The Treasury Board got a new Secretary.
Graham Flack comes to Treasury Board via Employment and Social Development Canada, where he’d been Deputy Minister since 2018. Flack was previously DM of Canadian Heritage, following a career that included several senior positions in the Privy Council Office, and is widely considered one of the more thoughtful members of the senior public service.
He will need to put that thoughtfulness to use to support the many demands the Prime Minister has made of Treasury Board President Mona Fortier in his December 2021 mandate letter. Many of these expectations – and many more challenges besides – relate to the governance issues under TB’s purview.
Treasury Board has several key responsibilities, including its roles as the government’s management board and as the employer for most of the public service.
In those capacities, it has a lead role for both how the government operates and how the public service does its job. You can’t effect vast change in a rapidly evolving landscape with a static public service.
The good news begins with what sounds like a positive tone with public sector unions, as Minister Fortier is called upon to negotiate with unions in good faith and to work with them on a coordinated plan for the future of work within the public service.
This would include a Public Service Skills Strategy, among other efforts to modernize the public service for the 21st century. What that workforce will look like is not specified, although there will be heavy emphasis on diversity and inclusion as well as improved data, IT, and digital capacity. This meshes well with the Clerk of the Privy Council’s recent report on the public service, which called for precisely such a skills strategy, as well as “flexible and equitable” post-pandemic work arrangements.
All this is fine and needful, but it doesn’t amount to much more than a start on public service reform and the broader matter of better public sector governance for the 21st century.
First, we might ask what is meant by flexible and equitable work arrangements.
So far, TB has opted against a one size fits all approach, leaving individual organizations to sort out what works for their mandates and needs. That is at least a little shrewd, since TB would hardly want to own a definitive model at this point in the game.
But this is the Government of Canada we’re talking about: TB will certainly keep a close eye on what is going on and won’t hesitate to intervene if it doesn’t like what it sees.
Frankly, the country’s industrial age, hierarchical, and rules bound work force needs a lot more than the capacity to work virtually. The normative mindset of the public service is still defined by the culture of compliance that was denounced by, of all people, the late Auditor General Michael Ferguson.
Ferguson wasn’t against compliance – what accountant is? He was referring to a culture of sticking to the blame-avoiding safe harbor of following rules rather than innovating and taking rational risks. This culture was epitomized by the Federal Accountability Act, which addressed a host of behavioral problems that didn’t exist, and which the Trudeau government has never lifted a finger to dismantle.
It is a culture reinforced by inadequate performance metrics and the fact that public servants are not accountable for results, nor could they be given the limited trust and authority that’s given to most of them.
Remote working arrangements may help to push long-overdue changes, like faster, flattened decision making and performance assessment that turns more on genuine productivity as opposed to just showing up and participating in processes.
Significant governance changes are also needed to fully unleash the capacity of digital technology to meet evolving citizen expectations.
Politicians and public servants have been talking about improved horizontality and “whole-of-government” approaches for decades, but we still struggle to dismantle or work around the silos of the classic Westminster system.
This is not to be dismissive of the rules around reporting and accounting to Parliament, or the broader principle of ministerial responsibility. And digital and data governance raise privacy and security issues that aren’t easy to address. While successive governments have made progress, including through the appointment in multiple departments of chief data officers, there is a long way to go.
In practice, horizontality has been approached largely through a more powerful center. And the impact of 24/7 media and a hostile twitter mob have gotten in the way of efforts to be more open with information and less hierarchical in decision making.
The bottom line is that for government to evolve it needs to be less self-regarding and more focused on the citizens it is supposed to serve.
It’s a tall order, Mr. Flack, and we wish you and Minister Fortier the very best.