The following remarks were made on Thursday, September 19, 2013 by Sharon Lee Smith, Assistant Deputy Minister of Economic Diversification at the IPAC Lieutenant Governor’s Gold Medal Award Ceremony.
Thank you so much for this honour. It is much appreciated. It is special to me for three reasons – the nomination from Kimberly Brown and Western Economic Diversification Canada (WEDC) colleagues, the fact that it is an IPAC award, an organization I really believe in, and that it is being bestowed upon me in Saskatchewan, my adopted home, a place known for public policy excellence.
I have been asked to offer some reflections on my career and on public service in general. So let me do that now.
I want to tell you about a man named Avrim Lazar, my first boss, the one who hired me into the public service on the recommendation of Sharon Sutherland, one of the best public administration academics in the country and writing partner of Michael Atkinson.
Avrim was the Director General of the Program Evaluation Branch of the Public Service Commission. He was one of a kind. His interview process consisted of calling me and giving me a start date. He believed in hiring students and mentoring them. He hired three to four students a year. He encouraged us to think critically, to debate ideas and to be creative. He was so smart that I was scared to utter a word in front of him.
At one point we were evaluating the government’s newly minted affirmative action policy. He asked us what we thought of affirmative action. Did we agree with it? Or was it reverse discrimination? He looked right at me. I was terrified. What if I said something stupid? I wasn’t even sure I understood what it meant! So I meekly said, “yes, I believe in it. I believe we need a more representative workforce.” He said, “so do I.” Then he said, “but it’s okay to not agree with it, as long as you realize you work for government and it is government policy, so we check our personal views at the door.” This was to be my first lesson of what it was like to be a public servant. I was hooked.
Avrim once asked me why I studied public administration and didn’t go into journalism, my first degree. I told him I was interested in policy but I didn’t really know what that meant. I asked him why he joined the public service as he had been trained as an academic. He said, because it’s a big playground and you can do some of everything – transportation policy, health policy, social programs, economic development – all without leaving the organization. I got even more hooked.
So in my career I have done some of everything. I have worked for two provincial governments, Ontario and Saskatchewan, and I am a “fed”. I revised the Ontario Human Rights Code. I briefed the Premier of Ontario on garbage wars between Kingston and its neighbours, and deer culls. I helped establish the Office of the Public Guardian and Trustee. I worked on a federal water strategy, advised the Prime Minister on Kyoto Protocol targets, snow crab quotas and endangered species recovery. I have travelled the world negotiating international environmental protocols. I lost my luggage in London, Nairobi and Frankfurt. And the hardest job I ever had was managing health programs in the three northern territories for First Nations and Inuit residents. The needs up there were so great and I constantly fought with dentists who refused to treat Aboriginal patients. More on that later.
My time in Saskatchewan has been just as rewarding. I took a chance coming out here. I had been to Regina once, in the dead of winter, and flew up to Prince Albert to visit a dental hygienist school and meet with the Prince Albert Grand Council. I was taken with the landscape in that it wasn’t all flat! And I had heard that this is the place to work on public policy as there is a “get ‘er done attitude” and a willingness to try new things. So I decided to get out of Ottawa and experience the prairies.
My time as Assistant Deputy Minister of Western Economic Diversification could not have been more rewarding. With the team, I was able to help strengthen the economic development fabric of the province by supporting innovative projects in trade and technology commercialization and development. Key to our success was partnering with outside organizations such as universities and other levels of government to maximize our impact. And now, in my assignment with the provincial Ministry of Health, I am helping to lead the development of the province’s first ever Mental Health Action Plan, and am shepherding work to improve seniors’ care. I am privileged to be able to learn about the Lean process, spearheaded first by Dan Florizone and now Max Hendricks, and how it is being used to transform the health system to become more patient-focused. So to Avrim’s point, the public service is a big playground, and my experience proves it. It is values-based, intellectually stimulating work. And it is fun!
State of the Public Service
I would like to offer some comments about my view of the state of Canada’s public service. The state of the public service – and I can speak about the federal public service and those of Ontario and Saskatchewan – is strong. Part of that is because our democratic institutions are strong. Another reason is our Canadian values, that of respect, hard work, compassion for others is rooted in our public service values and ethics. Sure, sometimes you hear reports about tensions between politicians and the public service, or this and that about bureaucratic bumbling. Butut by and large the organizations are effective, with some tension being healthy tension, and mishaps being examined for lessons learned. I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else.
In my view there are three key elements to being an excellent public servant. The first is giving good advice. The essence of public service is advising a democratically elected government, of any stripe, on a course of action. That advice needs to be evidence-based, impartial and creative. It is our responsibility to serve whoever is elected. If a public servant is not able to do that, i.e. is not able to separate personal views from the professional value of giving advice, then public service is not where they should be.
When I would be lamenting about one of my files when I worked at the Privy Council Office in Ottawa, my boss always asked me – what is your best advice? What would you say to the Prime Minister, right now? That would focus my mind. When I gave my advice and the Prime Minster didn’t take it, I would lament again. He would say, “Sharon Lee, he made the call! The decision is taken! The pressure is off and now we implement it!” He was a great public servant.
The second is partnering. In developing public policy, nothing gets done alone anymore. No single department/ministry has all of the levers and you have to play well with others. Imagine working on a mental health strategy without reaching out to education, social services, corrections and justice. It would be a bad strategy.
The third is being transformative. As public servants, we do get set in our ways. It is true. We fall back on how things have always been done. But the world is not moving that way. The global financial crisis told us that old patterns are not the best. Technology is changing how we work and communicate. Our demographics are changing and our services and programs have to change to keep up. Money is tight. We need to take risks to find new ways of serving Canadians. That is why Lean is so magical. The federal government is also embarking on Blueprint 2020, an initiative to completely shake up how business is done in the federal public service. Public servants need to be open to change, and to be vessels for creative ideas.
And I want to make one policy plea. No matter what portfolio one talks about in government, be it federal or provincial, be it healthcare, economic or social development, we have to do right by our Aboriginal people in this country. I believe that if we get that right, we will truly prosper as a nation.
Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy
A few words on the magic of the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School. What a great place. I am glad to be associated with a school that serves two universities and teaches excellence in public administration in a province known to punch above its weight in public policy. (That, by the way, is why I asked for an assignment in the Government of Saskatchewan). If you are lucky enough to be a student from this school, you will prosper with the likes of Dan Perrins and Michael Atkinson and the whole faculty. The best of the best. Dan, Michael – one suggestion – help your students learn French. They need to become bilingual. They should populate the provincial government but they need to go to the federal government too. The federal government does not benefit from enough westerners and French language is a barrier. No point in arguing about this, it is the wrong fight. But help get your students to be bilingual.
So, back to Avrim. Why did I like working for Avrim so much? Well, aside from the fact he gave me my first regular paycheque as an adult, that he was brilliant and he surrounded himself with great talent, Avrim belonged to IPAC. He regularly presented papers at IPAC (at that time, learned papers were submitted). He attended the national conferences. Avrim believed in supporting students, burgeoning public servants, in teaching public administration courses, and in giving back. He is why I am here.