A modern public service has great expectations to meet

Contributed to The Globe and Mail
Published Saturday, Dec. 05, 2015 5:00AM EST
Kevin Lynch is vice-chairman of Bank of Montreal and former Clerk of the Privy Council.
The new government’s recognition that an effective, impartial and permanent public service is a vital institution in Canada’s system of governance is a welcome change. Restoring respect and trust in our public institutions is one of the primary challenges confronting the new Liberal government.
The government’s initial steps are all in the right direction – opening up communications, committing to rebuilding the role played by parliamentary committees, signalling respect for the public service and offering a more inclusive approach to governing.
In our system of governance, the public service plays a core role and, in these complex and changing times, governments should have two messages for their public services: We have great respect for you, and equally great expectations of you.
Whether we always like it or not, today’s reality is a world of pervasive globalization, relentless competition, perpetual innovation, and aging demographics. In this “new global normal,” government’s role and capacities need to evolve to reflect these shifting realities.
Ottawa has signalled its clear intent to let the public service fulfill its intended role. But how does the public service renew itself to to meet these expectations? Consider three areas where the greatest scope for public sector reinvention and innovation may lie.
First, a strong analytic policy capacity that is both broad and deep is a basic necessity of effective governing in an increasingly interconnected, complex and uncertain world. We need to be bolder in our policy thinking, by positioning ourselves at the leading edge of disruptive trends so we can thrive, and not merely survive. Consensus building on innovative policy directions requires well-articulated analysis, diverse views and spirited public discourse. In all this, the public service has to be capable of being a strong, impartial and innovative voice in these discussions.
Policy advice cannot be a monopoly of the public service in today’s world of social media and a multichannel universe. It should add value to other sources in terms of its impartiality, timeliness, analytic quality, global perspective and long-term focus.
Value-added policy advice eschews short-termism, a problem that bedevils so many aspects of business, politics and journalism today. It offers needed advice based on “big data” and smart analytics, not anecdote.
Second, a risk-management orientation. In a world experiencing a sharp spike in risk and volatility, the smart response by government is proactive – not reactive – risk management. Today’s risks are more systemic, more global, more interconnected and more unpredictable than ever before. For government as well as the private sector, they include technology risk, geopolitical risk, forecast risk, environmental risk, security risk, social licence risk and policy risk.
For any institution in a period of change and challenge, short-term risk-aversion paradoxically amplifies risk and long-term pain rather than minimizing it. Effective risk management is a strategy for long-term gain that accepts risk and innovation are correlated. In part, this necessitates attacking the ever-expanding compliance regimes which drown governments in a web of rules, and replacing them with best-practice risk management tools.
While challenging in practice, particularly in government, risk management lies at the heart of innovation, which is so central to making government more productive, more connected and more relevant.
Third, an innovation focus. In a world where technological innovation is at an inflexion point, disrupting how business is done in sector after sector, government should be at the leading edge of innovation adaptation. It is not.
An interesting parallel is the financial world, where financial tech, or fintech, has captured the imagination with its potential to better manage the allocation of capital, reduce payment costs, transform the collection and analysis of data for decision making and broaden accessibility.
The tools of the fintech trade are new platform technologies, huge scalability, big data, cloud computing, and customer-centric business models – all applicable to government operations.
So why not “govtech”? Many of the core functions of government are equally amenable to such innovations, and offer improvements in costs, productivity, service and the public’s experience of dealing with government.
An added benefit of being a leader in govtech would be the enormous export potential for these Canadian firms to market their innovative applications to governments around the world.
A re-empowered public service can be a magnet for talent and contribute significantly to Canada’s long-term success as a strong economy and vibrant society. It now has great expectations to meet.