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Leadership vs. Self-Service in the Public Service: Why Leading with Integrity Matters

January 9, 2011


Dear readers,

I’ve debated over which topic, among many, would celebrate my 200th post on WordPress. I chose public service because of my recent long attachment to the Government of Canada and because of the leadership and values elements that are embedded within this post.

I began my working career in consumer lending at the age of 23, quit a couple of years later to return to do a Masters in economics while simultaneously starting a family, then entered the Public Service of Canada just prior to graduation. I retired only a month ago at the age of 55 and have started a new career in consulting. Where this will take me I have no idea. But that’s what life’s about. Otherwise it would be boring!

I hope this post has some meaning for you, whether you work in government, business or the not-for-profit sector.

Thanks very much for your loyal readership….Jim

I joined the Public Service of Canada on September 13, 1982. I always felt a strong sense of pride being a public servant and felt honored to have been part of the few Canadians who were able to gain employment in this institution. Over the years, I never bothered to claim overtime (to which I was entitled as a unionized employee) because I always believed I was well remunerated, including excellent benefits, not to mention doing interesting work.

When I later entered management (in my early thirties), I worked more hours but loved going to work every morning because the results of my work were very tangible. My team produced labor market forecasting products, which included career information and regularly giving presentations. You may laugh at this, but I used to think I had the best job in my organization and couldn’t wait to get to work every morning.

Our products were found in employment centers, high schools, colleges and universities. Every year, we spoke to thousands of students and their parents about labor market and occupational trends. Our studies were typically done in partnership with the provincial government and business groups.

Years later, during the nineties when governments in America and Canada hooked their wagons to the adoption of private sector practices, in response to the avalanche of books and articles on reengineering, total quality management, quality circles, ISO, etc., the attitude began to change. Suddenly I noticed classification creep beginning at all levels of the public service, but in particular at the executive level.

Everyone wanted to be a director or an executive director. My peer managers no longer wanted to be called “managers;” instead it had to be “director.” Those at the director level wanted to be called “executive directors.” Those farther up the food chain created elaborate titles such as “Senior Assistant Deputy Minister” or “Senior Associate Deputy Minister.” In America, the preceding adjectives to describe one’s substantive job title were just as inventive, such as Assistant Deputy Under-Secretary.

The heck with doing real managerial work; it was all about status and padding your own wallet. Service to citizens? That took a backseat to serving oneself first.

When I moved to the Nation’s Capital–Ottawa–in 2000, I was in for a real eye-opener. After 17 years of working in an operational setting in a regional office, where you’re connected to real citizens, I admit to being naïve with my surprise at how things worked at the “Center.” Sure, I had spent many years of travelling to head office in Ottawa, as well as traversing Canada, including the odd stint to the U.S. to attend conferences. But what I learned over the following 10 years until my retirement in December 2010 is that there’s virtually no such thing as commitment to the common good, where what matters is serving upwards through the hierarchy.

I proved not to be particularly effective at this style of upside-down leadership. From the time I worked in the private sector in the late ‘70s to my arrival in Ottawa, I had always prided myself on being client-focused. Now I was a fish out of water.

No one really cares about what the public thinks, and lest a public servant show some degree of interest or compassion that’s quickly snuffed out. Serve the system, park your brain at the door (despite the espoused hype of being a learning organization), do what you’re told, and all will be well.

Except that someone forgot about the national interest.

It doesn’t matter from where you view this post. You could be an American, Australian, Canadian, Dutch, German or French. The Public Services of Western nations have been subverted from the public good to ensuring that those in positions of political and especially administrative power retain it.

This is indeed a very sad state. Canada was once seen as possessing the most competent public service in the world. I remember my late dad, who served his country for over 50 years in such capacities as a machinist with Canadian National Railways (then a Crown corporation), the Canadian Navy during World War II, as a senior mechanical engineer with CNR for the next 30 years where he travelled the world helping developing countries with their rail systems, and finally with the Canadian Transport Commission where he was in charge of rail safety for Canada. After retirement, he consulted in Pakistan until the age of 72. Throughout his career he earned a very modest salary, but was a recognized international expert on rail systems.

My experiences in the Public Service of Canada from the late nineties forward were very mixed. I retained a sense of enthusiasm almost to the end, but finally grew sick of the self-centered attitude of public servants who engage in daily turf battles and self-aggrandizing adventures in their feeble attempts to embolden their careers. That’s not why I joined the Public Service of Canada on September 13, 1982.

During the late nineties and into the new Century, the Public Service of Canada became enraptured with what was called Values and Ethics. I was heavily involved in this initiative, which was sweeping in scope. Former deputy minister, John Tait, led the effort, producing a report called “A Strong Foundation,” but informally known as The Tait Report. Its aim was to “…help the public service think about and …rediscover and understand its basic values and recommit to and act on those values in all its work.”

Donald Savoie, one of Canada’s most prolific writers and thinkers on politics and regional development in Canada, wrote in his superb 2008 book Court Government and the Collapse of Accountability:

“Below the radar screen, civil servants and their hired consultants were busy packaging core values and ethical standards. There is little evidence to suggest that senior politicians took a strong interest in this work….Still, politicians knew that at some point they would be able to issue a media release, hold a press conference, or deliver a major speech on values and ethics in government….they only saw positive things, politically at least, flowing out of such events, and they were not about to get in the way of a good thing.”

Concurrently in Great Britain, the Nolan Committee on Standards in Public Life called for a code of conduct and ethics in the country’s public service in an effort to restore respect for ethical values. Subsequently a Civil Service Code was introduced in Great Britain in 1996.

Of special interest is that civil servants looked to their political masters for guidance. Tait’s report contained the implicit message that the relations between the civil service and ministers required clarification, in particular moving beyond the aspect of responding to ethical lapses by politicians.

Suffice to say that in the end, after an enormous amount of well-intended work and dedication on the part of thousands of civil servants, the Values and Ethics initiative faded into the history books, despite an attempt to embed it as a code of conduct and policy in the Public Service of Canada in 2003.

In my comparatively short three decades in the Public Service of Canada, I eventually lost count of the major change initiatives with which I was actively involved. For the public in whatever country, you should care for two principal reasons. First, these change management initiatives are paid for by YOU from your hard-earned wages.

Second, you may recall some of my posts dealing with globalization and the effects on the competitiveness of nations. An effective civil service is critical to supporting business and its efforts to compete globally. Wasted, impotent change initiatives, such as the many with which I was intimately part of over three decades, divert much-needed energy and focus from what is vital for a country. The modus operandi for the Public Service of Canada, and I would suggest all or most civil services around the world, is to create action for inaction; the result is inertia.

Call me an idealist, but when you are hired to work for a local, state, provincial or national government if you don’t have a sense of pride and a calling to contribute constructively to your community and country, then it’s time to seek another vocation.

Taxpayers and citizens at large deserve more. Self-aggrandizement, power-tripping or benefitting from the largesse of contractors and lobbyists are in effect practices in disempowerment, in which the civil servant is reduced to a supplicant, in the end losing his or her dignity and the respect of taxpayers and citizens.

To those in leadership positions in the Public Service of Canada, the United States civil service, Great Britain, and so forth, always retain at the forefront why your institution exists. Each of us who has had the privilege of serving our countries does so in the mere briefest of time. Think beyond yourself to the greater good and the interests of your country.

A man does what he must – in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures – and that is the basis of all human morality.
(Sir Winston Churchill)

Click here to download my complimentary e-white paper Leading in a Multipolar World: Four Forces Shaping Society.

Visit my e-Books, Resources and Services pages.

Take a moment to meet Jim.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Jeff Tapley permalink
    April 22, 2012 1:54 pm

    Hey Jim
    Great reading your article. I was surfing for the Tait Report and low and behold discovered my old friend from NB. Keep up the good work. I love reflecting on your insightful writing. Keep up the great work.

    • April 22, 2012 2:12 pm

      Hey Jeff. Great to hear from you. Great timing, since I just put up a post dealing with the topic of innovation clusters. Check it out, and be sure to subscribe to my blog.


  2. March 1, 2011 6:07 pm

    Hi Jim,

    I read your blog post about TD and wanted to say thanks. I think it’s awesome that you took the time to write about our bank and in particular our business model and expansion into the U.S. It’s something we’re very excited about and I know how proud I was the first time I saw the TD brand on the streets of New York.

    We are passionate about leadership, engaging our employees, and above all, delivering a uniquely comfortable banking experience – and as you point out, it’s important to us that our customers have access to convenient banking when it works for them. We’re in the early days of Sunday banking here in Canada and so far customers are loving it!

    I like to think we kick butt too – so when are you joining us at TD? We’d be happy to have you.

    Wendy Arnott, Vice President, Social Media, TD Bank Group

    • March 1, 2011 6:18 pm

      Hey Wendy,

      Thanks for writing. I appreciate your comments. One person I meant to include in my TD post is Frank McKenna (Vice-Chair), the only (former) politician who I really respect. I lived in New Brunswick when Frank was premier and he’d always say hi to residents while out walking. He didn’t hide out in a big car. TD Bank got a real coup when they hired him. I like to think that Frank was one of Canada’s greatest Prime Ministers who never was. A real shame. If you ever run into him tell him he’s still got a loyal fan club!

      And when will I jump the fence to TD? Who knows. As you know it’s such a pain in the butt to change banks. 🙂

      Thanks again…Jim

  3. January 13, 2011 1:35 am

    What an interesting and productive career you’ve had, Jim. You’ve seen both sides of the coin, working in the public and private sectors. The subscribers of your blog and your ebooks, including me, are fortunate to be able to read your thoughtful insights on leadership.

    • January 13, 2011 1:46 am

      Thanks so much, Susan. I appreciate your readership loyalty and that of others. I look forward to working towards my 300th post!

  4. January 10, 2011 2:01 pm

    Congratulations on the milestone, Jim. Keep it up! Bret


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