Leadership in Government: A Change in Thinking

6 minute read

Author: Toby Fyfe, President


As a federal public servant, you are part of an elite. You have an interesting job, steady pay (mostly) and a good pension.

But increasingly it must seem that you are working and living in a messed-up world. Democracy appears to be at risk, threatened by populism, fake news and a post-truth world. The old conventions that have held the Westminster system together are collapsing: Theresa May’s refusal to resign after her government’s defeat January 14; the centralization of power in PMO; the trivialization of Question Period.

And of course, the workplace itself is changing. Digital technologies are turning the hierarchical, cautious and risk-averse public service on its head, putting the world of centrally-based decision-making at risk as multiple truths impede on fact-based discussions and decision-making.

An IOG/Environics research project tells us that half of Canadians think the federal government is not working well while three quarters of those who believe it is broken say it is due to wasteful spending (75%) and/or not responsive to citizen needs (75%). 50% indicate lack of leadership as a cause of this malaise.

The former Clerk of the Privy Council, Kevin Lynch, sums it up this way: [there is a] ‘growing gap between the scale, scope and speed of … transformations and the capacity of government to implement timely and effective policy changes.’

What does it mean?

According to the World Economic Forum, the biggest challenge facing governments today is to remain relevant.

Government is relevant if citizens trust its ability to do the job better than anyone else.

The role of public service leadership, then, is to build citizen trust in government so that it remains relevant to them. It is more than just offering fearless advice and loyal implementation. It is about taking responsibility for contributing to the sustainability of the public sector. That means providing services efficiently, operating transparently, convening different viewpoints fairly and openly, adding value to society and the economy, and above all, helping citizens prepare for, and respond to, change.

Here are 12 key 21st century competencies for public sector leaders:

  • RETHINK YOUR NOTIONS OF LEADERSHIP. It’s not about being a leader, it’s about leadership. Leadership is contextual, involves others, and has nothing to do with your position or title. Leadership is not to be confused with authority. ‘The myth of leadership is the myth of the lone warrior, the solitary individual whose heroism and brilliance enable him to lead the way. The strategic challenge is to give work back to people without abandoning them’ (Heifitz).
  • UNDERSTAND THE CHANGING SCOPE OF PUBLIC SECTOR GOVERNANCE.The changing world around you is having an impact on traditional views of the public sector governance principles of legitimacy, responsibility, accountability, risk and trust. We are in a post-industrial economy – what Klaus Schwab calls the 4thindustrial revolution – with institutions, structures and processes still rooted in the industrial age. Distributed and multi-lateral governance are the order for the day and will have an impact on decision-making.
  • USE SYSTEMS THINKING.The world is moving from structural hierarchy to an interconnected set of elements that work in an ecosystem to achieve an outcome, and from simple cause and effect chains to multiple relationships, interests and feedback loops. Yes, your structures and decision-making processes are linear and hierarchical; unfortunately, they do not reflect the new reality.
  • UNDERSTAND THAT MOST OF TODAY’S BIG POLICY ISSUES ARE COMPLEX. A complex problem involves many players, each of whom will have a legitimate view on, and stake in, defining it and what is needed to solve it. In a world where opinions can be amplified by social media and confirmation bias, the process of finding a common, middle ground – the traditional goal of governments, by the way – is necessary even if it is time-consuming, expensive and often frustrating. Explore new ways of policy-making such as behavioral economics, ensure policies can be implemented and evaluate them regularly for timeliness and relevance.
  • RESPOND TO THEREALISSUE; DON’T BE CAPTURED BY YESTERDAY’S PARADIGM.In Ottawa, the City’s first reaction to Uber was to ban it because it did not meet the regulatory criteria put in place for the taxi age. The taxi service was inefficient and the City was essentially captured in an old regulatory paradigm that stifled innovative thinking.
  • FOCUS ON CITIZENS, NOT INSTITUTIONS.See Uber study above. The determination of the company to continue in the face of clear citizen demand forced the City to change its view on the issue. Ask yourself: how relevant to their needs do you think citizens thought their civic government was?
  • THINK LIKE A POLITICIAN.We work in a political world, offering up solutions, strategies and approaches to our political masters. We like to think that politicians are driven by informed decision-making. Work by the late Gilles Paquet of the Ottawa University Centre on Governance lists five criteria that drive a political decision: the solution must be technically realistic (doable); socially acceptable (not too far out in front of public opinion); politically aligned; operationally implementable (can actually be accomplished, is affordable, etc.); and is publicly understandable (can be sold). Note that data is not on the list.
  • BE AWARE OF YOUR BIASES.As noted, earlier, you are part of the elite and an institution that is risk averse, hierarchical, slow, and not very collaborative. Be aware of three biases that often capture public servants: confirmation bias, where evidence that confirms a pre-determined view is overly weighted; group think, where the majority view rules for the sake of consensus; and escalating commitment which makes it almost impossible to ask, do we still need (to do) this?
  • DON’T BE HAPPY WITH THE STATUS QUO.Always ask: do we have do it this way?
  • THINK BIG PICTURE.Do not fall into the trap of just doing your day job, for that will turn you into just one more technocrat. Allow yourself to move from the daily grind of the ‘dance floor’ to the ‘balcony’ where you can stop, look around, and rethink your assumptions. Work with others to achieve outcomes with a chef-d’orchestre approach to leadership that builds on their knowledge and skills.
  • PREPARE CITIZENS FOR THE FUTURE.Government has many roles: policy development, social programming, service delivery, regulation development and implementation, security – the list is endless. Citizens interact with governments in three ways: as a taxpayer, as a citizen, and as a client, all of which matter. But in this world of change and uncertainty, as traditional jobs disappear, the precariat increases and new demographics impact the workplace, a principle role of government – and therefore public service leaders – should be to help citizens prepare for the future.
  • DEVELOP A SENSE OF URGENCY.Jack Welch, former GE CEO, said: ‘If the rate of change on the outside is greater than that on the inside, then the end is near.’ The events of the past few years have indicated that government is not keeping up with the rapid change around it. Quite simply, it must adapt to the disruptive changes that it faces or risk becoming increasingly irrelevant. Public servant leaders need to take on this challenge by driving real change so that government maintains the trust of citizens today and in the years to come.
12 Leadership

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