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Sep 2018 | The Future of Public Service Delivery


Last year, while Canada was marking its 150th year of confederation, nearly 90 new public servants were shaping its future. As part of Canada Beyond 150, a 10-month leadership and development program led by the federal government, early-career public servants were invited to uncover, re-imagine, and co-design policies for a diverse and inclusive country. Instead of simply talking about innovation, participants experienced first-hand what innovation truly looks like: changing systems at their roots. And when it comes to transforming our system of public service, we need to start by transforming the people within it.

Canada’s public service is at a turning point and our rapidly changing world compels us to think differently. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Phoenix pay system and the process that led to its demise. In his assessment, Auditor General Michael Ferguson warned about the obedient culture within elements of the bureaucracy and the fear of speaking truth to power that can obscure decision-making. Some observers have even described the public service as broken, but this is not entirely accurate since systems are designed to produce the results they currently get. In other words, our system of public service appears to be broken because it’s not working for everyone. For example, Indigenous communities still suffer from contaminated drinking water, despite solutions that are readily available; meanwhile, legislation surrounding our access to information limits access to the most relevant and helpful information for Canadians, eroding trust between citizens and their government. If we’re going to tackle these complex problems, we need new skills and mindsets to understand systems and their complexities.

This was the objective behind Canada Beyond 150, which sought to drive a cultural shift within the federal public service starting with the newest generation of leaders. Yet, changing culture is harder than it sounds, not least because culture carries many entangled meanings. In public policy settings, culture most commonly refers to the set of influences that shape how individuals, groups, and society see the world and react to it. For the purpose of the program, this idea of culture entailed the relationships, values, and behaviours of individuals within the public service. After all, complex systems are composed of complex people – it’s one of the reasons we long for transformation in theory, but resist it in practice. Our reluctance to change often stems from the discomfort in disturbing power relationships, breaking down established conventions, and introducing new values through modernization.[i] These cultural forces were all encapsulated by the issues that Canada Beyond 150 investigated, from reconciliation to open governance.

For instance, in order to realize a vision of reconciliation, governments must walk together in true partnership with Indigenous people which fundamentally means redressing colonial relationships of power. Likewise, a government that is open and transparent needs to engage with citizens more effectively, which often means embracing new technology and the values of modernization that come with it.

While there are no silver bullets for systemic change, there are conditions that can lead to a more open and inclusive culture through which change can emerge. For Canada Beyond 150, these conditions included new mindsets for policy-making built upon three core pillars: foresight (how we understand the range of possible futures we may confront), design thinking (how we co-create and test user-centred solutions), and authentic engagement (how we foster and nurture meaningful relationships among diverse stakeholders).

In each of these pillars, new methods and tools were shared with public servants through immersive training sessions, site visits, events, and working groups that broke down the traditional silos between and within governments. Methods such as scanning for weak signals (i.e. indicators of potentially disruptive change) allowed us to sense future trends, while tools such as cultural probes and intercept interviews provided real-time engagement directly with citizens. The tools and methods disseminated through Canada Beyond 150 offered a new vision of policy-making that can spread to all different parts of our lives. In the end, participants used these new tools and mindsets to design creative policies and programs that address some of the most complex issues of our time: socio-economic inclusion, sustainable development, open and transparent governance, reconciliation, and LGBTQ+ rights. Interested audiences can read more about the concrete policy ideas and proposals that emerged from the program in the thematic reports and Canada Beyond 150 magazine.


“As a result of expediency for quick reporting, government evaluation has relied on easy-to-measure metrics, not often useful in diagnosing the root causes of any systemic problem such as poverty, recession, disease, violence, and racism.”


For the broader public service, the results of this 10-month experiment were invaluable, the first being that the future is closer than we think. Although the program focused on a 10-15 year horizon, many weak signals that were analyzed had immediate effects. For example, the malicious link between Facebook and Cambridge Analytica was identified by participants in the summer of 2017, but the story quickly rose to public prominence less than a year later, much sooner than anticipated. Foresight teaches us that we tend to underestimate what is plausible in 15 years and overestimate what is possible in five. This insight may seem straightforward, but there are important implications for departments, especially during medium-term policy cycles that prepare transition advice for new ministers. To a large extent, policy-making still follows the thinking that tomorrow will be the same as today. But we should really be asking ourselves: are we providing information that ministers already know or information that they may have never seen? Are we prepared for the possibilities of the future, or will we be blindsided and caught by surprise? In effect, foresight doesn’t try to predict the future, but rather builds resilience in the face of change that we don’t yet know. 

A second lesson: government needs to rethink how we evaluate and measure impact. Traditionally, governments have privileged facts and data over meaning – we are often data rich and evaluation poor. That is, we tend to see numbers as powerful truths on their own but fail to make a deeper sense of what the evidence is telling us. As a result of expediency for quick reporting, government evaluation has relied on easy-to-measure metrics, not often useful in diagnosing the root causes of any systemic problem such as poverty, recession, disease, violence, and racism.

Ottawa’s preoccupation with ‘deliverology’ is symptomatic of our times, a coping mechanism to fulfill political ambitions. Take, for example, the government’s own mandate tracker which seems to measure outputs instead of outcomes. Conflating the two is both reductionist and problematic. For instance, doubling the investment in the Canada Council for the Arts (i.e. an output) is not the same as creating more equitable access to artistic training (i.e. an outcome). Furthermore, can these mandate commitments be regarded as “completed and fully met” without any long-term evaluation? At a time when the federal government is trying to experiment and innovate, new frames of emergent evaluation are required to adapt to policies as they unfold and learn from failures as they arise. Because all solutions have a limited half-life, principles actually play a bigger role in determining outcomes than raw data.[ii] Indeed, more data often leads to more noise instead of clearer signals – we look for data when we really want coherence between tensions and understandings. Therefore, governments should remember that evaluation is a matter of reality-testing and a willingness to adapt, rather than a matter of fitting data into a pre-determined conclusion. Ultimately, data without sense-making is meaningless, and without meaning, action is difficult.

A third lesson from the program: insights come from unexpected places. By getting outside the Ottawa bubble and talking with citizens directly, participants often gleaned the greatest understanding of a policy challenge, revealing new perspectives that would have otherwise remained hidden. To that end, public servants need to challenge themselves and reach out beyond the stakeholders with whom they are most comfortable. If we’re serious about reconciliation with Indigenous people, we must embrace discomfort. As one Elder highlighted to participants: “if you’re comfortable, you’re not really doing reconciliation.” Even in the context of engaging Indigenous communities, a consultation with a strict timeline is simply replicating colonial structures that government claims to eschew. In many ways, our well-intentioned actions can have a shadow side that leaves a negative mark. This unintentional risk can be mitigated by creating teams and spaces that are truly diverse and inclusive of marginalized perspectives. In fact, during the program, participants advocated for greater inclusion of Indigenous perspectives, which organizers supported by incorporating more Indigenous public servants, teachings, and ceremony in all meetings. It was promising to see how the program adapted as a result of this call for diverse voices and it’s hopeful to think that our larger system of public service can follow suit.

In unexpected ways, Canada Beyond 150 also demonstrated that each one of us has the power to make our government more inclusive and innovative through our everyday actions. We shouldn’t take for granted that the way in which we work influences the work itself. We know, for example, that open and transparent governments rely on people who actually work in the open and model transparency, a message that we heard repeatedly from stakeholders. Seeing ourselves in the broader system, however, requires us to examine not only our ways of knowing about the world, but also question our ways of being in the world. For many public servants, this cultural shift will be the hardest work one has to do – it entails unlearning and re-learning with humility and courage. It means that building authentic relationships takes time, a reminder best exemplified by the many participants who continue to maintain their connections with each other and stakeholders well after the program has ended.

Moving forward, if we want to continue this impact, we must continue investing in people. In fact, it was a decade ago that the federal government last invested in this scale of development for public servants. What if this happened for more than ten months every ten years? What if all public servants could expand their capacity to effect change? I imagine that we would not only be able to avoid fiascos such as Phoenix but also build better policy. Driving cultural change in the public service will take time and concerted investment, but the results will be well worth it.

Although the future is uncertain, it is clear that the federal public service is filled with remarkable people who serve with passion and integrity. We saw this excellence first-hand through the countless empathetic, collaborative, and inspiring colleagues whom we met. But more important, the Canada Beyond 150 program revealed how exceptional our public service can be. Critics may point to perennial problems in government’s culture, but this generation of leaders, in every corner of the country, are keen to carry the hard work of public service forward. They are ready to make their government better and Canada cannot afford to wait.   


DAVID LAWLESS is a Senior Policy Advisor in the Government of Canada. He was previously a participant in the Canada Beyond 150 program and an Action Canada Fellow with the Public Policy Forum. His work focuses on the intersection of social innovation, the environment, and public sector governance.