have strong interpersonal skills; and be able to work collaboratively.

Lahey said the overall executive cadre could be significantly cut but this must be managed slowly while targeting the talent in the lower executive levels to develop for the future. Slashing jobs to delayer is too disruptive; instead, the key is to figure out the roles and responsibilities for each level of management. This means adjusting the expectations of ministers and political staff – which could be tough in an era of mistrust between politicians and bureaucrats.

The report also urged bringing in new blood from outside the public service with external recruits accounting for up to 15 per cent of ADM appointees. It also suggests fast-tracking younger executives in their 30s and 40s so they become ADMs – and DMs – at a younger age and having them stay in the jobs longer before retiring.

The study also suggested ADMs stay in a position at least three years before moving to another. In fact, it argued that staying in the job, mastering it and leadership should be tied to performance pay.

ADMs: 
By the numbers 

400: Current number of ADMs 
54: Average age of Ex-4s and Ex-5s 
20: Average years worked in the public service 
12: Years spent as executive before promoted to ADM 
40: Percentage of ADMS who are women 
50: Percentage who held three of their last four jobs in the same department 
87: Percentage of ADMs in the National Capital Region 
42: Percentage of ADMs who work in programs, services or operations 
15: Percentage of ADMs who work in central agencies 
8: Percentage working in policy
3: Percentage working in communications 

7: Average number who get promoted to deputy minister annually 
10: Percentage who retire each year 
59: Average age at retirement