Janice Charette, Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet, Government of Canada: Exclusive Interview

By on 21/07/2015 | Updated on 18/01/2017
Janice Charette, former Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet, Government of Canada, appointed as high commissioner to the United Kingdom as part of a major reshuffle, annoucing 26 new appointments of ambassadors and high commissioners, by Stéphane Dion, minister of foreign affairs

Janice Charette has held the top civil service post in Canada for more than nine months now. She tells Global Government Forum what she would like to achieve by 2020 and discusses the question of speaking truth unto power

Civil servants’ mental health is among the three most important things Janice Charette – the most senior civil servant of the Canadian government – wants to see tackled. In her first report submitted to Canada’s prime minister Stephen Harper in May this year, Privy Council Office (PCO) clerk Charette gave recruitment, policy and mental health as her three priority areas for the coming year.

After Public Service Employee Survey (PSES) results over a number of years indicating harassment in the workplace, the 2014 PSES carried out last autumn was purposely designed to seek more information and greater detail around these issues. It found that 19% of respondents said they were harassed on the job over the past two years, with the main culprits being their bosses and co-workers. The most common types reported were offensive remarks, unfair treatment and being excluded or ignored. Sexual harassment, whether a comment or gesture, was reported by 9% of those who felt harassed, and 2% said they faced “physical violence.”

‘Unacceptable’ levels of harassment

The overall number of employees who indicated that they had experienced harassment and discrimination, Charette wrote in her report, “is unacceptable.” She also called on civil servants to “live up to a high standard of integrity that contributes to a healthy, supportive and high-performing workplace, consistent with our values and ethics.”

But apart from making a general appeal for integrity, what is Charette doing to create a supportive working environment across dozens of federal departments and agencies? “I asked all deputy ministers [officials in charge of departments] in the last couple of months to go and look at the survey results within their own departments and agencies and take steps on that based on what they find in their own data.” Asked how she will track progress on the issue, Charette responds: “That’s a question which I am trying to sort out right now. I’ve been having conversations with my deputy minister colleagues about that. Our primary instrument is the Public Service Employee Survey, but it’s only every three years and I don’t think we can wait three years to find out the answer to whether we’re making progress or not. So we’re looking at whether we need to be doing something in the interim that will actually measure and track our progress.”

There are, however, Charette says, broader actions she can take to help create a healthier working environment. Managers within the civil service, she says, must ensure that the Public Service Code of Values and Ethics, which includes things like showing respect for co-workers, is put into practice. Leaders and managers, she adds, must “make sure that they’re actually building [the code] right into how they manage on a daily basis.” But what if they don’t? Would there be sanctions? “It’s not about sanctions,” she says. “It’s about incentives and trying to show people what’s expected of them.”

Charette also believes that the performance management process should be used to reinforce this objective. Up until the last financial year, only the senior ranks of the Canadian civil service were working within a mandatory performance management regime. But since the Directive on Performance Management came into effect in April last year, the process, which involves discussions with managers twice a year was made obligatory for the whole workforce. It is designed to be supplemented with more regular conversations with managers and ongoing feedback on strengths and areas for improvement. “I think as we enter into the second year, making sure that we are giving feedback to individuals, not just about what’s expected of them in terms of what they deliver but how they deliver it is a very concrete and a very individualised way of making sure those messages are reinforced,” she says.

Speaking truth unto power

Charette expects the civil service to have integrity. But apart from being a good colleague and supportive manager, acting with integrity in the civil service (‘public service’ in Canadian terminology) also means speaking truth unto power. It means giving ministers impartial and non-partisan advice, even if it is not what they might want to hear. But this concept, Global Government Forum was told by some Canadian senior civil servants, is not part of the every-day working environment. People feel at times that they are not given the opportunity to allow politicians to take in the necessary data with which to respond to an issue.

“Our ability to provide our very best professional evidence-based public policy advice to governments is one of our most important responsibilities,” Charette says. “And I continue to believe that that happens every single day in the public service of Canada.”

A survey of 4,069 government-employed scientists appears to paint a different picture: The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), which represents around 55,000 professionals in Canada’s public sector, conducted the survey in 2013. It found that 35% of respondents had been prevented in the previous five years from responding to questions from the public and the media, 74% believed the sharing of scientific findings had become too restricted and that 71% believed political interference had compromised Canada’s ability to develop policy, law and programmes based on scientific evidence.

Charette rejects the survey’s conclusions and argues that, according to government policy, “ministers are the primary spokespersons for the Government of Canada,” and that there is “no surprise there.” She adds: “Before folks go out there and contribute their best ideas to the public debate, we have a co-ordination process to see whether or not individuals should be speaking out on topics, and in some cases an alternative spokesperson may be chosen.”

Furthermore, Charette says that any policy advice civil servants give to ministers must be “done in confidence, because ultimately government makes decisions about the course of action they want to pursue. In order to protect politicians’ ability to make those choices, policy advice is given in the confidence that it is between public servants and government. That’s a fundamental tenet of how our system needs to work.”

She adds: “We’ve been trying to take steps, particularly within those science departments, to make sure there’s a clearer understanding of what processes are put in place in order for information to become public.” But, there is still, she argues, “a group of individuals in our system who don’t feel that they totally understand the processes by which information is made public.”

Asked again about the statistic that almost three quarters of federal scientists questioned in the survey believe that political interference had compromised Canada’s ability to develop policy, law and programmes based on scientific evidence, Charette responds: “I don’t share that point of view. I think that being told that you’re not allowed to do a media interview is different from the conclusion some have reached about interfering in the public policy process.” She says that there are many examples of federal scientific professionals taking part in research conferences – “the kind of scientific dialogue that’s required in order to be able to advance their science.” But, she adds, “when it comes to opinion, we’re not in this business to give our opinions, we’re in this business to give our advice to government and that’s what we do every single day.”

A central innovation push

Another top priority for Charette is to drive innovation. Her predecessor Wayne Wouters told Global Government Forum earlier this year that the Government of Canada tends to “be somewhat behind when it comes to looking at our internal operations and modernising them.” It was Wouters too who initiated a process with the aim of doing just that. In 2013, he launched ‘Blueprint 2020’ – a draft vision for what Canada’s civil service should look like by 2020, which asked all civil servants for their views and ideas on how to get there. Some 110,000 people responded and, last year, a set of priority actions for how to modernise and improve the government workplace, better join up departments and increase citizen engagement were published in ‘Destination 2020’.

It is now down to Charette to make it happen. One key element of the Blueprint 2020 strategy has already been implemented under her watch: In February, the PCO launched the Central Innovation Hub, which aims to help change the way Canada’s civil service does business and support departments in applying new approaches. The hub, Charette explains, is important not just because it can help drive innovation but also symbolically: “We are doing it here in the Privy Council Office, at our centre of government, to demonstrate that we think innovation is important.”

To run the hub, the PCO has recruited a mix of people: led by an assistant deputy minister – the second most senior civil service rank in Canada – the hub will employ about eight to ten people from across the civil service, agencies as well as outside government. Some hub employees, Charette says, “are coming in for short-term contracts to work on particular projects, so it’s flexibly resourced.”

The hub is part of a growing network of smaller innovation hubs and labs within departments, she says: “There’s about a dozen departments which have an innovation hub, including our Revenue Agency, Natural Resources Department and our Department of Employment and Social Development. Our Central Innovation Hub is working with the network of hubs to try and build capacity and to implement innovative approaches.”

At the moment, the hub is “trying to build knowledge and understanding in the policy community of the use of some new tools, so they have drop-in sessions and learning sessions; they’re also working with departments, which come to them with particular projects to try to apply some of these new tools and techniques to real life problems.” These techniques include user-centred design of public services as well as behavioural economics.

Behavioural economics combines traditional economics with behavioural psychology and the cognitive sciences to help explain the behavioural barriers and decision-making heuristics behind the choices of individuals and institutions. For example, energy companies have successfully reduced household energy use by sending bills that indicate how much energy your family uses compared to your most efficient neighbours. In recent years, behavioural economics has been taken up by a number of governments around the world as part of an expanded toolkit for tackling public policy challenges, including the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia.

Driving modernisation

What else can Charette do to drive innovation into every grain of the government machinery? One of the ways in which she hopes to be able to embed innovation is through her annual report to the prime minister, in which she identifies examples of best practice. In her latest report, she highlighted examples in the Public Health Agency of Canada, the Canada Border Services Agency, the Revenue Agency. “I think if you look for it, you will find examples of innovation in every department and agency,” she says. “So step one is showcasing and celebrating the success of it, and then recognising that innovation doesn’t necessarily need to be revolutionary or technology-based or large-scale. It can be little moves we’ve taken to calling ‘mini-innovations’ – those little innovations trying to identify better ways of doing things in what you do every day.”

Another way to drive the innovation agenda is by reinforcing the message in the training of new managers, Charette says. “We’ve got to train into our managers that they are the front-line, and that the attitude they project, and the openness and willingness to engage in conversations about innovation and creativity really sets the tone in the workplace.”

What about the people who may not have read Charette’s annual report, or who are existing managers who are not undergoing this new training? “I think that’s a journey that we’re very much still involved in,” she responds. “Trying to drive innovation is very much part of where we want to take the public service as we move forward in this journey towards 2020.”

However, she adds that the government adjusted its key leadership competencies in line with its Blueprint 2020 vision to put a greater emphasis on “collaboration, innovation, new forms of partnership and intelligent risk-taking.” These competencies are not just used to select new employees, but also for the training and continuous assessment of “our leaders of all different levels in the public service.”

With 2020 being just five years away, Charette has a big project to complete. But, regarded widely as a determined and hands-on leader, Charette’s optimism and enthusiasm are set to be a big help along the way. Canada’s civil service, she says, has “a good story to tell about the progress we’re making,” adding that “we are on a journey to try and make sure that the public service maintains a standard of excellence going forward in a world beset by many, many kinds of changes.”

Janice Charette recently visited the Institute for Government, a London-based think-tank, to discuss women in the public sector with Melanie Dawes, permanent secretary of the UK government’s Department for Communities and Local Government. View the video below to watch the whole conversation.

About Winnie Agbonlahor

Winnie is news editor of Global Government Forum. She previously reported for Civil Service World - the trade magazine for senior UK government officials. Originally from Germany, Winnie first came to the UK in 2006 to study a BA in Journalism & Russian at the University of Sheffield. She is bilingual in English and German, and, after spending an academic year abroad in Russia and reporting for the Moscow Times, Winnie also speaks Russian fluently.

One Comment

  1. Norm Ruttan says:

    It will be nice to see the new Trudeau government dump her, in light of her views about muzzling government scientists.

    Citizens are the equivalent of ‘shareholders’ in the corporation known as the Government of Canada. By restricting citizen’s access to knowledge, this woman is acquiescent in distorting democracy.

    Good riddance.

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