LA FONCTION PUBLIQUE : POINT DE VUE DE LA GÉNÉRATION X
vol. 37, numéro 4, 2007
If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants. – Sir Isaac Newton
In his October 2007 article, “Generation Y Challenges the Public Service,” David Eaves offers some interesting food for thought on the state of the Canadian federal public service. One gets the impression FROM his comments that Gen Yers may be frustrated by the dominance of Baby Boomers. Well, so were Gen Xers before them, who faced the additional challenge of trying to break INTO the public sector job market during the deficit-slashing days of program review. But Baby Boomers have something that Gen Yers (and Gen Xers, for that matter) do not have. It’s called experience.
Going to school longer is not necessarily the same thing as being better educated. While one cannot deny the benefits of formal learning, and the fact that educational qualifications are crucial to being able to function effectively in a knowledge-based economy, experience can be a great teacher. At the risk of restating the obvious, people who are older have more experience.
We can choose to complain about that, or we can take the opportunity to learn FROM the “organizational memory” or “corporate memory” that the Baby Boomers possess. We can choose to waste the next 25-30 years of our careers by re-inventing and re-discovering things that already exist. Or, we can learn FROM those who came before us, and improve and redesign things, so that systems, institutions, laws, regulations, etc. function better for us, our children and our grandchildren.
Embarking on that challenge will require respectful two-way communication – respectful dialogue – between junior and senior public service colleagues. Only through a genuine dialogue that respects the abilities, knowledge and talents of all parties can we hope to bridge the often mentioned, yet seldom understood, “generation gap” in the workplace. In the process, senior employees may discover that their tech-savvy junior colleagues have solutions to long-standing information management and information flow problems, or that complex problems might be addressed after they are analyzed FROM a new perspective. Concurrently, junior employees may benefit FROM the mutual discovery that the wisdom that one gains FROM experience is something that can be passed down.
Too often, valuable information is packed in a box of old files, stuck in an old daytimer, erased FROM a hard drive, hidden in a box of floppy diskettes or left on a non-descript flash drive to be forgotten when someone retires. The work does not stop, however. Consequently, a new person coming on board has to learn many things FROM scratch. If that is allowed to happen, then the people of Canada are not getting the quality of service that they deserve.
Think of trying to cook a gourmet meal FROM a recipe book where some of the ingredients do not have measurements and some of the pages are missing. What will the meal taste like? Public service is not about ensuring that you look like a great chef while those who follow you cannot even boil water because they cannot find where you put the saucepot. Nor is it about the sous-chef telling the chef to get out of the kitchen. As Eaves points out, the use of wikis allows for bottom-up collaboration that breaks down barriers. Wikis also can serve to record departmental activity. The knowledge accumulated by senior public service employees is too valuable to the people of Canada to be dismissed to the dustbins of history. The citizens of Canada deserve better.
As for the supposed insularity of the public service, there may be some truth to a particular ethos pervading throughout any organization over time, but that may be over-stated. The federal public service today generally is more representative of linguistic duality, has more women employees, and has more visible minorities. The relationship of the federal government with First Nations is also undergoing change, albeit slowly. There tends to be a visible federal presence, in some form or another, FROM coast to coast to coast, and in rural, remote areas as well as urban areas. Is there more work to do to ensure that it is a true mirror of contemporary Canadian society? Absolutely – but nevertheless, the culture of the organization changes when those who were previously excluded are welcomed INTO the organization in a genuine way. Do we make attempts to bridge the divides of heartland versus hinterland, English versus French, the West versus the rest, and coastal areas versus the Prairies, etc.? Yes, and we could continue to strive to do better. Furthermore, ultimately, the federal public service as an institution is not a series of building complexes scattered throughout Ottawa, staffed by enclaves of like-minded automatons; rather, it is comprised of the men and women across the country FROM diverse backgrounds who have chosen to serve their fellow Canadians by working for the many departments and agencies of the federal government. Insularity is indeed a myth.
Mr. Eaves also leaves the impression that the “whole-of-government” approach is flawed because it tends to involve top-down coordination. However, it is intended to break down the silos that exist between federal departments and agencies, so that, so to speak, the left hand knows what the right hand is doing. That sounds like a good idea to me. The kind of horizontality praised by Mr. Eaves, and described by the elderly retired public servant, was practical in the bygone era of the so-called “Ottawa Men”, chronicled by Canadian historian Jack Granatstein (and perhaps during the 1960s and 1970s as well).
However, in an era where globalization influences the public policy-making process, where access to news and information is widely diffused, where technology has quickened the pace of decision making (and the pace of life in general), and where civil society groups wield greater influence, a different type of horizontality is required – hence “whole-of-government”. The whole-of-government approach is intended to secure accountability to Canadians for tax dollars spent. It is also intended to facilitate the formulation, implementation and evaluation of coherent public policy responses to complex contemporary situations that require action by more than one department and agency of the Government of Canada.
Thus, the type of horizontality that pervades the public service today is a reflection of the complexities of the modern-day public policy-making process. With the prominence of climate change as a pressing public policy problem, all of the programs and initiatives associated with the clean air agenda require departments managing natural resources, the environment, transportation and foreign affairs to liaise to present a unified Government of Canada approach to the problem. Another very high-profile case in point is represented by the Canadian International Development Agency, Department of National Defence-Canadian Forces, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Foreign Affairs Canada, all of which have very diverse mandates, yet they must cooperate to achieve Canada’s foreign policy goals vis-à-vis Afghanistan.
Top-down coordination may be the only way to strive to achieve unity and coherence in public policy, if those are the goals that one is seeking to achieve in a contemporary context. There also must be accountability, and that is demonstrated and achieved through formal chains of supervisory hierarchy. Time-tested Weberian notions persist for valid reasons. David Eaves is correct in acknowledging that much can be said for bottom-up grassroots initiatives that acknowledge the contributions of front-line workers. Front-line workers are the eyes and ears of any organization, and have valuable contributions to make. To return to Sir Isaac Newton’s words of wisdom, those at the bottom of the pyramid may in fact be giants. However, inverting the pyramid is not necessarily the answer. Senior people in the organization with more experience may be giants as well.
Angela Majic is a federal public servant, and has taught International Relations and Public Policy. Angela holds a Master's Degree in Political Science FROM Carleton University, a diploma in Public Policy and Administration, a certificate in Law and Justice, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in History and Political Science. The views expressed in this article are those of the author.
Copyright 2007 Optimum Online