2017 Manion Lecture
Ottawa, Ontario, Wednesday, May 10, 2017
I begin by extending my sympathies to those who have been affected by the severe flooding in the region.
This is a difficult time for many of our friends, neighbours, colleagues and loved ones. Yesterday, I had the opportunity to visit some of the affected areas and to witness the devastating impact of the flooding. I also saw the remarkable efforts of those who are working to help, including many public servants at the federal, provincial and municipal levels.
Our thoughts are with all who are affected and involved. We wish them a quick recovery and return to normalcy.
Thank you for trusting me with this lecture named for John Manion, an Officer of the Order of Canada who made great contributions to the public service and to Canada.
The key word to focus on here is trust. It’s what I want to speak about today.
Trust in the public service, and the role that public servants can play in strengthening trust in our public institutions and continuing to build Canada.
But first, I want to start with a story.
The story takes place some years ago, back when I was president of the University of Waterloo.
One day, I was approached by the former clerk of the Privy Council, Kevin Lynch, who was concerned about the public service’s ability to attract top students. He asked if we could set up a job fair in the Waterloo area—which we did.
Over the course of two days, 80 deputy ministers and assistant deputy ministers came to speak about jobs in the public service. They interviewed students and potential employees. They had the ability to make job offers on the spot.
It was an outstanding success. More than 1 000 students attended. And many of them shared their observations explaining why they had become interested in this profession.
Can you guess what the number one reason was?
The idealism of serving the public.
I begin with this story because it reminds us of the fundamental reason why we’re here today. We’re all drawn to the idea of public service, of contributing to the public good, of building a better country.
Keep that in mind as I continue. Because as you know, a lot of skepticism exists nowadays about some of our key institutions, and that includes the public service of Canada. There has been an erosion of trust, and this is something we must take seriously and devote ourselves to addressing.
I want to cover three main points.
One, I’ll define trust and elaborate on why I’m speaking about it today.
Two, I want to highlight some of the public service’s great contributions to Canada, and how trust is central to that ongoing legacy.
Three, I want to identify what builds trust in the relationship between the public service and Canadians as a whole, and highlight some ways to restore, maintain and strengthen that bond.
Afterwards, I hope to hear from you and to have a discussion on this subject.
First, what is trust? I think we all have a pretty good idea. A quick scan of the Oxford dictionary reveals definitions related to law, philosophy, business, finance, medicine, journalism and sociology, to name a few.
When I think of trust, I like to use a simile: trust is like glue.
It is the glue that holds us together. This is true at the micro level—a relationship between two people, a family or a workplace—and at the macro—a community or a country!
It’s especially true of a democratic society such as ours. Democracy requires that people have a basic degree of trust in each other and in the institutions and leaders that serve them.
One of those important institutions is the public service of Canada.
Of course, we rely on more than faith—we have systems and laws set up to safeguard our way of life—but an important part of trust can’t be measured or enforced.
This is the case even in a legal document such as a written contract. As Émile Durkheim famously observed: “in a contract not everything is contractual.”
John Ralston Saul pointed out something similar by highlighting the importance of the unwritten rules of democratic life.
“In a healthy democracy,” he wrote, “power is a surprisingly limited element. And the unwritten conventions, understandings, forms of respect for how things are done, for how citizens relate to government and to each other, are surprisingly important. Why? Because if democracy is only power, then what we are left with is a system of deep distrust.”
“A system of deep distrust.” That’s what we end up with when we ignore the fact that in a contract, not everything is contractual.
Over time, such a system becomes unsustainable. Or rather, it becomes undemocratic, because things only get done through coercion, rather than compromise. Or, things don’t get done at all.
In the social contract that underpins this vast, diverse country of ours, we have made compromise a fundamental part of our society. A great many unwritten conventions and understandings exist to guide how things are done here.
This has been the case for 150 years, and it’s all made possible by the glue we call trust.
Now, one more point on the nature of trust.
As former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney once said:
"Trust arrives on foot and leaves in a Ferrari.”
That sound we’re hearing these days throughout much of the world—the one in the headlines we read daily—is the sound of trust leaving in a Ferrari.
Trust in government. Trust in institutions. Trust in media. Trust in leaders. Trust in NGOs. Trust in business. All receding into the distance.
Canada is not immune. You may have read the latest findings of the Edelman Trust Barometer, which looks at public opinion on this subject.
Since 2012, Edelman has been tracking trust in 28 countries around the world. In that time, Canada has fallen 10 points to join the ranks of distruster nations with scores below 50/100.
Amid what it calls a “global implosion of trust,” the study found that for the first time, Canada is a “distruster” nation, where less than half of the population trusts its civil institutions. Around the world, two-thirds of nations surveyed are now categorized as distruster nations.
Let me share a few other startling findings of the Edelman survey:
- Trust in government globally has fallen to 41%;
- 59% of people in the Western world trust a search engine more than traditional media;
- Only 37% of the general population globally trusts corporate CEOs;
- 53% of the general population in the West does not believe the present system is working for them;
- “Trust inequality” between the informed public and the general population is over 20% in the US, UK and France;
- 40% of people in the UK believe that facts matter less than authenticity and beliefs;
- 67% of the general population believes CEOs or firms focus too much on short term results.
What does this mean?
It means the glue that cements our social contract is weakening.
The implications are profound for the public service, which exists to serve those with whom the bonds of trust are fraying. If our social contract with Canadians leaves the public unsatisfied, the public will renegotiate the terms of that contract for us.
So what do we do? How do we restore, reinforce and build trust in what we do? How do we help strengthen the overall sense of trust in Canada?
I believe we start by reminding ourselves just how valuable the public service is, and how uniquely positioned to think big and act ambitiously on behalf of all Canadians, not just a select few.
As Donald Savoie writes in his Donner Prize-winning book, What Is Government Good At?:
“In a representative democracy, it is the visionary investments, the attempts to deal with wicked problems, transparent and corrupt-free political and administrative institutions, and a capacity to deal with all citizens with integrity and fairness that are key to a country’s economic prosperity and political stability.”
Think of those keywords always. Visionary. Problem solving. Transparency. Integrity. Fairness.
We sometimes forget the visionary aspect of public service. But it being Canada’s 150th birthday, let’s remind ourselves and go back to the building of the Intercolonial Railway that was included as a condition of the Constitution Act, 1867.
The leadership of the federal government and the partnership it formed with the Canadian Pacific Railway Company were critical to the creation of Canada. The CPR was built before market conditions existed to entice private enterprise to take on such an enormous project. Thus the railway, and by extension Canada, would never have existed were it not for strong public sector support and involvement.
And just to emphasize that success stories are not always without blemish, let us remember that one chapter of the CPR story was the corruption scandal and the fall of Sir John A. MacDonald’s government.
The CPR is one example of an initiative of such essential importance to the country that it’s easy now to overlook. There are many other examples of governments—meaning public servants—playing critical roles in big nation-building projects.
Think back to the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway. The establishment of Medicare. The aerospace industry. The Internet.
In fact, back in the mid-1990s, I had the privilege of working with public servants on the development of an innovative, inclusive digital strategy as chair of the Information Highway Advisory Council.
This was a remarkable collaboration of private citizens and a group of very talented, energetic and quite young public servants. The goal was to decide how to best develop and use the information highway—remember that term?!—to the economic, cultural and social advantage of all Canadians.
The effort was led by John Manley as industry minister, as well as Kevin Lynch, Peter Harder as deputy minister and Mike Binder as associate deputy minister. Prime Minister Chrétien supported the strategy and arranged meetings with a number of ministers and their deputies. A great deal of trust was placed in the Advisory Council, which did its work in the 12 months allocated. It was later recalled with a second mandate to oversee and mark progress on the execution of the recommendations.
The experience left me with a great appreciation for the public service’s ability to bring people together, to think big and take the long view in developing a strategy for the entire country.
More recently, the Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program is another instance where public servants are playing a critical role and where trust is a key component.
One of the reasons the program is such a success is because Canadians trust that public servants have carefully selected and cleared refugees and their families for sponsorship. This is a profound trust exercise, and a wonderful example of the unique abilities of Canada’s public service.
Another example of a public body with a very high trust quotient is the Canadian Armed Forces. This is essential when it comes to having a monopoly on the use of armament. Canadians trust their armed forces members to serve with duty and honour, and our men and women in uniform trust Canadians to uphold their end of the social contract through our democratic life. There is a bond between citizens and soldiers that is held together by trust.
I could go on with examples of nation-building programs and organizations that are only made possible through a trusting relationship between public servants and Canadians. But we must not be complacent. Trust in public institutions is eroding, so we must pay much closer attention to what I’ll call trust management. It’s a job for all public servants.
How do we move forward? For my third point, let me briefly share some observations and ideas, before taking your questions and having a discussion.
A public service is trusted when:
- it is apolitical, non-partisan, inclusive, fearless and humble;
- when service is a value, not just a function—when public servants are empowered to retain that idealism of service I spoke of earlier;
- when relevance, competence, experience and facts are elevated and safeguarded;
- when public servants work alongside the people they serve, not from the sideline, and when the public and stakeholders are strongly engaged;
- when calculated risks are taken and rewarded and the public service is honest about successes and failures.
- I just mentioned risk, which is one area the public service is getting good at. Managing risks, learning to take necessary and smart risks in order to innovate—these are key capacities.
In today’s world, we also have to pay much closer attention to trust management. We need to better understand the trust that is placed in us, how to build and maintain it, what weakens and undermines it. We must not be complacent, but rather always seeking to strengthen the bond of trust we have with Canadians. We must develop new approaches to engaging and inspiring the public.
This is a task for all public servants, no matter what part of the country you work in or at what level. The public service has played a central role in building Canada throughout its history, and many great achievements lie ahead. You are being called to a new era of engagement and excellence. Great nations are built on great challenges, and I know you are up to the task.