Michael Wernick, Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet, Canada: Exclusive Interview
Two years ago, Michael Wernick was contemplating retirement; now he’s Canada’s top official. Matt Ross quizzes him about Canada’s new appointments system, delivery unit and shared services scheme – and learns some awkward truths about hatching an EU trade deal
As senior civil servants know, politicians are an odd breed. Most are guided by deeply-held principles and a desire to ‘make a difference’ in shaping their country’s future. But they’re also so drawn towards public recognition, power and a place in the history books that they’re willing to endure all the down-sides of a career in elected office: huge uncertainty, endless conflict, public scorn, modest salaries, long hours, and an approach to ministerial appointments that’s barely advanced since the days of Henry VIII.
Small wonder that this heady mix attracts a very particular set of individuals. As Douglas Adams mischievously observed in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe: “It is a well-known fact that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.”
Senior civil servants do, of course, have their own egos, beliefs and career ambitions – but the principles of public service, good management, and accountability to elected leaders provide a strong counter-balance. And in Michael Wernick, Canada’s cabinet secretary and clerk to the privy council, those principles appear all-consuming. Now the country’s most senior official, Wernick says he was set on retirement two years ago – when he was suddenly offered the job of deputy clerk to the privy council.
At that point, Wernick had spent eight years running the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs. “I had no particular ambition to move any further,” he recalls. “I would have been quite content to retire from there, and came very close to doing so in 2014. Then I was asked to do another job, which has extended my career – but I was never aiming for anything more personally. I stayed because there was important work to be done… There was nothing else I really wanted to do in government.”
Eight years is an unusually long tenure for a departmental chief: Wernick loved working on the issues affecting Canada’s indigenous peoples, and avoided the regular changes of role so common among top officials. “The cabinet secretary of the day agreed kindly every year to let me stay a bit longer, so I was able to extend it until I came to the view in 2014 that that was enough – the time [for retirement] had come,” he says.
No turning around turnover
In the event, though, Wernick moved not out of the civil service but into the number two job – followed, two years later, by promotion to cabinet secretary. So now he’s the one charged with moving people around to plug gaps at the top of Canadian departments. “Because people keep dropping out between the ages of 55 and 60, it’s inevitable that half a dozen [top officials] leave each year and the cabinet secretary has to replace them,” he comments. “You end up moving people probably earlier than they would have liked to move, earlier than you would have liked to move them, but you simply have to fill the vacancies.”
There’s no easy solution to this problem, he adds. “Many observers and academics in Canada wish the tenure was longer, but I haven’t found a recipe to deal with that… We lose eight to ten deputies a year, and I see no sign of that slowing down.”
Wernick has, however, made substantial changes to the way new leaders are brought into the system – carrying out a review of senior appointments to “broaden out [applications] and make sure we’re looking for talent all over the place.” Top jobs are now advertised publicly, with the aim of recruiting a much more diverse leadership cadre: it’s a “much more transparent process, with an emphasis on diversity – so that the people put in these positions are in aggregate a better reflection of the country”, he says.
The reforms, Wernick explains, are also designed to ensure that senior public service appointments are “non-partisan, as free from political patronage as possible, and based on merit and equality” – meeting a pledge by new Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau.
A problem shared
So turnover in senior posts is a headache for the cabinet secretary – but much more troublesome is the cross-departmental Phoenix pay modernisation project, which has come under fire over unpaid salaries and poor quality services.
Wernick acknowledges the criticisms, but argues that the scheme has become a “flypaper”: a fall guy, criticised for weaknesses that go back long before the project’s launch. “Before this initiative, the pay system was a shambolic mess,” he comments. “It was paper-based. It was full of errors. All the things that are being highlighted now used to happen before. When I moved departments, it would be normal not to get your pay caught up for two months.”
The Phoenix scheme has “created a focal point and a label for all the problems that used to be dispersed and somewhat hidden out of sight,” he argues. The programme “took pieces out of hundreds of organisations, put it under a single project, gave the project a brand name – and now if anybody has any issue about pay, they complain about the initiative.”
Nonetheless, Wernick is keen to learn lessons from the project’s flawed roll-out. “There will be plenty of responsibility to go around,” he comments. “It’s very clearly a collective clanger, and I worry about it a bit because it’s done reputational damage to the ability of civil servants to deliver IT projects – and that’s not helpful.”
Those lessons, he adds, include “standard advice that we should have heeded more: you have to really, really sweat the details, and communicate what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. We under-communicated and under-trained, clearly.”
Problems also occurred as services were transferred into the new systems, he says: “There was a hand-off between the departments and the service provider which turned into: ‘Well, I thought you were doing it’. We should have been much clearer on the roles and responsibilities of the service provider and the obligations of the department.”
Information technology “is hard to do, and whole-of-government is hard to do, so when you add the two together it becomes doubly difficult,” he concludes.
Arguing over the numbers
Phoenix should not, Wernick argues, colour perceptions of the government’s achievements in information technology. He points to new digital pensions and border control services, and is bullish on the Shared Services Canada project – which brings together IT, telecoms and data systems across the federal public services.
The key goal here has been to improve security: “The main reason for doing it was the protection of government information from cyber attacks,” he explains, “and the Shared Services environment is a safer one for Canadians’ personal, business and tax information.”
The project has attracted unwelcome publicity over the resignation of chief statistician Wayne Smith, who very publicly stood down last month. Quitting, Smith warned that Statistics Canada’s independence has been “compromised” by its dependence on Shared Services Canada’s IT systems, and complained that its physical informatics services were “disruptive, ineffective, slow and unaffordable”. But the cabinet secretary says Smith’s concerns over independence are a “false premise: there is no more political involvement in Statistics Canada than there was before.”
Smith, says Wernick, also believes that “not having end-to-end control of the IT fetters the work of the statistical agency, and I reject that premise as well.” Canada’s civil service chief is, however, less eager to challenge Smith’s third charge: “He argues that they’re not a very good service provider,” says Wernick, “and frankly that’s for Shared Services to defend themselves. They’re not perfect. But the fact that they’re not perfect in their start-up period does not argue, in my mind, that we shouldn’t go ahead with it.”
“The cyber security threat is enormous,” he concludes. “Census data was taken out of the Australian Census Bureau by hackers; we need the best possible IT defences around the kind of information that Canadians send in on their census returns.”
Delivering on delivery
Canada’s shared services scheme has not had an easy birth – and this is not surprising: it’s one of the most ambitious and extensive cross-departmental IT schemes on the planet. So it must be something of a relief for Wernick that, in the field of performance management, the Canadian government is not trying to create a world first: its new Delivery Unit, he explains, draws on the experiences of the UK and Ontario’s state government.
The new unit, Wernick explains, is designed to align departments’ work with ministerial priorities. Though civil servants have operated performance management systems for many years, “these were largely processes which public servants inflicted on each other. They really didn’t connect very much to Parliament or the life of ministers.” Politicians traditionally showed little interest in departmental performance reports, he adds: “The parliamentary focus was always on whatever was the hot topic at the time.”
Under the new system, ministers engage in an “ongoing dialogue with their departments about what they’re trying to achieve and whether they’re getting there.” Wernick is keenly aware of the risk that “we add a lot of new process to the old process,” and points out that “it will be very important to prune out old processes that are no longer relevant, and I have to say we’re not quite there yet; we’re in a transition period.”
The government knows, says Wernick, that events will distract it from its over-arching policy objectives: “We have to respond to shocks and surprises, whether it’s the Zika virus, or the Paris attacks, or the UK suddenly voting for Brexit, or whatever the American election gives us.” The new system’s goal, he explains, is to provide “some sort of keel that gets you back to your stated priorities.”
Trade with the EU – and the UK
One of those priorities is the Canada-EU free trade agreement, which is seen as ground-breaking in its reach; and one of those shocks is Brexit, which – says Wernick – has created uncertainty among Canadian exporters and investors. Businesses “probably were very uncertain and upset [after the UK’s referendum vote] in June, and they’re trying to analyse and come to terms with it – but until the timing and the nature is a lot clearer, I think that anxiety is going to be there. They’ll just have to factor it in, whether it’s over bond premiums, or holding off on location decisions, or whatever.”
As the country with the newest and most comprehensive EU trade agreement, Canada’s experiences may contain useful lessons for the UK as the latter begins to reforge its trading relationship with the Continent. So what were the keys to securing the Canadian deal? For one, replies Wernick, “there’s a fair degree of political and societal consensus in Canada that open trade is a good thing; open investment is a good thing; and open migration of people is a good thing. While there are dissenters on the left and the right, the broad consensus is pro-free trade and pro-migration”.
That doesn’t appear to auger well for a potential UK-EU deal, given the British government’s growing hostility to immigration and the Brexiteers’ plans to use the threat of tariffs to force concessions from the EU. What else?
The Canadian government “believes that open trade is completely compatible with labour standards, human rights and environmental protection,” says Wernick: Canada’s “progressive trade agenda” accepts people’s “legitimate concerns about the impact on domestic regulation, safety, labour standards, defence law”.
Finally, Wernick points out that “an agreement is always a trade-off between the objectives of the two partners, and it always involves a loss of sovereignty.” In a free trade agreement, he adds, “you waive the right to regulate as you see fit. So there are disciplines put on Canada’s sovereignty and decision-making and regulation which were acceptable to the previous government and are acceptable to this government. In return for that, you get greater access to the European market.”
This idea too will not be welcomed by the UK’s Brexiteers, for whom UK sovereignty is sacrosanct and EU regulations anathema. But for Canada, says Wernick, the benefits of free trade outweigh the compromises that it demands. The government is “not in the Bernie Sanders camp of rejecting trade agreements, which is also the Donald Trump camp,” he says. “They see the Canada-EU agreement not just as important in and of itself, but I think – channelling for the government – they actually think it’s important to be able to define progressive trade agreements and staunch the tide of protectionism which seems to have been building.”
Michael Wernick didn’t expect to find himself in this position – helping to realise the government’s priorities and absorb the inevitable “shocks and surprises” as his country’s top civil servant. But it appears that, were Douglas Adams still alive, the satirical sci-fi author would approve. Canada’s clerk of the privy council does not give the impression that he wants to rule people. But, in his work delivering for the new Canadian prime minister, he seems quite well suited to it.
Note: this article was amended on 7 October to clarify the distinction between the Phoenix pay modernisation project and Shared Services Canada.
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