* This blog post appeared on the original Banff Forum Blog on September 6, 2013. 

I hope the theme of this year’s Banff Forum on leadership resonates within the Canadian public service because if there is any institution that really needs it today, it’s the bureaucracy that supports our federal government.

Let me clarify that I’m not talking about political leadership, for the decisions taken or not taken by elected politicians are for citizens, not bureaucrats, to judge.  Our job as civil servants, indeed our democratic duty, is to recommend and implement to the best of our ability, regardless of our own political views.

Nor am I referring to the individuals in senior positions within the public service.  Indeed one of the reasons the public service underperforms is that so many public servants equate leadership with occupancy of senior positions, and spend much of their career waiting for a promotion before they begin to exercise leadership.

Rather, I’m referring to the exercise of the qualities of leadership by individual public servants in their current roles:  Launching new approaches to serving the public or initiatives to better implement the government’s policies.  Identifying and recruiting talent and managing teams that get the most out of each employee.  Modeling performance and ethical behaviour to set an example for others.

The public service is not a natural environment for leadership because we are, in a sense, an institution of followers.  Bureaucracy works not only by hierarchy but also by a spirit of consensus that can too easily descend into groupthink.

But Canada is not well served by bureaucrats who follow until they occupy senior positions.  Leadership by “time-servers” produces an institution without the ability to listen to new ideas or to embrace new ways of doing business. And God knows without new ideas or new ways of doing business, any large institution faces a grim future in the digital age.

As new forms of communication diffuse power and make individuals more autonomous, any institution composed of close to 250,000 employees paid entirely through tax revenue is going to come under intense scrutiny.  Canadians will increasingly ask themselves how much of their taxes they want to spend on collective action now that collective action is becoming easier and cheaper than ever before through communities that self-organize around mutual interests.  We’ll always need a public service, but will we always need one that employs a quarter of a million people?

If the public service is to continue demonstrating its value to the Canadian people, it will need to innovate.  And to innovate it will need individual public servants to exercise leadership – at all levels throughout the organization and not just the few that have made it to the top.

In my two decades in public service I’ve been lucky enough to work with some genuine leaders and to learn from them.  I’ve also tried to lead experiments in public policy – some of which have failed and some of which have succeeded.  I’m happy to report that the public service is more open to innovation than most people would expect.  The deputy ministers I know tend to be very open to new ideas and value the skill of those able to put them into practice.

I offer the following tips for fellow public servants that want to exercise leadership – not by grasping for the next promotion but by exercising influence in their current role and with the resources they can muster from where they are.

1)    Choose the right issue.

An issue is ripe for leadership when the organization recognizes that it matters but for which it is not yet equipped to address.  Most hierarchies are structured to solve the problems of yesterday.  The opportunity for leadership lies in the problems that weigh heavily on a minister or deputy minister’s mind but for which they don’t have good people working on yet.

One of the U.S. State Department’s most impressive innovators, Richard Boly, shared with me the idea of finding an organization’s “pain points.”  These are problems that no one in the organization believes are being addressed properly, and which are undermining the organization’s core objectives.  Find a pain point in your organization and you’ll have an audience of senior managers willing to listen to your solution.

2)    Find a solution that appeals to both masters.

Thanks to the Westminster system of government, Canada’s public service is bicephaleous.  In each department, an elected minister sets the political direction and an appointed deputy minister controls the resources.  No transformative initiative is going to get far without both buying in.  Get the politics right but ignore the accountability structures that ensure value for money and your idea will fail.  Conversely, you won’t get very far delivering the perfect policy solution while remaining politically tone-deaf.

When I was responsible for Iran policy for DFATD, I knew the Minister wanted an initiative that highlighted the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people.  The Deputy Minister believed that the department should be investing more in the use of social media as a tool for foreign policy.  The Direct Diplomacy initiative addressed both interests by launching a social media campaign that allowed us to speak directly to hundreds of thousands of Iranians online.

3)    Tell the story of your solution.

There may be no customers involved but you still have to sell your solution.  Whenever you try something new there will always be bureaucrats that specialize in identifying all the things that could go wrong and that want to avoid any risk of failure.  You won’t convince them but you can convince neutral open-minded colleagues of the merits of your solution and the need to take the risk.

A great way to do this is by enlisting outside voices to bounce your story back inside your organization.  Seek out allies in other government departments, in academia and, if you can manage it safely, with the media.   When a few of us sought to create DFATD’s first democracy promotion unit several years ago, possibly the most useful thing we did was to encourage the creation of a council of democracy NGOs that provided regular advice to government, and host an annual summit of Canadians interested in democracy promotion.  The creation of an outside constituency helped sustain the agenda within.

 4)    Solve a problem by doing, not by writing.

Anyone who has worked in bureaucracy will know how much time is wasted on policy papers that get discussed ad nauseum and then left on a shelf.  Indeed, we have entire bureaux of “strategic policy” analysts who crank out papers that provoke thought but not action.

The problem with policy papers is that they are usually written to convince someone else – usually a minister – to take action.  Better to identify what action you can take yourself and then get on with actually doing it.  This will mean starting small, to match ambitions to the level of resources available.  But you’ll be much more convincing arguing for change if you’ve actually started delivering that change, met what obstacles there might be and proven the concept.

When a few enterprising new employees across the public service wanted to introduce a radically different way to generate policy ideas two years ago by adapting the Dragon’s Den format, we didn’t wait for approval.  We lined up junior employees to pitch new ideas, recruited a few assistant deputy ministers to serve as dragons, and started hosting competitions.  We had to go through a few iterations over the years until we had a model that worked, but now these kinds of competitions are being considered for roll-out throughout the public service.

5)    Spread the credit as widely as possible.

To appear self-aggrandizing is the kiss of death in public service.  And indeed anything of significance you’ll create in the public service will be the product of a large number of people.  Those that seek personal recognition for an initiative risk undermining the initiative by having it equated with their personal ambition.

When talking about a project, emphasize the role your team members play more than your own role.  But don’t stop there – spread credit as widely as you can credibly do.  If a new initiative succeeds people will know what part the leader played.  But in order to succeed it needs to belong to the whole organization and not to the individual that first pushed the idea.

6)    Set up your successor for success.

The great strength and the great weakness of the public service is professional mobility.  Chances are if you are a successful leader it won’t be long until you find another opportunity to shine elsewhere.  If you’re not going to be around to follow through on your innovation and ensure it succeeds year after year, start doing some succession planning.  Once you’ve found a suitable candidate, transition as much authority as you can as early as you can.  Not only will you protect your initiative from the dislocation of losing you to some sudden opportunity elsewhere, but you’ll make the initiative a genuinely shared accomplishment – and more sustainable for that.

 7)    Help other leaders.

If you make a genuine effort to improve how the public service delivers, you’ll quickly learn who else is making a genuine effort.  Take the time to reach out and help – we’re in this together.  Be willing to share resources, information, ideas.  Be open to mentoring as you’ve been mentored.  And stand up for them when they run into resistance, as all innovators inevitably do.

The public service has a long road ahead as it transitions from hierarchical behemoth with a monopoly on collective action to an institution relevant to Canadians in a digital age.  Time for more leaders to step forward, for the sake of the public service, and for Canada’s sake.

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