|Staff of the Parliamentary Research Branch
(PRB) of the Library of Parliament work exclusively for Parliament conducting research and
providing analysis and policy advice to Members of the Senate and House of Commons and to
parliamentary committees on a non-partisan and confidential basis. The documents on
this site were originally prepared for general distribution to Canadian Parliamentarians
to provide background and analysis of issues that may arise in the course of their
Parliamentary duties. They are made available here as a service to the public. These
studies are not official Parliamentary or Canadian government documents. No legal or other
professional advice is offered by the authors or the Parliamentary Research Branch in
presenting its publications or in maintaining links to other Internet sites.
FEDERAL PUBLIC SERVICE RENEWAL
TABLE OF CONTENTS
A. Recruitment, Employment Equity and Retention
A. Conceptual Issues
FEDERAL PUBLIC SERVICE RENEWAL
THE LA RELÈVE INITIATIVE
In her 1997 annual report on the public service, the Clerk of the Privy Council advised the Prime Minister that a "quiet crisis" was growing within the ranks of government employees. For a variety of reasons, the public service has come to be perceived by a growing number of employees, and by potential employees as well, as a relatively unattractive place to work.
According to the Report, this problem threatens to reduce the ability of the public service to attract, retain and motivate the people who will be needed in coming years, and could eventually erode the capacity of the public service to meet the expectations of political decision-makers and the general public.
In response, a series of public service human resources initiatives were announced, under the general title of La Relève. The central objective was to build "a modern and vibrant institution able to use fully the talents of its people," and possessing the skill sets and motivation needed to respond to the challenges of the future.
In most industrialized countries, fiscal pressures (supplemented to a greater or lesser degree by ideological and other factors) propelled significant public sector re-structuring and downsizing during the 1980s, with resulting problems in labour relations and internal morale.
In Canadas public service, even by the early 1980s, there was growing frustration at the middle management level over excessive centralized regulation and unresponsive common service agencies. The Public Service 2000 process, launched in 1989, aimed at a wide-ranging transformation of the public service culture, involving the devolution of authority in order to "let the managers manage," improve service to the public, and meet standards of efficiency and effectiveness associated with the private sector. By the mid-1990s, however, this program was widely seen as having raised expectations which it had then failed to meet, partly because of the effects of deficit-reduction and downsizing during this period.
In her 1997 Fourth Annual Report to the Prime Minister on the Public Service of Canada, the Clerk of the Privy Council argued that a decade of downsizing and relative inattention to human resources management issues had resulted in a "quiet crisis" in the public service. Central elements of this problem were diminished morale, job satisfaction and levels of motivation among current public servants, increased levels of defection among groups with key technical and managerial skills, and growing concerns about the capacity of the public service to attract and retain people with the skill sets that would be needed in the future.
A group of early initiatives, focusing primarily on public service executives, were announced in the Clerks 1997 Report. These included an accelerated development program for existing executives, creation of a pool of prequalified potential assistant deputy ministers, appointment of assistant deputy ministers to level rather than function (to facilitate mobility and development), and the establishment of a task force to study executive compensation. A focus on the policy, communications and other functional communities was also announced, as was a review of external recruitment programs.
The 1997 Report also announced a process of service-wide consultations for identifying needs and launching initiatives within individual departments, and broadening corporate initiatives where required. This process fed into the development of a detailed action plan that was endorsed by deputy ministers in July 1997. The plan detailed the central La Relève initiatives that have proceeded since that time.
The corporate (i.e. centrally managed) initiatives are as follows:
These projects were described as including both immediate priorities, with respect to which significant progress could be achieved in a matter of months, and also long-term commitments. In addition to them, La Relève consists of:
The central issue for La Relève is not so much whether its projects will be carried out, as whether they will make a difference. It would be premature to reach conclusions about global impacts, however, since the initiative has been underway for less than two years. This is a relatively short time, given the complexity of La Relève and the nature of its objectives.
It remains possible to identify a number of potential strengths and weaknesses whose relative impacts will play a central role in determining the outcomes of La Relève.
For a more detailed discussion, see "La Relève Analysis."
During the last Parliament, the Standing Committee on Government Operations held hearings on La Relève as it was being launched, and tabled a brief report calling for continued parliamentary attention to the issue. Subsequent parliamentary attention to La Relève has been limited, however, although a number of individual parliamentarians continue to pursue the issue.
La Relève has not received significant attention from academics or policy specialists. However, the initiative has released a substantial volume of information in government-wide reports and departmental publications and on its dedicated website.
During the past 20 years, governments in most of the industrialized countries have had to respond to burgeoning public sector deficits and increasing public scepticism about the effectiveness of government programs. As well, widespread private sector lay-offs and high levels of unemployment have exacerbated popular resentments; public servants have been increasingly portrayed in the media and by politicians as phlegmatic, overpaid and unresponsive.
In most industrialized countries, fiscal pressures (supplemented to a degree by other factors) have propelled significant public sector reductions.
Particularly in the U.K. and New Zealand, structural reforms and downsizing were initially imposed over strong resistance from public service unions and created broader problems of morale. As the reform process proceeded, however, increased attention to human resource management, greater clarity of organizational objectives, performance targets, and a sense of contributing to improved service to clients appear to have led in some cases to increased job satisfaction.
By the early 1980s, government initiatives of the 1970s for strengthening central agency controls over departments had produced growing frustration and morale problems at the middle management level focusing on excessive administrative regulation, inflexible contracting rules, too many requests for information from central agencies, unresponsive and costly common service agencies that managers were required to use, and time-consuming classification, staffing and other personnel procedures. The result was a series of renewal initiatives aimed at "letting the managers manage" and shifting authority back to ministers and departments and away from central agencies.
These initiatives culminated in December 1989 in the Prime Ministers announcement of Public Service 2000. This government-wide reform process, led by the Clerk of the Privy Council, had as its central purposes the renewal of the public service so as to "equip public servants for the 21st century" and improve service to the public. Removing central controls in order to increase managerial freedom and finding "innovative ways to encourage efficiency and improve program delivery" emerged as key themes, both in the delivery of services to citizens and in internal reforms (e.g., simplifying the employment and personnel management regime). [See Clark, p. 217, listed in Information Sources]
The result was an extensive reform program for central agencies and line departments, including:
In addition to its administrative reform agenda, Public Service 2000 sought cultural change in the public service. It sought to persuade public servants to focus on the quality of the services they were providing to citizens, rather than on rules and procedures. It undertook, furthermore, to promote a spirit of entrepreneurship within the public service; executives were exhorted to foster innovation and experimentation, and "encourage constructive questioning of policies and practices" within their departments. [See Roberts, in Information Sources]
Although the process led to a number of worthwhile administrative reforms, by 1992-93 there was a growing perception that Public Service 2000 had failed in its fundamental objectives, notably those relating to improved services and underlying cultural change. Within the public service itself this perception appears to have been largely due to the fact that Public Service 2000 coincided with a progressively more difficult fiscal environment and government-wide measures that were perceived to be in conflict with the goals of better quality service and improved management of human resources. These measures included wage restraints, cutbacks, agency mergers and eliminations from 1989 onwards, culminating in a major government reorganization in 1993 which produced widespread uncertainty and concerns about the excessive haste of change within departments. As well, observers (among whom the Auditor General was prominent) were critical of a series of incidents that seemed to validate general concerns about how managers would use their increased discretionary powers; the result was increasingly sharp criticism in Parliament and its committees, and in the media. Furthermore, Public Service 2000 was criticized for being an essentially top-down initiative, lacking the effective participation and "ownership" on the part of middle managers, employees and unions that were required by its own themes of good human resource management and empowerment. Finally, observers have argued that, unlike the Next Steps initiative in the U.K. or the reshaping of the public service in New Zealand, Public Service 2000 did not emerge as a consistent government priority and was not actively championed by the Prime Minister or cabinet ministers. [See, for example, Seidle, p. 82, in Information Sources.]
Following the 1993 election, the profile of Public Service 2000 declined rapidly, as the newly elected Liberal government made deficit reduction an urgent priority and proceeded with the program review. It was announced in February 1995 that this exercise would achieve net expenditure reductions of some $9.8 billion by 1997-98, which translated into spending cuts of 20% or more for some departments and cross-government workforce reductions of some 45,000. Phase 2 of Program Review in the fall of 1995 added further savings of $2 billion by 1998-99, and additional workforce reductions of as many as 10,000. Between 1993 and 1997, human resource issues in the public service were relegated to the backburner, as senior managers focused on the immediate challenges of implementing the program cuts, meeting spending reduction targets and responding to the day-to-day operational challenges of "doing more with less."
As presented in the 1997 Fourth Annual Report to the Prime Minister on the Public Service of Canada, La Relève is intended to address two interrelated problems. The first is diminished morale, job satisfaction and levels of motivation within the current universe of public servants, as specifically reflected in growing defections of employees with key technical and managerial skills. The second is concern about the capacity of the public service to attract, or develop and subsequently retain, people with the skill sets for performing the kinds of work that will be required of the federal government as its roles in society and the federation evolve.
According to the report, key contributors to the core problems in the public service are:
It was in response to some of these concerns, and their current and potential impacts, that the Clerk announced a group of renewal initiatives under the title of "La Relève."
The 1997 Fourth Annual Report to the Prime Minister on the Public Service of Canada announced a series of early initiatives, consisting of:
Shortly before the release of the Report, a task force of senior officials was established to co-ordinate the initiatives announced therein, and a committee of deputy ministers, the Plans and Review Committee, was established to review the submissions by individual departments and agencies received during April and May 1997. Results of the consultation process, which embraced all federal departments and central agencies, the six functional communities, and councils of senior federal officials in the regions, were subsequently reviewed, and an action plan was developed which was endorsed by deputy ministers in July 1997. Summary consultation findings and the action plan were released in October 1997, in a report entitled La Relève: A Commitment to Action.
An introductory section to the report, under the title "An Emerging Consensus," implied that the range of concerns had been substantially broadened from those outlined in the Clerk of the Privy Councils report at the beginning of the year. The section referred to the need for, among other things:
Reflecting the broadened scope of needs and problems, the Report set out eight general projects to be managed by the central agencies Privy Council Office, Public Service Commission, and Treasury Board Secretariat. This project framework continues to define the core corporate initiatives of La Relève:
These projects were described as both immediate priorities, with respect to which significant progress could be achieved in a matter of months, and long-term commitments. In addition to them, La Relève consists of:
The following sections provide brief descriptions of each project as initially conceived and progress updates based on the First Progress Report on La Relève, released in March 1998 (see Information Sources).
Focused on the demographic issues and prospective skill shortages noted in the Clerks 1997 Report, this project undertakes to establish what is described as a comprehensive recruitment and retention strategy which will simultaneously address anticipated skill and knowledge requirements and make the public service representative of the broader population by responding to employment equity concerns.
In order to meet the objective of replenishing and retaining a competent and representative workforce, a two-phase action strategy was mapped out:
Status March 1998: The Progress Report indicates that:
Noting the importance attached to compensation in the consultations with public servants and the need for compensation levels sufficient to enable the government to attract, retain and motivate employees, the report indicated that Treasury Board Secretariat would:
Status March 1998: The Progress Report indicates that:
Work on the replacement of multiple public service job classifications with a simplified set of categories has been underway for some time. The La Relève report elevates this to one of the eight central projects, claiming that there is widespread agreement that the current classification system is complex, costly, and creates barriers to employees seeking new experience, and especially to women.
Under this project head, Treasury Board Secretariat is committed to implementing a single, gender-neutral job evaluation system that enhances mobility opportunities, and links human resources requirements more closely to organizational requirements. Further work on the business case for this change and implementation costs will be undertaken and an implementation plan (in which officials in each department will provide local leadership) will be developed. Time frames: Fall 1997, presentations to Treasury Board officials and ministers; implementation during 1998.
Status March 1998: The Progress Report indicates that the UCS was endorsed by Treasury Board ministers on 6 November 1997; writing of work descriptions and evaluation is continuing; the first two of a series of guides for use by departments have been completed by Treasury Board Secretariat, and conversion to the UCS on "on track for 1999."
The devolution of greater staffing authority to departments and greater use of existing flexibilities by managers are described as key initiatives in removing the lengthy time-frames, inflexibility and micro-rules orientation ascribed to the present staffing process.
With respect to the project of streamlining the staffing process, and devolving authority so that the business requirements of the public service can be better met, the Public Service Commission will work with departments to fully exploit the potential of the current legislative framework for flexibility, responsiveness, and mobility both within, and into and out of, the public service, and to better reflect public service values. Time frames: Implementation to begin fall 1997.
Status March 1998: The Progress Report indicates that, as of July 1997, the Public Service Commission terminated its prohibition on shifting employees from their existing occupational group to another, a move that will enhance opportunities for mobility and learning.
More broadly, departments will now be responsible for internal staffing up to the EX level. An initial phase of reform, focusing on stakeholder consultations and removing restrictions from staffing authorities delegated to departments, was to be fully implemented by October 1998. A second phase, involving forums for publicizing best practices, was to be implemented during 1998, as was a third phase, involving the development of a streamlined regulatory framework planned to be in effect by April 1999.
Concerns within the public service about its negative public image and self-perception, and the possibility that these may work against recruiting and retention objectives, are singled out for priority attention.
To serve the objective of "renew(ing) pride in the public service as a world-class institution," a designated deputy minister and an extensive group of political and public service leaders are committed to maximizing the potential of annual public service events, revamping service-wide and departmental award programs, communicating the contribution of the public service to Canadians, obtaining private-sector support, and tracking public service pride levels against benchmarks drawn from other institutions. Time frame: Fall 1997 for a presentation to senior officials on initial implementation results, and continuing work thereafter.
Status March 1998: The Progress Report indicates that in July 1997 a committee of deputy ministers recommended a framework incorporating three elements: enhanced pride among public servants; improved outside awareness of public service accomplishments; and more effective departmental awards and recognition programs. As well, deputies pointed to more active, and public, championship of the public service by ministers and senior officials.
Departmental initiatives include showcase displays of programs and services, broader revitalization of internal recognition programs, and (in progress) Treasury Board revision of service-wide awards and recognition policy.
The project list reflects a recognition of the importance of employee involvement across the range of La Relève initiatives, and the potential contribution of positive outcomes in current negotiations of collective agreements.
With the objectives of broadly improving employee participation, and successfully negotiating collective agreements with the public service unions, the labour relations project designates Treasury Board Secretariat as the lead agency for working with departments to create a general framework for effective labour relations, and complete contract negotiations. Time frame: negotiations to be concluded during 1998.
Status: According to the March 1998 Progress Report,
Not all negotiations have been concluded without acrimony. For example, the largest public sector union (the Public Service Alliance of Canada) withdrew from talks on 20 September 1998, following advice from the conciliator that differences between the two sides were insurmountable. The union negotiator declared that "to say we are angry is an understatement," and a subsequent strike vote obtained 68% support for rotating strikes. However, a tentative agreement was achieved on 13 November 1998 the first time in 10 years that the government and the Alliance have reached agreement without a major labour disruption.
Responding to arguments made in the 1997 Report of the Clerk of the Privy Council about the prospective impact of demographics and retirements on the executive pool, the corporate development program consists substantially of the list of initiatives set out in that document. Individual initiatives, and target dates, include:
Status March 1998: The Progress Report indicates that:
The Report states that the scope and magnitude of change experienced by the public service in recent years has highlighted issues of accountability, ethical challenges, leadership and people management.
In order to examine the relationship between existing and evolving values, develop recommendations for ensuring consistency between operations and values, and foster clarity and commitment to core values among public servants, a designated deputy-minister will co-ordinate a dialogue within the public service and the development of recommendations (target date: ongoing work, with presentation to the Committee of Senior Officials in late 1997/early 1998).
Status March 1998: The Progress Report indicates that:
Reflecting the broadened focus that La Relève appears to have acquired in the course of consultations across the public service during 1997, the Report sets out eight additional action areas. These are, for the most part, placed under Treasury Board Secretariat and Public Service Commission leadership, and consist of multi-pronged initiatives with time frames that vary from the immediate to 1999. They are:
Status March 1998: The Progress Report provides general comments relating to those initiatives, above, that differ from the corporate initiatives already discussed.
Workplace Health: Progress has consisted of surveys (or planned surveys) of employees, a planned Treasury Board cross-government survey of employee attitudes to the workplace, and a planned consideration by deputy ministers of further government-wide surveys.
Mobility: In addition to measures already mentioned, such as intergroup deployments, progress has involved measures to facilitate interdepartmental mobility within functional communities, the signing of agreements with five governments to facilitate mobility between them, more active promotion of a program to enable federal executives to serve as visiting fellows at Canadian universities, and attention to expanding a program of interchanges between the federal government and other governments, the private sector, and the parapublic sector.
Competency-Based Human Resource Management: No specific developments are mentioned, but it is indicated that the Public Service Commission plans to examine a new definition of promotion based on competencies rather than salary, along with new standards for employee assessment and selection.
Learning and Training: Progress has involved giving departments access to training resource centres in seven of ten regions, the launching of an Internet-based Learning Resource Network by the Public Service Commission, and the establishment of a range of seminars and discussion groups targeted to specific communities within the public service.
Administrative Support Staff: Consultations were held in all regions and departments, and a report presenting 75 recommendations was produced. The Progress Report indicates that the resulting report, Valuing Our People, has contributed to the identification of follow-up actions still needed; however, specific examples are not provided.
In addition to initiatives applying across the public service, the Report announced a range of projects applying within specific departments.
At this level, with certain exceptions, the initiatives appear to reflect the ongoing work of human resource management, and are not easily distinguishable from those that departmental human resource managers were initiating in the years before La Relève. The fundamental message is that human resource management, considered globally, will be given increased attention.
Examples of initiatives akin to those listed in departmental Part IIIs (Main Estimates) in recent years are: health-related analysis, surveys and counselling; use of awards, overtime and corporate events to reward successes; surveys, strategic management efforts, and marketing initiatives to advance employment equity; increased use of generic job descriptions; training strategies, programs and processes; special strategies to address recruitment needs; and a heightened emphasis on performance measurement in the area of human resource initiatives.
Other types of initiative more directly reflect original La Relève priorities. These include: heightened attention to workforce demographics, and its strategic management; a new emphasis on secondments and other internal developmental programs, which have languished in recent years; and departmental communications initiatives to highlight La Relève.
Status March 1998: A supplementary volume to the Progress Report provides department-by-department reports, along with reports from the major functional communities.
The reports provide summary information on an extensive range of activities undertaken by departments and groups, typically including:
In general, the departmental and functional reports reflect the fact that La Relève is conceived as an orientation and an action commitment rather than a clearly bounded program. The reports provide overviews of departmental human resources activities, many of which are routine and have no specific relation to La Relève, and in some cases include initiatives that were launched before La Relève was announced. Overall, however, they testify to the heightened profile being given to human resources management as a result of La Relève.
The public service is fundamentally an organization that implements plans. The conscientious implementation of the commitments and programs formulated under La Relève can thus generally be taken for granted, assuming sufficient resources are available.
The central issue for La Relève is not so much whether its projects will be carried out, as whether they will make a difference. If they do not, its ultimate impact could be to raise expectations and set the stage for subsequent disillusionment and the possible worsening of the morale problems La Relève was intended to address.
The following analysis identifies and examines a number of the factors that will help to determine whether the La Relève initiatives make a difference. Among these are:
The impact upon the public service of the factors emphasized in the Clerks 1997 Report downsizing and increased levels of criticism in the media and from politicians is incontestable. However, it is important to recognize that many of the central problems on which La Relève is focused, such as diminished morale, weak strategic capacity and a lack of creativity, preceded the major downsizing initiatives of the 1990s, were anticipated within the public service before their arrival, and were in some cases the subject of earlier renewal initiatives [See Public Service 2000]. Although they may have been exacerbated by developments in the 1990s, they cannot have been caused by them.
The action orientation of La Relève has ensured that concrete initiatives have not been diverted by abstruse considerations about underlying causes and that efforts have been directed to a wide range of human resource-related problems and issues. The central advantage of this approach is that it has enabled action to proceed, and avoided potentially endless discussion. There are potential drawbacks, however.
First, La Relève does not clearly distinguish between the causes of problems and symptoms of problems, and therefore risks the diversion of resources and energy from the former to the latter.
For example, the vision of public service career satisfactions expressed in the Clerk of the Privy Councils 1997 report emphasises the opportunity to "contribute to the public good and to make a difference," as well as opportunities for personal development and career progress. However, in the initiatives announced in the Report, the primary focus appears to be on career-building objectives, compensation and other personal benefits, giving specific attention to the needs of the executive group and implying that frustrations in these areas are the primary causes of malaise in the public service.
The diagnosis implied by the 1997 initiatives may be correct. There are, however, at least two alternative possibilities. It is possible that the malaise of public servants arises centrally from the existence of organizational or other barriers that prevent them from experiencing the satisfactions of serving the public. Alternatively, it is possible that the real problem may be the values and expectations of (at least some) public servants, which, if successfully met in the short term, will merely reinforce the conditions in which current morale and other problems are rooted.
This latter possibility may be supported by at least one major study of central agency executives in the late 1970s (See Readings, Campbell and Szablowski). This found that most senior officials were motivated primarily by careerist objectives (e.g. challenge and advancement), rather than by service to the public or broader humanitarian principles. Reflecting the rapid growth of the public service (and thus of career opportunities) during this period, the portrait of the satisfactions available through a public service career provided by these officials was extremely positive. However, the career-focused expectations that contributed to satisfaction in the 1970s would have become increasingly out of synch with reality in the restraint environment of the 1980s and 1990s. If expectations based on the realities of the 1960s and 1970s continue to be present in the culture of public sector executives, or the broader public service, they are almost certain to lead to frustrations under foreseeable conditions. The measures announced in the 1997 Report will not restore the conditions that underlay the government growth environment of the 1960s, nor do contemporary trends in society and governance make its reappearance likely.
Regardless of whether the central problem is the expectations of public servants, the existing public service culture and structures, the impact of recent downsizing and fiscal constraint, or a combination of these, it is unlikely to be addressed successfully unless its sources are fully understood and explained. Investigation might find support for the implication in Campbell and Szablowskis study of an earlier generation of senior officials: that the central problem may be the values of public servants. Alternatively, it could take us back to the possibility that the values of public servants remain grounded in the ideals of public service, and that the problem stems from the culture and structures within which public servants work. Or, it might validate the apparent focus of the early La Relève initiatives. Questions that need to be asked, in order to explore these possibilities, include:
The 1996 deputy-ministerial task force on values and ethics, which significantly shaped the approach of La Relève to public service values, illustrates the explanatory deficiencies just suggested. It argues that values-related problems are an important dimension of the malaise currently affecting the public service. Moreover, it contains some extremely frank statements about feelings of alienation among middle managers, and employees perceptions that some managers do not "walk the talk" with respect to valuing employees, but rather are narrowly self-serving and concerned about turf protection (Report, p. 52; see Readings for full title). However, the report does not explain why these problems exist, other than by invoking the pressures of downsizing and day-to-day work. As a result, the recommendations are somewhat insubstantial, focusing heavily on the importance of better communications, leadership, and a very general proposal for closer attention to values in the executive culture and in selection processes.
This approach is directly reflected in La Relève, which treats public service values as merely one of a series of parallel initiatives, and stresses better communications from existing senior officials as the primary means of strengthening values. If, however, values issues pose a more fundamental challenge, important cultural, functional and structural changes may be required before employees feel that their organizations are "walking the talk."
The fact that an extensive range of human resources issues (possibly including both symptoms and causes) are being addressed simultaneously, in the absence of a fully developed discussion of fundamental causes, opens the door to potential uncertainty about priorities. There appears to be no clear basis within the La Relève initiative for distinguishing between high priority actions and actions of marginal importance.
On the positive side, this reflects the open-ended and experimental character of La Relève, and its conscious attempt to foster "bottom-up" participation and initiatives from within functional communities and departments. The extensive list of these initiatives provided in the March 1998 Progress Report may testify to the success of this approach, which deliberately avoids a centrally pre-determined, and limited, agenda ("La Relève is not a destination, but an attitude and a perspective. It is a bias for action in human resources management ").
More problematically, the absence of a conceptual basis for determining priorities could allow them to be determined by other means, including the capacity of relatively influential groups to ensure special attention to their needs. The fact that the early stages of La Relève involved a series of initiatives directed at the senior management (Assistant Deputy Minister) level and its feeder groups may illustrate this possibility, as may the fact that compensation issues relating to the executive groups seem to have been addressed more expeditiously than similar negotiations with unionized employees. A convincing demonstration that these initiatives responded to distinctively urgent needs within the public service would require them to be linked to a vision of fundamental problems.
A second potential issue is the absence of a conceptual basis for establishing boundaries to La Rèleve in order to distinguish human resources activities belonging to this initiative from those that do not. This possibility is illustrated by a number of the departmental reports included in the March 1998 Progress Report, which include seemingly routine training programs, anti-harassment programs and the like. In several cases, reports include information of only distant relevance to human resources management, let alone La Relève specifically (e.g., the fact that a pilot training program was reviewed because of an Appeal Board decision upholding a series of allegations, p. 30 of Detailed Reports).
The potential benefit of loosely defined boundaries, like the potential benefit of having no centrally determined priorities, is that they create a more receptive atmosphere for "bottom-up" participation and innovation at the departmental level. On the negative side, however, ill-defined boundaries may make it more difficult to distinguish initiatives actually prompted by La Relève from existing activities re-packaged for reporting purposes. Thus, attainment of the accountability objectives announced in the early stages of La Relève could be impeded by the difficulty of determining whether La Relève commitments are being met with genuinely new (or significantly modified) activities, or merely with newly labelled but essentially traditional human resource initiatives.
The Clerks 1997 report indicates that one cause of the problems addressed by La Relève has been the failure of public service managers to "pay sufficient attention to the combined effects of downsizing and demographic trends in the public service." It goes on to remark that the public service has generally had a poor track record for human resource and career planning (p. 2 and 7).
Concerns about the adequacy of past strategic human resource planning are supported by the fact that important dimensions of the current problem had been predicted for some time. Indeed, the morale and other problems created by the existence of a baby-boom "bulge" of public servants, hired during the late 1960s and 1970s, were the subject of a widely publicized study as long ago as 1981, which predicted that " the decision makers of the public service will age unhappily because of a serious blockage in future promotions"(Nicole Morgan, p. 25; see Selected Readings)
The concerns suggested by the Clerk may raise questions as to whether the human resource management establishment of the public service, which presided over the arrangements that have come to be recognized as in need of reform, can now meet the two-fold challenge posed by La Relève: to simultaneously re-invent itself and implement the recruitment initiatives and other programs intended to bring new skills and capacities into the public service, at the same time as recognizing and making better use of skills and capacities already there.
The assumption that reform can come from within, and can be achieved by existing leaders working within existing organizational structures, is more broadly characteristic of La Relève. It remains to be seen whether its central objectives, or the expectations of public servants, can be met through initiatives that appear to assume that present leadership and structures have not contributed to the current malaise.
In addition to its problematical assumptions about current problems and their causes, La Relève raises questions about whether broader requirements for ensuring the success of individual activities and projects can be met. These strategic issues include the following:
The Clerks 1997 report and the Commitment to Action report recognize the contribution of external factors to the human resource problems to which La Relève responds. Specific reference is made to negative images in recent public debates about the role of government and to some management theorists promotion of the private sector as a model of efficiency, effectiveness and dynamism.
Read literally, these comments could imply a degree of hypersensitivity on the part of public servants. More likely, the comments tactfully reflect the reality that negative representations of the public service in the media are almost certain to be acted upon at the political level, especially when shared by the general public. Political discourse in Canada during the 1990s and before illustrates this reality, as may some of the government initiatives of that period.
Viewed from this perspective, La Relève may be seen as a necessary public relations exercise. If it is effective in this sense, it might help to pre-empt a vicious circle, in which negative images of the public service could feed political decisions that in turn could exacerbate morale problems within the public service and further deter potential recruits, thereby fostering organizational behaviour that reinforces negative public images.
The contribution that successful marketing can make to the public service is reflected in several of La Relève initiatives, notably the identification of the Prime Minister of Canada, ministers, and all parliamentarians and senior officials as partners in the project of fostering pride and recognition.
It remains to be seen whether this dimension of La Relève will have the desired impact, and whether early public championship of the initiative by politicians and senior executives will establish the longer-term pattern needed to influence public opinion. This is a strategically important component of the overall initiative which, if successful, would significantly differentiate La Relève from the earlier Public Service 2000. On the other hand, if it fails, then the broader project of public service renewal could be seriously constrained by a continuing adverse environment, and its direct and indirect effects on the public service.
The La Relève initiative provides a model of some types of cultural change it is attempting to promote. It explicitly rejects the traditional public service culture, where conformity to rules and the avoidance of mistakes are widely seen to have too often taken precedence over the need for initiative and action. Instead, the Clerks 1997 Report boldly declares that "we need a bias for action," and that the initiative needs to be frankly experimental, open-ended, and based on learning "as we go" (p. 6).
The test of this culture will lie in the response of senior officials and political leaders when mistakes actually occur. The central danger is that it may create expectations that cannot be met at the management level of the public service. The traditional caution of public organizations may reflect public intolerance of mistakes, and consequent punitive reactions on the part of the media and politicians. If so, it will not be possible for the public sector, on its own, to create a different culture.
This concern is supported by the fate of Public Service 2000. As discussed elsewhere, media criticism of how some managers used newly delegated authorities was a significant factor in the erosion of political support for the initiative which was subsequently mirrored in the behaviour of some senior officials.
Since La Relève is in part directed to deep-seated morale problems within the public service, it would be ironic if its implementation were to exacerbate these problems. Yet the fact that the immediate benefits of early changes were substantially limited to the executive category (which had also very recently benefited from the restoration of performance pay) is unlikely to have raised morale among employees in other categories. Indeed, the possibility that the timing of the restoration of performance pay may have conflicted with the larger objectives of La Relève was (somewhat obliquely) acknowledged by a senior official appearing before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Natural Resources and Government Operations, on 28 October 1997 (Minutes of Proceedings, p. 21).
Morale problems arising from perceptions of differential treatment may also accompany the implementation of other compensation decisions. Recommendations that executive pay be increased by up to 19% were accepted by the government mere days after it was presented with task force recommendations on executive compensation; however, raises in the order of 2.5% for unionized employees have been the norm in the current round of collective bargaining. As this is written, negotiations with the Public Service Alliance of Canada, during which union representatives frequently referred to the magnitude of executive pay increases in justifying their own refusal to accept government proposals, have just been concluded. (See, for example, "PSAC Talks Collapse," The Ottawa Citizen, 21 September 1998, p. A1,2.)
The apparently broadened scope of La Relève means that a multitude of simultaneous or overlapping actions will be going forward over the next few years. In certain cases, this could raise problems.
For example, early initiatives simultaneously accelerated the development of a pool of potential assistant deputy ministers (ADMs), broadened this pool by pre-qualifying executives, and increased the likelihood of retaining existing ADMs by enriching their experience through enhanced corporate support and compensation. If the retention of existing ADMs is significantly improved, the enlarged pool of potential ADMs may prove to be redundant, at least for a time, resulting in attendant morale and other problems.
The early data provided in the March 1998 Progress Report suggest that this problem has not yet arisen. Of the initial group of pre-qualified ADMs, one half received placements within six months. The pattern followed by the remaining half of this group, and the group established through the second pre-qualification cycle of January 1998, remains to be seen, however.
More broadly, if those not selected for the pool perceive themselves as having missed the decisive moment after years of patience, and their career paths as being blocked by a newly created priority group, problems of morale and early departure within the executive group could actually increase.
The 1997 Commitment to Action report recognized that the successful implementation of La Relève requires clear lines of accountability. The report thus indicates that managers at all levels within departments will be held accountable for both achieving results and their management of people; deputy-ministers will be accountable for "implementation of their departmental La Relève plans," and heads of central agencies for "achieving their La Relève commitments" (p. 33).
While this affirmation of the accountability principle is important, it is unclear how the principle will be applied. Will senior officials will be accountable merely for the implementation of the various specific projects and actions set out in the departmental plans, or for achieving the broader results targeted by those projects or actions.
The specific reference to the need for performance indicators, both at the departmental level and the public service-wide levels, may answer some questions about the scope of accountability. Commitment to Action indicates that departments are expected to develop performance indicators for use beginning in November 1997 and that central agencies will develop indicators for application on a service-wide basis. However, the association of performance indicators with monitoring and reporting progress may imply that performance will focus on the implementation of plans rather than the achievement of intended results.
Concerns about the effectiveness of performance measurement and evaluation are not dispelled by the March 1998 Progress Report, including the overview report dealing with corporate initiatives, and the volume of departmental reports. These reports typically include numbers of participants in programs or initiatives without providing base-line data on the groups to which the programs are targeted. Readers therefore cannot determine take-up rates or participation levels, let alone broader levels of effectiveness.
The character of the reports reflects the fact that La Relève has been underway for less than two years and is thus at an early stage for an initiative of such breadth. The reports recount individual programs launched and activities undertaken, but do not attempt to link these outputs to the fundamental targeted outcomes of the initiative.
There is thus no concrete discussion of how to determine levels of malaise in the public service, or whether there has been progress in reducing them. Nor is evidence provided to demonstrate that the La Relève activities are achieving progress in the creation of "a modern and vibrant institution able to use fully the talents of its people," and possessing the skills and motivation needed to respond to new challenges.
On the positive side, the formal presentation of annual progress reports focuses the attention of participants on the need to demonstrate progress. It is probable that, as La Relève evolves beyond its early stages and as its impacts become more discernible, these will be reflected in the progress reports.
Although a number of its components have been underway for several years, as this is written the La Relève initiative is formally less than two years old. During this period an extensive array of individual initiatives have been undertaken, testifying to public service effectiveness in implementing plans.
Given the relatively short time since the formal launch of the initiative in February 1997, it is still too early to determine whether potential problems explored in this paper are having practical impacts. It thus remains to be seen whether La Relève will raise expectations only to lead to subsequent disillusionment, or will succeed in substantially improving the public service culture and the morale and capacities of its employees.
During the Thirty-Fifth Parliament (1993-1997), the House of Commons Standing Committee on Government Operations heard public service officials from several departments on current and planned renewal initiatives. On 24 April the Committee tabled its Third Report, which:
Reflecting the Committees recognition that its examination was taking place at an early stage of a long-term process, the Report contained only one formal recommendation:
Aside from this early effort, parliamentary attention to La Relève has been limited, although a number of individual parliamentarians have continued to pursue the issue in parliamentary committees and in the House.
La Relève Task Force. La Relève: A Commitment to Action. Canada, Privy Council Office, 1997
Canada, Privy Council Office. Getting Government Right A Progress Report. Minister of Supply and Services Canada, 1996.
Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet. Fifth Annual Report to the Prime Minister on the Public Service of Canada. Canada, Privy Council Office, 31 March 1998 [http://www.pco-bcp.gc.ca/5rept97/cover_e.htm].
La Relève has received remarkably little attention from specialists in public administration and governance issues, given its profile within the Public service. Some relevant international comparisons are available, however. See:
Media attention has been equally limited. Articles in the Ottawa Citizen have, however, provided coverage of major developments and some commentary. See, for example: