A recent article in Optimum On-line by Peter Larson and David Zussman was a real eye opener for me. The authors interviewed twenty participants who had all joined the federal public service in mid-career. They were all previously executives in outside organizations. Some had come from the private sector, some from voluntary or not for profit organizations, and others from provincial governments.
The findings were somewhat shocking and make you wonder why any senior executive from other sectors would want to work in the federal public service and more importantly it certainly makes you wonder about the management of the federal public sector in Canada. Here are some of the key findings:
· Almost every interviewee pointed to an obsession with following rules, and an apparent lack of concern, or at least lack of preoccupation, with outcomes. This was noted by almost every executive who had come in from the private sector, but also many who had had previous careers in provincial governments or even NGOs.
· The whole system seems to be so focused on issues of “equity”, “entitlement” and “fairness” that it often ignores common sense. As a result, they feel that good management is frequently sacrificed to following rules that are collectively counter-productive. To people coming in from the outside, it feels at first like managers are unconcerned with “real” outcomes, and instead focus on avoiding the problems by relying on rules. However, the participants quickly became aware of the uncomfortable reality that this behaviour of risk aversion was encouraged by the structure of rewards and punishments in the federal public service.
· It’s hardly surprising that the federal government, the largest organization in Canada, has its share of bureaucracy. But almost all the interviewees – including those who had come from relatively large systems – expressed surprise and frustration at the extent of the federal bureaucracy and its ability to stifle initiative.
· Two particular areas of frustration frequently mentioned are human resource management and expenditure management. Interviewees repeatedly described the system of human resource management as “broken” or “byzantine”. Many observed that the human resource function does not seem to be “on board” or “in line” with the role and function of the department. Instead, it is seen as a separate fiefdom more interested in applying rules than in helping DM or ADM accomplish the tasks set out for them by the minister.
· Paradoxically, while managers feel that they have to spend a huge amount of time on human resources (HR) processes, the system does not really value or encourage “people management.” This is another specific reflection of a “rules based” approach to management. The interviewees were astounded at the obstacles they found when it came to selecting, encouraging, promoting or demoting employees. As a result, they wondered about their own ability to actually manage anything or anyone.
· The federal public service has long prided itself on being the best public service in the world. And there is little doubt that in many ways this reputation is justified. But the federal public service is not only about policy – it is also about management. If the federal public service really wants to be recognized as the best in the world, it will not only have to be “excellent” in policy, it will also have to develop management practices that rival those in the private sector, the not-for-profit sector and in other countries.
· The federal public service is widely seen, both in Ottawa and outside it, as a “closed institution” – a kind of “mandarinate” that operates largely by its own rules. It is sometimes characterized as “self serving”, unaware of the challenges in the rest of the country, a “waster of public funds” and uninterested in borrowing best practices from other jurisdictions.
· Financial management systems are generally seen as weak. As a result, there is a lack of current performance information, with the result that senior managers have very little ability to manage their organization.
It is no wonder that over the last 10 years fewer than 3 percent of appointments at the assistant deputy minister level have gone to people not already in the federal public service. Who in the private or non-profit sector would want to work in this environment?