Wayne Wouters, Government of Canada: Exclusive Interview
In an exclusive interview with Global Government Forum, retired head of the Canadian civil service Wayne Wouters sets out his biggest achievements and some of the challenges he faced in office
Professional ice hockey players normally retire around the age of 35. Wayne Wouters, however, though he only plays it for fun, still likes to score goals on the ice at the age of 63. “I’m hanging in for another year or so,” he says. Wouters may be reluctant to hang up his skates, but one big aspect of his life he did part from recently is his role as head of the Canadian civil service (or the title of Clerk of the Privy Council under the Canadian system). After five years in the job, the public servant of 37 years retired in October 2014 and has since been replaced by Janice Charette.
Wouters was the longest-serving clerk in 25 years. Normally, he explains, clerks serve three to four years. But his tenure was longer, mainly due to circumstance: “I definitely didn’t plan to be clerk for five years,” he says. Wouters agreed to become clerk when prime minister Stephen Harper had two years left leading a minority government. “I remember [Harper] saying: ‘I don’t even know if I will even be here in two years’ time.” But then Harper’s Conservative party won a majority in 2011 and Wouters thought: “There is no better time to be with the government than after serving a minority and then finally getting a majority because many more things can get done. I thought: ‘I don’t want to pass that opportunity by’ so I stayed on until I thought it was time to move on and do something else.”
Before his role as clerk, Wouters was secretary of the Treasury Board for five years, after holding various deputy minister roles (the Canadian term for the most senior civil service roles in each department) since 1997. He first became a public servant in 1977 when he joined the Government of Saskatchewan – a province in Western Canada, following time spent lecturing in economics at the University of Saskatchewan.
Looking back on his time as clerk, Wouters says: “It was a great period of time.” One of his most important achievements, he says, was Blueprint 2020 – a set of proposals to modernise and improve the government workplace, better join up departments and increase citizen engagement. Wouters published the Blueprint 2020 vision document in June 2013 and asked the entire civil service for their views. More than 110,000 officials submitted their ideas directly to Wouters’s team using mostly online communication tools. Such a large-scale, web-based consultation exercise, Wouters says, had not been done before.
He says he wanted to use the tools available to engage as many civil servants as possible directly – “rather than trying to filter it through each department, down the chain, [via] the permanent secretary and then to me”. The initiative, he says, “proved very successful” not just in creating a collectively agreed vision for the future of the civil service, but also in making staff feel more involved. “I definitely think it has upped staff morale and increased engagement levels,” he says, “particularly in our younger [civil servants]. This is a very hierarchical system that we have and breaking down the barriers is very important.”
Answers were then pulled together and ‘Destination 2020’ was published – a 48-page document setting out priority areas for action. Wouters says he wanted to ensure the initiative became “more than simply a vision – that there would be steps and measures in order to accomplish the vision”. Now, almost each department has its own Blueprint 2020 team overseeing a set of measures to be implemented over the year, and there are also centrally-driven measures, such as providing WiFi for all government offices.
Wouters is also proud of his achievements in boosting Canada’s international trade relations. “I spent a lot of time with the prime minister and ministers working on the Canada-EU free trade agreement for example,” he says. “That was a major accomplishment for Canada which I was part of.” Indeed, the EU-Canada trade agreement, achieved at the Canada-EU summit on 26 September 2014 in Ottawa removed over 99% of tariffs between the two economies and created sizeable new market access opportunities in services and investment.” Canada also signed a free trade agreement with the Republic of Korea, he says and adds: “We’re advancing the Trans-Pacific Partnership [a proposed regional regulatory and investment treaty], but we’re not as far as I wish we would have been when I left my post. Trade is a very important part of our economy, which has been growing but not at the pace we need. We are very dependent on the US market and so looking to other markets around the world is very important to us, so I very much enjoyed working on those particular projects.”
Probably Wouters’s biggest achievement, though, was his work to help balance Canada’s books. After Harper gained a majority at the federal election in May 2011, Wouters was in charge of leading a big ‘cross-governmental change program’: “For about three years, we were undertaking fiscal consolidation measures,” he says. The first major challenge was to stop all stimulus spending, and then, he explains, “we moved on to looking at other measures to reduce the deficit.”
Wouters oversaw a deficit reduction programme that involved changes to civil servants’ terms and conditions, pensions, as well as an overall reduction of the entire workforce of around 25,000. As a part of the programme, each department was asked to come up with a number of ways to reduce its spending by targets of 5% and 10% over two fiscal consolidation exercises. The Cabinet then selected from these proposed measured programme reductions across the Ministries.
This wasn’t the first time Wouters managed major spending cuts: in early the 1990s, “we were a country that was in serious fiscal difficulty: I remember the Wall Street Journal calling us ‘bankrupt Canada’ and that we were ‘an honorary member of the third world.’” Under the then Liberal government, Wouters in his role of assistant secretary to the Cabinet (Program Review), oversaw the preparation of the expenditure reduction plan that was part of the 1995 federal budget.
Within three years, the government moved from a deficit to a surplus which it maintained for 11 years. But, after Wouters was appointed secretary of the Treasury Board in 2004, he says, “I was the one putting us back into huge deficit again as a result of stimulus spending the government initiated in 2008-09 to counter the growing recession – I have come full circle, and it appears back in balance again, although falling oil prices are taking their toll.”
Besides cutting direct spending, Wouters says, he also identified savings by “changing the business of government, driving efficiencies, adoption of IT and consolidation [and] standardisation of many of our back office functions.” For this, he had to get the prime minister on side, “because many of these IT adoption initiatives can be seen as high risk and sometimes the payoff is not necessarily obvious. So that took a lot of work to get the prime minister and the government on side to move some of those initiatives forward.”
He added that “ there’s often a view that [civil] servants don’t have the capacity or capability to manage these large IT adoption measures.” To increase capabilities, Wouters looked to the private sector and other governments and adopted “what I thought were some of the best project management tools that we could find.”
One such tool was dividing projects into a number of different phases and “ensuring that you have off-ramps in each phase so you look at that phase, and [ask:] is it moving according to the strategy? What adjustments can be made? Can you pull out at this point?” Having that kind of road map for a project, Wouters argues, is a valuable strategy, but he adds: “It’s not rocket science, but it’s not something that we often do in government. We tend to be somewhat behind when it comes to looking at our internal operations and modernising them.”
One area the Canadian government is far from ‘behind’ in is gender diversity: Out of all the G20 countries, Canada had the highest proportion of female leaders in the public sector in 2014, according to EY’s Worldwide Women Public Sector Leaders Index for 2014. The index, which was compiled by EY, shows that 45.5% of Canadian public sector leadership positions were filled by women. Canada’s pole position was followed by Australia, where the figure was at 39.2% and South Africa where it was 38.1%. Canada was also top of the league in the 2013 index.
What’s Canada’s secret? “I cannot take full credit for this,” Wouters says and puts the success down to on-going efforts by former clerks, including Jocelyne Bourgon – Canada’s first female clerk in office from 1994 to 1999. There were no quotas or targets, he says, but adds: “I think in the early days, everyone was expected to look at their top performing females at the lower level and move these individuals forward to executive level. I may be oversimplifying and I suspect if you went back and re-examined all of this there probably was a lot more to it, but during my time as clerk, I never ever thought for a moment ‘Oh, she’s a woman she should go here’. You’re always looking for the best candidate and if that happened to be a woman, it was. I worried when sometimes those numbers were dropping, particularly at the most senior level and [was] always trying to ensure that we had appropriate balance, but it really is very much part of the on-going business now.”
While there are a lot of female leaders, Wouters says he would like to see more people from ethnic minorities in senior leadership positions: “At the more junior levels we are seeing a significant number of visible minorities coming into our system. But we have systematically been a glass ceiling for our visible minorities moving into the executive ranks.” He explains: “Diversity is very, very important for Canada. We are a diverse society, we’re a country made up of immigrants from around the world and so our [civil] service needs to reflect that diversity, not simply by the colour of their skin but [the way] we think and operate because that reflects Canada. So the more we do there the better the public service will be and the more productive and effective it will be.”
Wouters’ passion for the subject becomes clear when he keeps slipping back into present tense: “It’s a challenge that we’re working on,” he says, but adds jokingly: “I should say ‘I was working very hard’, but I use the present tense.” Wouters may have retired from the Canadian civil service four months ago, but after more than three decades as a government official, 17 of which in senior positions, his new situation may take a while yet to sink in. He has had a “tremendous career but also one where you’re under a lot of stress,” he says.
Now, he is enjoying having “time to reflect and think about what I want to do next”. He has “discovered the gym again”, found more time to read some of his favourite history books, is volunteering on the board of the charity United Way Worldwide, and has “found out that people actually play ice hockey in the afternoon”.