Successes and potential obstacles to change management in the public service

Changing the Canadian public service has been a perennial goal of almost every  government. But the failure of the change exercises, has highlighted how the best-intended change management can be outdone by a lack of clarity, resolve and purpose. This author suggests what managers need to do to get the job done.


Bureaucracies have been consistently criticized for their failure to be optimally responsive to market conditions and customer demands. They perpetuate traditional and ineffective beliefs about organizational structure, process and performance, and leave disgruntled employees and customers in their wakes. Governments, as exemplars of a bureaucracy, are in many cases more than guilty of these kinds of suboptimal performance. This article is an attempt to identify how Canadian governmental bureaucracy has recognized the need to make fundamental change in its culture, process and performance, yet has failed to act in a consistent, sustained manner.


The public service bureaucracy

Two analysts who studied Canada’s federal public service in the late 1980s determined that, while a new management philosophy that focused on results, performance and outcome was emerging, success would require a change in the attitudes and behaviour of the public service[1]. Another observer, who conducted a survey of public servants at about the same time, concluded that serious morale problems in the public service had been hindering the efficient delivery of services to the Canadian people[2]. Efforts to bring about administrative change aimed to institutionalize the new management philosophy and to restore morale within the public service by importing private-sector values. The purpose was to change the “culture” of the public service by instilling a new entrepreneurial spirit in  employees.

In December 1989, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney announced an initiative, Public Service 2000 (PS2000), whose broad goal was the renewal of the federal public service. In launching this initiative, the prime minister referred to a central theme of previous reform attempts by indicating that a leading goal was to vest public service managers with as much authority as possible. Central agency administrative controls would be reduced and deputy ministers given greater freedom to manage their departments accompanied by “clearer accountability” for results. For the first time, the government signaled its recognition that the public service is composed of a variety of organizational forms, a feature it sought to promote rather than discourage. Organizational form refers to the combination of strategy, structure, internal control and coordination systems that provide an organization with its operating logic, resource allocation rules, and corporate governance mechanism[3]. Thus, the Canadian government created a number of federal departments (including Agriculture Canada, Health Canada, and Industry Canada), boards, agencies and commissions (e.g., CBC, CNR, and Air Canada) and regulatory agencies such as the CRTC and CATSA (Canadian Air Transport and Security Agency). Each has its operating procedures, internal security and control protocols and governance processes.

PS2000 sounded many familiar themes, occasionally dressed up in contemporary language:

  • Reduction of red tape
  • Empowerment of staff
  • Devolution of authority
  • Decentralization
  • Elimination of unnecessary regulations that hinder effective management.

It differed from earlier attempts in that it was the first administrative review to designate quality of service to the public as a goal of public management. In order to achieve this goal, the government determined that a change in the culture of the public service was required. The old or existing culture had placed an emphasis on administrative systems and conformity and control to produce “error-free” government [and] … had circumvented the initiative of public servants, sacrificed timeliness and placed insufficient emphasis on results and cost effectiveness[4] (some of the leading characteristics of bureaucratic organizational forms).

Thus, beyond structural adjustments, what was needed was a fundamental change of attitude on the part of public servants themselves, one that would see them adopt an entrepreneurial approach to their work. The government determined that there must be a new outlook on the part of public servants, centering on:

  • Leadership,
  • Communication
  • Consultation
  • Client feedback within the context of deregulation
  • Flexibility in the use of resources to get the job done.[5]

Ironically, the drafters of PS2000 recognized that the kind of fundamental change that was advocated by the recommendations in the White Paper was unlikely to be implemented, notwithstanding that it needed to happen. They suggested that given that government is biased toward centralized, control-oriented management structures and processes, and given the overarching need to align behaviour with a variety of political agendas, it was likely to be very resistant to change. So on the one hand, there was clarity about what needed to change, but there was little belief that it would happen.

Culture change, under the most supportive conditions, is a difficult undertaking that requires significant investment of resources, money, time, effort and commitment. Attempting it in a government bureaucracy where the environment is likely to be hostile to it, because of the challenge to the status quo and management perquisites, serves to magnify the investment and increase the degree of difficulty. It would make obvious the need to pay strict attention to the effective resolution of resistance to change.

In 2004, Reg Alcock, President of the Treasury Board of Canada and the minister responsible for the Canadian Wheat Board, said, “We are at a truly transformative moment in modern public sector management. The public sector needs to restructure, to speed up decision-making, respond to change, and focus on citizen-driven service delivery.” This was essentially a restatement of the PS2000 themes. But why? Once again, it seemed that the government had failed to heed its own recommendations. Resistance to change seems to be embedded in government bureaucracies and those who work in them, not because of any ill will on the part of the employees and management, but because bureaucracies lead their members to expect a consistent, predictable set of operating processes and rules, perhaps even more so than other organizational philosophies such as Kaizen, team-based, and involvement-based democratic styles. Bureaucracy discourages risk-taking, something that is absolutely critical for significant organizational change. The consistency and predictability of the bureaucratic rules and regulations, together with their sheer number, leave no room for flexibility and adaptability, which are needed to be responsive to customers and markets.

Change and the public service

Organizational change is a reality of the 21st century. The forces for change are largely external, coming from increased demands brought by customers, competitors, suppliers, markets, government regulations and the advent of new technologies.  Acquisitions and downsizings pose additional significant demands.[6] There are also common internal motivators such as: dissatisfaction with current performance when compared to established goals; the need to implement and gain the full benefit of new technologies; the increasing expectations of key people, especially senior management; new demands from the workforce, for example, for more influence, information, and increased skills; and, finally, the force of shared values that guide the organization’s desired relationships with customers, employees, and the community.  These issues are no less compelling for those who labour in government departments and roles. They are facing demands to “industrialize” so as to become “lean and mean.” These demands come from taxpayers, government officials and others who are horrified with the waste and poor service record that have been identified in all manner of government processes over many years.

Additionally, driven by the political introduction of market pressures via compulsory competitive tendering, market testing, and privatization, there has been a wholesale importation of private-sector management techniques and practices. The traditional divisions between the public and private sectors have become fluid and in some respects are breaking down. One result has been the gradual importation into the public service of a private-sector ethos that employs concepts such as “entrepreneurship,” “competition,” and service to “clients.” Another result has seen certain segments of government administrative machinery take on the attributes of private-sector entities. These changes have brought with them a mixture of benefits and problems, some of which will be discussed below. The transferability of private-sector management practices to the public sector has been subjected to a critical debate and the conclusion has been that the differences between public and private sector managers are more apparent than real. One outcome is that managers’ jobs, careers, skill development, training and particularly their personnel management style have come under increasing scrutiny and has required transformation. For instance, in many cases, it is no longer acceptable for managers to micro-manage, demand that employees do what they’re told, or exclude employees from decision-making.

There have been some successful attempts at change in the Canadian public service. For example, the Canadian Customs and Revenue Agency (CCRA) offers a variety of electronic services, including the capacity to file income tax returns and business tax payments on its web site. Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC) established an interactive web site, “Job Futures 2000.” Industry Canada’s “SchoolNet” is another example of technological innovation in government. It promises to champion lifelong learning and create world-class educational resources on-line by providing increased access to high-speed, broadband Internet service for businesses, schools and residents in all Canadian communities. In the 2001 budget, the federal government demonstrated its commitment to this mandate by allocating $110 million to continue work on improving access to the Internet broadband network (also known as CA*net4). There have been technological innovations carried out to facilitate a strategy of developing Government-On-Line (GOL) and making it accessible through a single electronic portal. Also, interestingly, e-government has emerged as a new tier of government. It has enriched the practice of democracy by facilitating citizen participation in governance and helped to dismantle the public-government boundary.[7]

Nevertheless, there are still major obstacles to innovation and change in the public service, and they are deeply ingrained in the structure and practices of Canadian government. Perhaps it is cliché, but it has been said that these impediments are 98 percent management and two percent technology. This implies that technological and process improvements are effective enablers of change only if government bureaucracy, particularly its managerial hierarchy, is ready and willing to adapt to bona fide change. Although there are many managers who are committed to creating an innovative government, they are in a weak position to instigate change because they are hindered by the bureaucracy’s rigidity. The critical point to be made is that most of the obstacles to innovation in government are structural and cultural.

To be or not to be?

There is a constant tension between the constraints imposed by accountability on one hand, and the need for creative, flexible management on the other. As long as government is accountable to Parliament (and this is a principal cornerstone of Canada’s system of government), the emphasis on central controls is likely to remain, despite occasional attempts to tilt the balance in favour of enhanced managerial freedom. Aucoin & Bakvis have described this phenomenon as a struggle between centralization and decentralization in federal administration and point out that a shift in favour of either extreme is unlikely to be conclusive. They wrote that:

In the federal administrative system, as in all complex organizations, the pull toward centralization is inherent; decentralization, on the other hand, requires conscious and continuing efforts to tilt the organization in ways that contain, even resist, the natural tendency to rein in power at the centre.[8]

It is therefore not surprising that attempts at administrative reform in the public service that involve devolving power from the centre have never been a one-shot affair and have largely been less than successful. It has often been observed that government reform swings like a pendulum between tighter central control and greater autonomy for departments. Such swings, while reflecting the earlier-mentioned tension between centralization and decentralization, also are influenced by the particular federal and/or provincial party that is in power at any one time.

The question thus remains: What must happen in order to optimize the likelihood that needed lasting change can come to the public service? The following are the most important issues that must be addressed:

  • Political support from the upper levels of government is a precondition for success.[9] Ministers and deputy ministers must handle the proposed changes effectively and with enthusiasm and sensitivity.
  • Rank-and-file public servants must be informed about, engaged in and supportive of any changes.[10]
  • Resistance to change must be effectively addressed and resolved through the acceptance of peoples’ fears of loss of control and vulnerability.[11] All employees must be encouraged to freely express their concerns and be encouraged to participate actively in the process to identify action plans to handle them.
  • The four factors that have predictive potential on managers’ career success are: individual-related factors, organizational-related factors, managerial competencies-related factors, and the person-environment fit factor.
  • Strengthening the HRD framework through organizational development and organization change management, personnel training and development and career development may develop and help realize individual potential, which leads to positive career outcomes (objective and subjective career success).
  • Fostering creativity, partnerships, empowerment and leadership in public service employees and management will add economic value through the formation and application of knowledge and ideas.

[1] Peter Aucoin and Herman Bakvis, The Centralization-Decentralization Conundrum: Organization and Management in the Canadian Government, Institute for Research on Public Policy, Halifax, 1988.

[2] David Zussman, “Managing the Federal Public Service as the Knot Tightens,” in Katherine Graham, How Ottawa Spends 1990-91: Tracking the Second Agenda, Carleton University Press, Ottawa, 1990, p. 247-275.

[3] Paul Sparrow and Cary L. Cooper (1998), “New Organizational Forms: The Strategic Relevance of Future Psychological Contract Scenarios,” Canadian Journal of Administrative Sciences, 15(4), 356-371.

[4] Paul M. Tellier, former Clerk of the Privy Council, “A New Canadian Public Service,” Business Quarterly, Spring 1991, p. 93.

[5] Canada, Public Service 2000: The Renewal of the Public Service of Canada, Ottawa, 1990, p. 48

[6] Hornstein, H. (2009). Downsizing isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. The Ivey Business Journal, May/June 2009,

[7] Nada Teofilovic (2002), “The Reality of Innovation in Government,” The Innovation Journal,

[8] Aucoin & Bakvis (1988), p. 6

[9] David Brown, “Designing the Canada Revenue Agency human resources management regime: Insights for public sector modernization” Canadian Political Science Association Annual Meeting, Public Administration Workshop

Vancouver, BC, June 6, 2008.

[10] Inta Cinite, Linda E. Duxbury and Chris Higgins (2009). “Measurement of Perceived Organizational

Readiness for Change in the Public Sector.” British Journal of Management, 20, 265–277.

[11] Peter Block (2000), “Flawless Consulting: A Guide to Getting your Expertise used (second edition).”  San Francisco: Pfeiffer.

About the Author

Henry Hornstein is an Assistant Professor at Algoma University, where he teaches Human Resources Development and Organizational Behaviour in the Business and Economics department.