Vers un nouveau contrat moral: Reconquérir la confiance dans la fonction publique
In an existential crisis of the kind I’m talking about, a profession loses confidence in its identity and a firm grip on its traditional reference points. As a result, it may thrash about looking for new ones, often imported from other professions or sectors perceived to have greater legitimacy or prestige, and greater public trust. That’s what happened to the public service, beginning in the 1970s, and reaching a peak in the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s. In those two decades, public servants often appropriated the language and model of the private sector, in a reflex of self-defence.
I am very far from thinking that this existential crisis, and the aping of the private sector that went with it, had only negative consequences. But it paid a very high price, a price that exacerbates and prolongs what was already a crisis of trust, both internal and external.
One of the prices we have paid is a feverish pursuit of public sector “renewal” since the late 1980s, a pursuit that is sometimes far removed from a confident spirit of continuous improvement and innovation. Another is that we have often been pursuing false futures, futures that never came, or if they did, for a time, brought with them unfortunate results. And a third is a frequent sense of failure rather than accomplishment, and a pervasive cynicism about change, and about those who lead it. It was into this atmosphere that the various so-called scandals and the Gomery commission fell. The over-all result has been to prolong, unjustifiably, what I called the “existential” crisis of the public service.
The most important result of this 25 year crisis, in my view, has been a temptation for the public service not to think deeply enough about the specific dynamics of the public sector itself. I think that a way out of this crisis, toward renewed confidence and trust in the public service – both internally on the part of our employees, and externally, on the part of the citizens of Canada – will require us to think again about the specific requirements of the public sector, as the Tait report did, not as a failed or lesser or paler version of some other sector, but as an essential institution in support of democratic government, with its own characteristics, imperatives and ethos.
Reclaiming trust: two frameworks
In reflecting on some of the ways in which the public services of Canada might begin (and already have begun) to reclaim public trust, I am going to make use of two conceptual frameworks. One comes from the Public Management Institute at the University of Leuven in Belgium, a leading European centre for research on public administration. The other comes from the Institute for Citizen-Centred Service, a Canadian public sector institution, established cooperatively by the three levels of government in Canada, to assist them in their joint efforts to improve public sector service delivery.