Taking the good with the bad: listen to GGF’s latest Leading Questions podcast with Canada’s former cabinet secretary, Michael Wernick

By on 23/06/2022 | Updated on 24/06/2022

Global Government Forum has gone live with the latest episode of its Leading Questions podcast, featuring former clerk of the Privy Council of Canada and secretary to the Cabinet, Michael Wernick.

Wernick may have risen to the highest rank of the Canadian public service but that doesn’t mean his long and varied career was without setback, or indeed crushing lows. He is open about his greatest defeat – an education reform he spent five years working on and which he remains convinced would solve many of the issues affecting the country’s Indigenous peoples which ultimately “blew up and failed”.  

He reflects on this, and more broadly on his term as a white city-dweller at the helm of what is now the department of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs. “I was very conscious that I was the custodian of an institution which had been around for many, many years and had done a great deal of harm and created a lot of the problems that that very department was now trying to rectify and remedy,” he says.

In this interview Wernick highlights the public service’s strengths – advocating it to young graduates he says “you can hop around 300 organisations and locations across the country and the world and have a very interesting professional life that will take you places you never imagined you’d go” – but is equally candid about its flaws, not least the systemic racism he says continues to exist in government processes.

Michael Wernick will be providing more professional and policy insight at these upcoming Global Government Forum training courses:
Implementing Strategy in the Civil Service  –  27th June – 30th June
Modifying Behaviour through Policy  – 21st July
Policy Implementation and Delivery  – 22nd September 
The Strategic Policy Maker’s Toolkit  – Two Day Training Seminar
Management and Leadership Essentials  – Two Day Training Seminar

Also sharing his insights on how best to work with ministers, Wernick talks of his discomfort with the notion of ‘speaking truth to power’. “It creates this sort of juxtaposition that the public service has the truth and [ministers] have all the power, and life is more complex,” he says. “Public service advice is not perfect – it can be timid, it can be incrementalist, it can have blindspots, it can be politically foolish and so I think ministers have the prerogative to not take it.”

Learn more about this and why asking the right questions is so integral to success in the senior civil service; why it is important not to “ruminate on paths not taken”; and why Wernick’s vision for the public service is akin to the moving staircases in Harry Potter’s Hogwarts.  

This episode is a valuable listen for anyone interested in the inner workings of government from one of the few people to have been at the very centre of it and who now, in a new academic role at the University of Ottawa, continues to focus his efforts on how government can be made better.

This is the third episode of Leading Questions Series 2. The first episode features Australia’s governance chief Stephanie Foster who discussed stepping into the unknown, and embracing her strengths – and flaws – as a leader. And the second episode features UK civil service stalwart Sir Suma Chakrabarti, who talks of staying sane while managing change.

For this second series, we’re searching the globe to find the best examples of public sector leadership. If you’d like to recommend someone to feature in a future episode, please get in touch.

Listen to all episodes of Series 1 & 2 here: Leading Questions podcast: civil service leaders share what they learned from their time at the top

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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