Are we putting public servants in an impossible situation?

By Steve Paikin - Published on April 28, 2016
Wayne Wouters speaking at a podium
Wayne Wouters speaking at the Public Policy Forum's Testimonial Dinner in Toronto. April 7, 2016 (Martin Lipman, PPF)

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Sometimes we send the strangest signals to the people who work in the public service.

In the best of all worlds, here’s what we want from them: We want them to be brilliant. We want them to be much less bureaucratic and much more creative. We want them to serve us better, find solutions to our problems, and explore new ideas that could help save us money.

But woe betide a single one of them if they ever experiment with a new idea that goes south, then costs the taxpayers money. In that case, we’ll be the first to string them up in the town square and shame them from here to eternity.

This is the conundrum Canada’s public servants live every day, according to Wayne Wouters, the former clerk of the Privy Council of Canada, now a policy adviser at the McCarthy Tétrault law firm.

Wouters gave a highly unusual speech at the Public Policy Forum’s annual dinner in Toronto on April 7. Two things made it noteworthy.

First, we’re not accustomed to hearing our senior public servants opine on the record. Wouters stepped down as Privy Council clerk and secretary to prime minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet in 2014.  Now that Wouters has left the highest ranks of the public service, he clearly felt more free to tell us what he really thinks.

Second, he urged the audience of more than 1,000 people to put aside its natural inclination to pillory public servants who make mistakes, and in fact he encouraged public servants to go ahead and break some rules and make mistakes.

“Too often, rules deflect criticism but prevent transformational change in government,” Wouters told the crowd on the same day he turned 65. “We subject so much to oversight in the public service [that] we’re stifling our ability to change and innovate.”

Wouters is right. It feels as if a civil servant’s job today, first and foremost, is to keep his or her minister out of trouble. The best way to do that is to keep your head down and don’t try anything out of the ordinary.

Now, to be clear, no one is advocating breaking rules for nefarious purposes. And no one is advocating less transparency, accountability or putting in an honest day’s work.

But Wouters is giving voice to a widely held concern that we’re allowing our obsession with rule-following and accountability to stifle legitimate creativity, something that could benefit us all.

“Building a more agile public service can’t be done alone,” he said. “We need to create a space for public servants to take risks and innovate.” 

Of course, part of the problem with Wouters’s cri de coeur is that he’s issuing it from the security of his new perch in the private sector, having left the public service. Presumably, this is a message he couldn’t have delivered when he was still the clerk of the Privy Council, because public servants are supposed to be only seen and heard by their political masters, in their offices, and never beyond.

Nevertheless, it’s a view that demands greater consideration by the public. If we want public servants to advise politicians to take risks on new ideas, we have to be prepared for the fact that those ideas are not all going to work, that yes, we’re going to lose money from time to time. But the greater goal —more innovation, less bureaucracy, better service at less cost — is worth it.

I’ve met civil servants who would love nothing more than to have the handcuffs taken off so they could chase some truly bold ideas, as people in the private sector are encouraged to do. But the fear of ending up as a front-page headline in 60-point type in the Toronto Star no doubt petrifies everyone in public life to think small.

I’m not telling journalists not to do their job if they uncover mistakes. But perhaps we need bolder politicians and civil servants to push back when they fail in pursuit of noble goals, or to boast more when experimentation produces unusually good dividends.

Let’s see if Wayne Wouters’s sentiments are contagious. 

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