2. Canada’s historical innovation journey

In order to understand the innovation choices facing Canada in the future, it is necessary to examine the past. This chapter explores the innovation journey of the Public Service of Canada over the past 30 years – a period covering the effective living memory of the system. However, any attempt to develop a single narrative for an inherently ambiguous concept such as innovation presents difficulties. The historical innovation journey is thus viewed in terms of a chronology of relevant developments and through a thematic analysis of observed patterns and trends. The chapter also considers the indicative roles of some of the key actors involved. It concludes by drawing out some of the implications of this historical journey and exploring their meaning for the journey yet to come.


This review seeks to understand innovation in the context of the Public Service of Canada. In order to do so, it is first necessary to examine the history of innovation in Canada. What has already happened and what developments and beliefs have set the scene for today?

This chapter aims to reflect back the historical journey of the Public Service of Canada, with a view to illustrating the main issues involved and analysing how the Public Service has traditionally understood and engaged with innovation. An appreciation of this history allows for a better understanding of current issues and how they developed. Only then is it possible to identify new forms of innovation that might be needed.

The importance of history to innovation

Canada is well regarded for its public administration (e.g. see International Civil Service Effectiveness (InCiSE) Index, 2017 which ranks Canada on top of a list of thirty-one countries; OECD, 2017a). As with any effective public sector, this adeptness has necessarily involved elements of innovation: responding to change with novel solutions, reacting to crises in innovative ways, engaging with new technologies, undertaking experimentation and learning, and sometimes undertaking more transformative change.

The Public Service has a long history – spanning generations – of rising to the challenge and meeting the needs of Canada and Canadians. In the past, significant changes in Canadian society, like global crises, changing demographics and the advent of computer technology, had a transformational impact on the work of the Public Service. On every occasion, the Public Service has risen to the challenge and found ways to change and to improve services to Canadians. (Government of Canada, 2014: 5)

However, no country can be complacent in a time of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) (OECD, 2017b); disruptive technological, ecological and political shifts; demographic changes; and new and ongoing economic and social issues. Success in the past cannot be relied upon as an indication of future performance.

In particular, a changing world means changing expectations as new possibilities become apparent, and old ones fade away. Governments, and the civil services that support them, are obliged to adjust to this changing world, or risk losing relevance and the support of their citizens.

Where governments do seek to adjust to, react to, adapt to or even to shape change, it will generally involve some degree of innovation – doing different things or doing things differently (or both).

Responding to a changing world requires changing what is done and/or how it is done, and will often involve doing things that are new to the context, sometimes significantly so. While this process of change is not the sole responsibility of those in the public sector, the civil service clearly has a particular duty in this regard – hence the interest in public sector innovation.

The Public Service of Canada recognises this. The current Clerk (and Head) of the Public Service is supportive of innovation and recognises its importance:

Through Blueprint 2020 we have laid the groundwork for a Public Service where extensive and broad engagement is the new normal, where innovation and challenging orthodoxies and old patterns are seen as essential to sound policy development and service delivery, and where collaboration and openness are fundamental in day-to-day work. (Wernick, 2016: 21)

However, in order to understand how the Public Service is currently situated with regard to innovation or to establish how equipped it is to face future challenges, it is first necessary to look at what has gone before. While innovation as a subject is inherently future-oriented – being concerned with what has not been done before – it does not emerge out of nowhere. Innovation and the possibilities of innovation are shaped by the past. After all, an innovation is only innovative if it differs from the past and present state of things. Where you start determines where you will get to.

As the Clerk has said:

We have to avoid, in a rush of energy and adrenaline, to miss some of the lessons of the past (Wernick, 2017b).

Before looking ahead it is therefore essential to look backwards, in order to understand the innovation journey so far. Only once the past can be described and understood, can the current approach and innovation context begin to be appreciated.

Piecing together the Canadian journey

Building a picture of the innovation journey is not straightforward. Innovation is an inherently ambiguous and contextual thing, and is not always easy to recognise or identify. What is innovative to one person or to one organisation or country may not be to another. What might seem significant may turn out not to be, and what might seem at first to be minor may turn out to be, in time, truly transformative. Determining what is part of the innovation journey and what is not, then, is not clear-cut. No single story can capture all of what has happened in Canada that is of relevance to the innovation journey.

Nonetheless, given the need to understand the innovation context, an attempt must be made to appreciate what has already occurred. In order to do, the following section looks at the history through two lenses. The first takes a chronological view of the key developments and milestones, in order to ascertain what actually happened. The second presents a thematic overview, and builds on this chronology to establish which themes and patterns were present over that history.

Neither perspective is exhaustive. Any story is an act of curation – of choosing elements to focus on. Every history will have many different interpretations, and some elements of the history provided here are inherently speculative. Additionally, as innovation is a fuzzy concept, different people will have different views regarding what should belong in the story and what should not.

Therefore, the following is not an attempt to provide the definitive official history of public sector innovation in Canada. Instead, it aims to reflect what has been heard and seen, some of which may well be mistaken or misinterpreted. Only by making this history explicit can it be challenged or learnt from; otherwise it remains a thing of assumptions and beliefs. In order make use of the “lessons of the past”, they must first be recognised. This synthesis draws both from the relevant literature and historical artefacts and from interviews and consultations.

A chronological outline of key developments and milestones

This history concentrates on the “living history” of the system – the past 30 or so years that have had the most impact on the current culture and operations of the Public Service. It focuses on a whole-of-system level complementing investments made in research, science, policy and programs, all of which are foundational in innovation capacity. It is recognized that many other incidents, events and actions have occurred at an individual and organisational level will also have had some impact. However, a whole-of-system view of history must, by necessity, limit itself to key trends and milestones if it is to be coherent.

An initial examination of the recent history of the Public Service of Canada reveals multiple efforts to import new models of thinking and reform. By some counts, there have been at least eight sets of initiatives of varying significance related to public service renewal since the late 1980s (Heintzman, 2014: 6). While not all (or perhaps most) of these explicitly concerned innovation, some of them helped to shape the environment for innovation and are thus worth noting.

The first major renewal initiative was the PS 2000 process. This began in 1989 and led to the enactment of the Public Service Reform Act of 1992 (which, among other things, designated the Clerk as the Head of the Public Service).

In 1989, the senior public leadership in Canada launched a major internal assessment and renewal of the public service and public management: PS 2000. One of the elements of this exercise was an attempt at cultural change that would foster a spirit of initiative, and convince public servants to shift their focus from adherence to rules and regulations towards producing excellence in service. (Public Policy Forum, 1998)

While not a direct initiative of the Public Service itself, a concurrent (and possibly related) development in 1990 was the creation of an Award for Innovative Management by the Institute of Public Administration of Canada (IPAC) and private sponsors (IPAC, 2018). (The award, which continues to the present day, is not limited to the federal Public Service, and aims to recognize and encourage innovation across all levels of government.) The award helped to raise awareness of innovation, and also provided a valuable source of cases to inform research into its practice (e.g. Borins, 2014).

One outcome that did emerge explicitly from the PS 2000 process was the creation of the Canadian Centre for Management Development (CCMD) in 1991. Its legislated objectives included: working to ensure that managers possess the skills and knowledge to respond to change, helping managers enjoy a successful and co-operative relationship with staff including through the encouragement of innovation, and performing studies and research into the theory and practice of public sector management (Government of Canada, 1991).

Among its early activities, the CCMD established Expo Innovation, which gave government departments a forum to showcase innovation to other public servants and members of the public (Shortliffe, 1994). The Expo was held every two years, and became the forum for the presentation of the Margaret Cottrell-Boyd Innovation Award, created in 1994 (Löffler, 2001: 30). This award was granted to any group or individual “who has attempted or implemented a project in the federal Public Service ... which is unique in the federal Public Service, and pushes the boundaries of creativity and innovation; and which has the potential to make a significant contribution to the improvement of the federal Public Service” (Doherty, 1995). The award and the Expo can be seen as examples of the Public Service actively promoting and emphasising innovation in practice.

In the mid-1990s, a project called Canada 2005 was established to “identify and analyse the major forces that will affect Canada in the next decade” (Bourgon, 1997). This in turn led to the establishment of the Policy Research Secretariat, which would support a relevant interdepartmental committee of assistant deputy ministers. This was an early example of forward-looking activity and preparation for a changing future.

In the late-1990s onwards, the Clerk(s) laid emphasis on the Public Service becoming a learning organisation – one in which there would be recognition that mistakes would be made, where ideas would both be generated and sought from elsewhere, and where knowledge and insight would be disseminated to expand their potential applications (Bourgon, 1998: 21-22). A learning organisation orientation can be significant for innovation, as it helps to identify the gaps between what is and what could be (OECD 2016).

In 1999, Canada launched the Government On-Line Initiative, a whole-of-government multi-year effort to help accelerate the development of online services (Government of Canada, 2006). This was a significant initiative that led to the Canadian government being, at the time, the world’s most connected country to its citizens (Government of Canada, 2006: 1). It constituted a prime example of innovation being pursued (successfully) at a whole-of-government scale.

The year 2000 saw the release of Results for Canadians: A Management Framework for the Government of Canada (TBS, 200). This was another significant reform initiative for the public service, emphasising a citizen focus, the achievement of results for Canadians, the importance of sound public service values, and the need to “promote discipline, due diligence and value for money in the use of public funds” (TBS, 2000: 1). One of the central agencies, the Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS), as part of its management role identified a business line around “service and innovation” that “works with departments to improve access to convenient and seamless service, to increase satisfaction with what is delivered and to promote innovation, partnership and best practices” (TBS, 2000: 23). This constituted a significant step in identifying an explicit responsibility for innovation within the machinery of government.

The same year saw the Policy Research Secretariat become the Policy Research Initiative, a shift characterised by a move away from being a facilitator towards becoming a leader in conducting medium-term, horizontal research projects (Policy Horizons Canada, 2018a). This change is indicative of a future-oriented outlook and an interest in emerging issues (and thus potential areas for innovation).

The early 2000s also witnessed a number of high-profile cases or developments that helped to attune, or reinforce the wariness of, the Public Service to the consequences of getting things wrong. Incidents of perceived mis-administration such as the Human Resource Development Canada Audit in 2000 (Sutherland, 2003) or the Commission of Inquiry into the Sponsorship Program and Advertising Activities in 2005 (Greene and Shugarman, 2006) may not have been about innovation per se, but provided strong cultural memories, the effects of which still resonate powerfully today and clearly shape part of the context for how some people think about innovation, as well as the appetite for risk in the Public Service.

We have also suffered some setbacks that we need to examine and learn from. We were all dismayed by what we have heard about incidents of serious mismanagement and, most disturbingly, breaches of the public trust. These incidents sadden all of us and we will address them. […] Now we have to get the balance right. We have to restore the rigour without smothering the creativity. We know from long experience that more red tape is not the answer; it would surely stifle the creativity that we need in order to serve Canadians well. As well, in our drive for renewed rigour, we cannot lose sight of the fact that the Public Service is all about people. Whatever change we introduce, we have to do it with humanity, taking care to help staff through transitions and to thrive in the midst of ambiguity and change. (Himelfarb, 2004: 4-5)

Even with these high-profile incidents and the accompanying reshaping of risk appetites, this time period also involved some developments that were reflective of leading edge thinking, and which contributed to the precursor activities of the current focus on innovation. For instance, in 2002 the CCMD published Organising for Deliberate Innovation: A Toolkit for Teams, one of the first innovation toolkits to be targeted at the public sector. It provided a “practical, deliberate approach for individuals and teams that want to maximize their potential to innovate” (Dinsdale, Moore and Gaudes, 2002: 9).

In 2005, the Canadian Forest Service (CFS) released their report Canadian Wildland Fire Strategy: A Vision for an Innovative and Integrated Approach to Managing Risks. While very much a topic-specific activity, this report can be viewed as an example of a forward-looking document that included among its principles the statement that “Innovation and evaluation are essential to ensuring the continuous improvement of wildland fire management policies and practices across Canada” (CFS, 2005). This report, while only an example, is a demonstration of innovation being taken seriously and subsequently integrated into the core work of an agency. This work, as well as the emphasis on learning organisations from consecutive Clerks, helped prepare the ground for the formation of a learning organisation community of practice within CFS that same year.

While a relatively informal grouping, this particular community of practice appears to have made significant contributions to the undertaking of public sector innovation, especially through its influence on people who were involved in its meetings and participated in the training offered. Some individuals in the Canadian system highlighted the importance of this community to their individual innovation journeys.

In 2006, the Policy Research Initiative was moved to another agency, where it focused on providing advice and improving the dissemination of work within the senior ranks of the Public Service (Policy Horizons Canada, 2018a).

In 2008, another significant, forward-looking initiative entitled canada@150 was launched. This activity, which ran for a year, “was sponsored by the Clerk of the Privy Council as a learning and development initiative that asked 150 early-career public servants to think broadly about Canada and its future” (Policy Horizons Canada, 2018b).

[email protected] was a unique opportunity to explore the future of public service. It experimented with social, cultural, organisational, and technological innovations we could embrace as we move to new ways of working. It developed leadership skills, built life-long networks, and offered a positive vision of the Public Service. Perhaps the most important result of [email protected] is bringing forward a new generation of public servants who speak with confidence about the future of their institution with a commitment to preserve the best while adapting it to new times and conditions. (Policy Research Initiative, 2010: 5)

Such activities appear to have played an important role in introducing new possibilities to a wider audience, and helping to empower individuals with the sense that different outcomes could be achieved.

The development of GCpedia in 2008 was another forward-looking initiative indicative of a desire within the Public Service to engage with new technology and the new ways of working that it enables. GCpedia also laid the groundwork for later collaborative platforms including GCconnex in 2009 and GCcollab in 2017.

In 2009, the Web 2.0 Practitioners Group was formed. This informal group had a lasting impact: it was an important formative experience for a number of innovation practitioners/allies, some of whom are now progressing into more senior positions in the Public Service.

Another important informal initiative, Policy Ignite, was created shortly afterwards in 2010. Policy Ignite was created as “a grassroots event – organized by federal public servants, for federal public servants and other policy stakeholders – to showcase bright ideas in policy development” (Policy Ignite, 2018). This event-based initiative continues and has, at times, been an important, although not official, avenue for sharing ideas and exposing new thinking (and thinkers) to senior leaders.

From 2010 onwards, a greater range of actors began to engage more often and more seriously with innovation as a practice and an issue. A number of experiments were designed to encourage public servants to put forward their ideas. One such formal scheme was the Employee Innovation Program, created in 2010, which would “see public servants with a ‘creative or practical idea’ receive a cash award of 10% of the cost savings, up to $10,000” (Karam, 2010). Such initiatives helped build a more sophisticated understanding of how to (or sometimes not) engage with innovation as a process, rather than seeing it as either a serendipitous activity or an abstract concept.

The year 2011 was of particular note. The Deputy Minister Committee on Public Service Renewal embarked on a foresight study on the future of the federal Public Service and outlined a proposed vision for the Public Service. This led to the most significant milestone in the recent history of public sector innovation – the Blueprint 2020 process, which ran until 2014. This process involved an extensive engagement strategy, including the development of Blueprint 2020 Champions in each department. This spurred a plethora of department-based activity, including the establishment of a number of innovation labs. The Blueprint 2020 process represented a major development for many individual innovation actors, as both a forward-looking exercise and as an opportunity and an invitation to think about what else might be possible.

The same year also saw the Policy Research Institute become Policy Horizons Canada, with a mandate to provide foresight and help anticipate emerging policy challenges and opportunities for Canada in a rapidly changing world (Policy Horizons Canada, 2018a).

Other significant events included the decision by the former Department of Employment and Social Development to implement testing of new funding instruments (e.g. pay for performance), and Canada becoming a member of the Open Government Partnership.

A concurrent development that was also noteworthy was the creation in 2012 of the Deputy Minister’s Committee on Social Media and Policy Development, which shortly thereafter became the Deputy Minister’s Committee on Policy Innovation. The Committee held one of the first “Dragons’ Den” exercises for the Public Service of Canada in 2013, and introduced “reverse mentors” into the committee structure. Reverse Mentors were working-level staff who were paired with Deputy Ministers for meetings to provide advice and insight into emerging issues that Deputy Ministers might not be intimately familiar with (e.g. social media). The introduction of the reverse mentors proved important because it helped feed the innovation skills and practitioner pool, and acted as a form of validation for the involvement of a wider group of people in innovation. It also demonstrated that relevant knowledge, expertise and insight could come from all levels, not just senior leadership.

It should be noted that this period of major innovation-related developments took place within a broader context of cost-cutting (the Strategic and Operating Review/Deficit Reduction Action Plan of 2011). This inevitably influenced how some perceived these new innovation-targeted initiatives, and may have contributed to a perception by some that the focus on innovation was primarily about efficiency and cost reduction, rather than a true interest in doing things differently, or in trying to achieve better outcomes.

Nonetheless, the Blueprint process helped to spur the development of a range of departmental initiatives, including the creation of a series of labs in 2014 and 2015. These events played a key role in starting to develop a more visible (and thus accessible) innovation community across the Public Service. The Blueprint process also led, in 2015, to the creation of the Central Innovation Hub (the precursor to what is now the Impact and Innovation Unit). This was a major demonstration on the part of the central government that innovation was important, expected and wanted. Two other relevant initiatives that came out of the Blueprint process were the establishment of an Internal Red Tape Reduction Tiger Team to identify and tackle process issues, and the establishment of an annual Innovation Fair in 2015.

The various innovation labs and hubs created in agencies helped to kick-start a more intense and visible period of exploration around public sector innovation, leading to a growth in learning about what worked and what did not. At the same time, some of the activity could be (and has been) interpreted as a form of “innovation theatre” – activity designed to be seen as undertaking innovation but that does not in reality actually involve serious innovation. As innovation became more widely practised (albeit from a small base), there was a gradual increase in the collective development of more sophisticated innovation practice(s). Some of this learning was reflected, for instance, by the development and release of the Novel Policy Instruments Portal, which helped to bring together a range of different tools and approaches, contextualised for the Public Service of Canada.

Possibly the most important recent event, from a system-wide perspective, was the 2015 Mandate Letter for the President of the Treasury Board (Prime Minister of Canada, 2015), which set out the government’s expectations vis-à-vis innovation in the public sector. Every department would henceforth engage in experimentation, using a percentage of their spending for experiments. This mandate introduced a major driver for agencies to engage with innovation. This emphasis on experimentation accompanied a separate but related Results and Delivery Agenda, which strongly emphasised impact and delivering on identified government priorities and commitments.

In 2016-17, even more concerted and serious innovation efforts were launched amid an uptick in innovation activity. These were led in particular from the centre, with the Treasury Board Secretariat and the Privy Council Office undertaking a number of keystone initiatives. The many different initiatives included the release of guidance around experimentation, changes to key administrative processes to allow for the use of more innovative methods (e.g. the creation of generic terms and conditions allowing for the use of incentive-based funding, prizes and challenges, and micro-funding), and the development of easier ways to recruit different skillsets (e.g. the introduction of the New Directions in Staffing policy, which allowed for greater variety in hiring processes).

Another significant landmark at this time was the Transformation of Pay Administration Initiative (resulting in the Phoenix pay system). This high profile project, intended to centralise and consolidate different pay systems, and which had earlier been touted as an “innovative and effective solution” (Wouters, 2014: 23), resulted in significant issues for a number of public servants, including underpayment, overpayment or non-payment. While the initiative itself was not necessarily a significant innovation, being more of a modernisation effort involving great complexity than a process introducing significant novelty, this event clearly shaped people’s faith and belief in the ability of the Public Service to engage effectively with technology and to manage complex projects. It also influenced the perception of innovation and the extent to which it is seen as being feasible.

Other notable developments have included the Free Agent programme (an initiative to make access to talent within the public service more flexible), the Talent Cloud pilot (a proposed platform to better matching skills with needs across the public service) and the Policy Community Project (and the subsequent establishment of a Policy Community of Practice). The period from 2017 to 2018 also saw the closure of at least two innovation labs set up at the height of the Blueprint 2020 process. The significance of this shift in approach by some agencies is not immediately clear.

Finally, in late 2017, there were two particularly significant developments. The release of the Federal, Provincial and Territorial Declaration on Public Sector Innovation provided a high-level commitment to innovation from the most senior public servants across the country. This was accompanied by the launch of the Impact Canada Initiative, a formal whole-of-government effort that will help departments accelerate the adoption of outcomes-based funding approaches to deliver meaningful results to Canadians. This headline initiative places innovation front and centre in the public sector.

As noted in the introduction to this history, this chapter is not (and cannot hope to be) an exhaustive exploration of all of the initiatives, developments or noteworthy events. There will be some omissions, some nuances missed or even mistakes that come from piecing together a fragmented history and series of events distributed over time and across organisations. Rather, it constitutes an effort to capture the significant elements of the innovation journey, with a view to providing a sense of the breadth and depth of the Public Service’s engagement with innovation over the last 30 years. The next section presents a thematic overview of these developments in order to derive the significance of this history.

A thematic overview of the historical innovation journey

The following section attempts to describe some of the key issues or trends that have been observed from an examination of the historical innovation journey of the Public Service of Canada. In addition to primary research, it draws in particular from a range of artefacts and literature, in order to illustrate and reflect the narrative the system has, in effect, been telling itself. It makes deliberate use of and emphasises quotes and wording employed in various artefacts, in order to highlight and reinforce patterns that become apparent.

Recognition of a changing environment

Over the years, there has been consistent high-level recognition that ongoing forces are reshaping the operating context for government. The messages of respective Clerks or reform initiatives have acknowledged the existence of powerful drivers for change.

Under the influence of several significant trends – globalisation, new information technologies, fiscal pressures and the changing fabric of society – governments are confronted by ongoing changes to their political, social and economic environments. Because of the sweep of their impact and the type of change they represent, these trends are forcing governments to redefine the way they interact with citizens and even the organization of political systems. (Bourgon, 1995)

Why is public service work different and in many ways more challenging today than in the past? Many books have been written in an effort to answer this question, but the key factors that emerge in any serious study of public management today invariably include: Globalization […] The information revolution […] The emergence of many more horizontal issues […] The sheer complexity of Canada today […] Changing public attitudes toward government. (Lynch, 2007)

A number of drivers are putting pressure on the ways in which the Public Service operates, including: Increasing globalization, issue complexity and interconnectedness […] Accelerating technological change […] Changing demographics […] Growing demand for accountability and the achievement of results as efficiently as possible […] Shifting workplace expectations with respect to work and workplaces. (Government of Canada, 2013: 3)

This consistency suggests that one of the necessary preconditions for innovation is in place – an acceptance that the status quo cannot hold and an openness to new approaches.

Recognition that change is accelerating

There is also consistent recognition that the rate of change is accelerating.

The process and the importance of change will continue to accelerate. (Bourgon, 1995: 12)

Values endure, but our world is changing. Wherever you work in the Government of Canada today, you can feel the forces compelling change in the Public Service: the recent financial and economic crisis, and the Government’s response; the demographic transition occasioned by retirements and the arrival of a new generation of public servants; the growing diversity of our workforce, reflecting an increasingly diverse Canadian population; and, the revolution in technology that has made the Internet a primary working tool and the BlackBerry a near-universal way to connect with others. The cumulative impact to date has been profound, and these forces will continue to have an effect on the Public Service for many years to come. (Wouters, 2010: 1)

This recognition that the need for change will, if anything, increase, is important because it demonstrates an acceptance that the stresses affecting the Public Service are not temporary, but rather enduring. The need for innovation is not going to go away, and thus innovation must be taken seriously.

Longstanding interest, attention to renewal, innovation and looking to the future

Given the recognition that there are external drivers for change, and that that the rate of change is likely accelerating, it is unsurprising that there has been a longstanding interest in renewal. Formal signals from the leadership, for example, through the Annual Report to the Prime Minister on the Public Service of Canada, or through supported initiatives and activities, reveal a strong and ongoing interest in and emphasis on renewal of the Public Service. Though clearly shaped by and reflecting the needs of the respective governments of the day, this interest nonetheless appears to have been driven equally by the belief that the Public Service has a strong role to play in changing itself.

This focus on renewal has also often included, to some extent, explicit attention to innovation (e.g. Bourgon, 1997; Cappe, 2000; Himelfarb, 2003; Shortliffe 1994; Tellier, 1992; Wouters, 2010). There has also been an ongoing focus on the future (e.g. “Canada 2005”, [email protected], the creation of Policy Horizons Canada and the Blueprint 2020 process) and the ways in which the Public Service can respond, adapt and prepare for its changing environment.

This consistency of messaging and focus may be due in part to an early recognition in the discussion about renewal that change would not be a simple exercise. Rather, it has always been viewed as a process that would either take time, or simply be ongoing, and would require the involvement of everyone in order to make a difference.

Do all public servants understand the need for renewal and the direction which that renewal ought to take? Not yet, but that is because in the end people change themselves, and that takes time. (Tellier, 1992)

Why, exactly, is it important in 2007 to focus on the renewal of Canada’s Public Service? Many would say that the Public Service seems to have been renewing itself for much of the past 20 years. Is this process never going to end? Why is it necessary to put people and institutions through still more change and, some would say, upheaval, when there are so many other things to be done by government in the service of Canadians? The answer, to put it simply, is this: if the Public Service, as a core national institution, does not renew itself for future as well as current service to the government and people of Canada, it risks becoming less relevant, less useful and less respected as the years go by. If we do not commit ourselves to a continuing process of renewal, the Public Service will not remain a creative national institution, central to the governance and development of our country. (Lynch, 2007: 2)

All organizations must focus on renewal to remain efficient, effective, and relevant. The Public Service is no exception and is continually assessing how it can serve Canada and Canadians more effectively. (Wouters, 2014: 24)

Modernizing and renewing the Public Service serves three interconnected goals: it is fundamental to providing excellent service to Canadians, it is needed for a well-supported government, and it is the foundation for a healthy and productive workforce. (Wernick, 2017a: 9)

The growing awareness that reform not only takes time, but is an ongoing process, suggests a degree of acceptance that renewal and innovation are actually core activities for the Public Service, rather than temporary distractions.

Ongoing emphasis on traditions and core values

Simultaneous with the focus on renewal there has been a consistent emphasis on the core values and traditions of the Public Service of Canada, and an insistence that these are important and should not be perceived as being in tension with renewal. Renewal and innovation are presented as the means by which the Public Service can continue to do its job, rather than embodying a change in its essential mission or the fundamental tenets of the Public Service.

I am convinced that the Public Service is heading in the right direction. As we prepare for the challenges of the next century, I am confident that the traditional values of the Public Service – the values of loyalty, integrity, professionalism, fairness and impartiality that characterized the institution I joined 32 years ago – will remain its driving force. (Shortliffe, 1994)

The Public Service of Canada has a clear vision and mandate. No matter what the job, the task, the program or the location, all federal public servants are governed by a core philosophy: to serve Canadians and their government. Public attitudes and political institutions evolve, but our tradition of a professional, non-partisan public service transcends any specific reform or restructuring. (Bourgon, 1995: 47)

Renewal is about making sure that the federal Public Service preserves and strengthens its capacity to contribute to Canada’s successes through the delivery of excellent public services and policy advice. (Lynch, 2008: 4)

Although the core work of the Public Service will not fundamentally change in the years ahead, how we work must. (Wouters, 2012: 8)

However, this insistence has not always gelled with experience on the ground. The act of integrating innovation and traditional elements has not always been easy.

The new public service values of innovation and risk-taking are often perceived as clashing with the traditional values of accountability and neutrality. As well, public servants often perceive disconnects between the values stated by leaders and their actions. Failure to clearly communicate and demonstrate how the new and traditional values can be integrated may have increased resistance to more innovative approaches in the public service. (Public Policy Forum, 1999)

There is this sort of struggle between continuity and change in the public service and getting that balance right. There is a tendency to over-dramatize innovation and change because we do need to constantly improve and constantly think about how we do our work and what are we trying to accomplish, and renew our capacities and competencies. I am very supportive of the policy innovation conversation. But there is also continuity that the role that we play is embedded in Westminster democracy in a federal system that has served Canadians very, very well for 150 years. (Wernick, 2017b)

This tension between continuity and change is not easily resolved, and sits at the core of the difficulty of reform/renewal and innovation.

Ongoing reform efforts

Reflecting this longstanding interest in renewal and innovation, the Public Service of Canada has engaged in multiple reform initiatives over the last 30 years. In turn, this recent history builds on many other efforts reaching back to the Glassco Commission (looking at the organisation of the Government of Canada) in the 1960s (Jarvis, 2016; Scott-Kemmis, 2010).

Given the context – recognition of the need for change, an ongoing interest and commitment to change, an understanding that change is not a short-term exercise, and ongoing efforts to balance the old and the new – this ongoing engagement with reform processes/exercises is not surprising. It should also be viewed in an international context where many other countries are grappling with similar issues.

There is also evidence of ongoing reflection and questioning by the Public Service of Canada (and interested others) about the nature of this domestic reform vis-à-vis that of other countries. The general verdict is that, in some ways, the reform in Canada has been more gradual or perhaps more cautious than that occurring in other countries (e.g. Lindquist, 2006). In addition, this gradual but continual approach is not seen as a drawback, but rather a feature.

The new trends have brought about, in Canada and elsewhere, a reforming of the role of the federal government and the public sector over the last 15 years. Canada has adopted a gradual, phased approach to permit time for reflection and adjustment. (Bourgon, 1995: 11)

While Canadians have traditionally been known as innovators in public sector management, there is some evidence that in recent years other countries – Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and the United States – have begun to move forward more boldly than we have. (Lynch, 2007: 9)

Compared to other Western governments, Canada has been slow to adopt more innovative approaches. (Jarvis, 2016: 9)

We are less prone to the stop and start zig-zaggy path many other countries take. (Wernick, 2018b)

This suggests that while the need for reform (and innovation) has been accepted, it is by no means absolute or unconditional. It also suggests that the Canadian civil service has perhaps taken pride in not being faddish, but in being the “slow and steady” reformer.

Continuous improvement and/or/versus innovation

However, the consistent messages on renewal, modernisation, continuous improvement and innovation have perhaps not been accompanied by consistency on what is meant by innovation, and/or how it differs (if at all) from continuous improvement. The concepts often appear to have been bundled together or treated as interchangeable.

We are creating a public service which is innovative, open to new ideas, and one which strives for continuous improvement. (Cappe, 2000: 7)

Public service excellence, driven by constant improvement and innovation, helps fuel productivity. A professional, well-trained and well-managed Public Service provides a competitive advantage for Canada. (Government of Canada, 2013: 2)

We know meaningful and continuous improvement is possible. There are examples everywhere of departments and agencies applying innovations to their day-to-day work so that government makes sense to those within it and, most importantly, to those we serve. (Wernick, 2016: 9)

While there has been ongoing attention towards innovation, and increasing efforts to foster an environment more open to innovation, what is meant by innovation and what distinguishes it, has not always been especially clear.

Renewal and results

A common theme in the various reform efforts is an emphasis on results, rather than simply on activity or outputs. This longstanding interest and attention to results has been an integral part of the renewal push, along with the recognition that getting better outcomes often necessitates doing things differently or innovatively.

Are we now doing business in a fundamentally different way? No, but we are changing the way we do business – we are more focused on cost and value for money, increasingly oriented to results, and more receptive to innovation. Over time we will be serving Canadians differently and better. (Tellier, 1992)

Public and private sector organizations that measure and evaluate the results of their work find that this information transforms and empowers them. It allows them to reward success, to learn from experience and to build public confidence. Being able to measure and evaluate results is a prerequisite to delivering the quality programs, services and policies that Canadians deserve. (TBS, 2000: 10)

I am very proud of the work being done across the Government of Canada by the Impact and Innovation Unit at the Privy Council Office as well as the Canadian Digital Service at Treasury Board. We are working together to make sure that, not only do we see the opportunities and the challenges of new technology and new services, but we know how to measure the impact. It is not good enough just to have novelty and innovation. It is about having an impact and delivering better services. (Wernick, 2018a)

This suggests that while innovation has been linked to strategic aims, there has been a practical preference for more immediate and concrete priorities, as opposed to more exploratory and anticipatory aims.

Renewal and risk

A companion theme to results has been an ongoing focus on risk. Discussion has revolved around different approaches to navigating and engaging with the challenges involved.

It is equally important to accept that there can be no experimentation without risk. Ministers and senior officials must accept some of the uncertainty implicit in giving up a degree of control. Not every experiment will be a success. Some honest mistakes will be made. This needs to be understood and accepted. Our commitment should be to learn from these situations. (Bourgon, 1997: 26)

Although public servants do not necessarily imagine themselves facing a commission of inquiry for every decision they make, there is a perception that public servants who make mistakes, even if under the orders of their superiors, will pay a heavy price. (Public Policy Forum, 1998)

Change involves uncertainty; it requires a measure of risk, a measure of leadership and a measure of vision. But risk must be calculated, assessed and embraced prudently. By managing and taking risks, the Public Service will adapt, learn and be strengthened. If we do this well, the public trust will be stronger. If we fail, we should be held to account for our miscalculations, admit to our mistakes, learn from them and take corrective action. (Himelfarb, 2003: 7-8)

That pressure signals the necessity to take intelligent risks in pursuit of opportunity. Yet, at the same time, risk must be better managed. The public is not willing to write a blank cheque and demands forthrightness from public institutions. Recent controversies have underscored the need for a management agenda that ensures probity, transparency and responsible stewardship of public resources. (Stoyko, Henning and McCaughey, 2006: 14-15)

Whether the size of the federal government grows or retrenches, public servants will need to become more skilled at communicating the benefits of calculated risk-taking to Canadians and decision-makers. Risk-taking is essential to ensuring that new programs and initiatives are sufficiently innovative to meet their objectives, or alternatively that a lower overall number of government dollars are creatively used to achieve better results with a smaller fiscal footprint. (Policy Research Initiative, 2010: 168)

The conversation around risk, while evolving over time and becoming more sophisticated, has also retained a level of consistency in its appearance. Recurrent topics include the need for risk to be taken, the notion of intelligent risk, the importance of communicating clearly about risk and an acknowledgement that risk-taking is not without consequences. This consistency suggests that certain fundamental tensions have not been resolved, nor has the ability for innovation to sometimes actually reduce risk (through testing and experimentation) been embraced.

Balancing empowerment with accountability and control

These tensions are highlighted in another clear theme found in the discussion of earlier reform initiatives: the challenge of finding the right balance between providing greater freedom from process controls, and ensuring that sufficient control and accountability mechanisms are in place. After PS 2000, there was a significant shift towards providing much more freedom.

In many places, we are seeing the first signs of a real transformation in management culture. The old “command and control” model is not dead yet, but it is rapidly being replaced by a new kind of institutional culture in which people are valued and decisions are taken with much greater input from those who have to implement them. (Tellier, 1992)

However, this freedom was soon perceived as having gone too far, and began to be scaled back in the late 1990s.

When the concept of empowerment was first introduced into government culture, it was sometimes perceived as conferring the right to break the rules. Political, bureaucratic and media reactions to initiatives seen as irresponsible decisions to ignore rules have contributed to maintaining risk aversion in the public service. As well, the continuing development of generalized controls to ensure that resources are not mismanaged are often perceived by the public servants as proof that they are not trusted to make the right decisions. (Public Policy Forum, 1999)

While there were continual efforts to find some sort of appropriate balance, a satisfactory compromise was clearly not easy to achieve. Formal guidance emphasised trying to find a middle ground, but the practice did not necessarily resemble this ideal.

This philosophy underscores an important management balance: flexible enough on the delegation of decision-making authority and on administrative rules to support initiative and common sense – but tight enough on standards and control systems to ensure clear accountability. (TBS, 2000: 19)

The reputation of our institution has been damaged in recent years. Core competencies have been criticized and questioned. There have been public controversies about the way we managed grants and contributions, distributed sponsorship funds and managed a national registration system. This scarring may not be permanent, but it shakes the pride we have in our institution. It undermines the contract of trust between citizens, parliamentarians and us. We must be vigilant at all times, being as careful as required, but operating in a manner that does not stifle innovation. (Himelfarb, 2003: 7)

There was open admittance that things had gone too far one way and that greater control was needed (or perhaps demanded).

But we also lost some of our rigour. We removed some departmental controls while we were reducing central oversight. As we brought in new staff, we did not make sure that they had the training they needed to do their jobs well. We did not develop the information systems that would help us keep proper track of financial and operational performance. In our drive to serve Canadians better, we may have lost sight, sometimes, of the basics. (Himelfarb, 2004: 5)

There was also recognition that there was a need to find a better solution, rather than shifting back and forth between excesses.

History tells us, however, that the Public Service has oscillated between a tendency to implement overarching controls and a tendency to empower its employees. Those pendulum swings have led to much confusion and exasperation. The cycle needs to be broken to achieve a sustainable balance between risk-taking and care-taking. This is precisely what the Government is doing with its on-going agenda to improve public management. (Stoyko, Henning and McCaughey, 2006: 15)

However, balancing between adequate controls, accountability, and giving the public service sufficient flexibility to adapt and respond, remained an ongoing challenge (Lindquist, 2006: 48). In more recent years, there has been a sense that the emphasis on rules and controls has once again become too stifling and restrictive, impairing the ability of the Public Service and public servants to do what needed to be done. Despite this realisation, it has apparently not been easy to make the transition back from an emphasis on control to a state of appropriate and responsible agility and empowerment. This difficulty is demonstrated by the repeated acknowledgement of the issue in recent years.

Increased innovation will help us become more effective and efficient. We need new ideas, experimentation and better implementation. However, I recognize that it is difficult to innovate when hampered by unnecessary rules. That is why unravelling the web of rules at both the public service and departmental levels must continue. (Wouters, 2010: 13-14)

We must resist the urge to create layer upon layer of rules and processes to shield ourselves from every possible error. This has been our tendency in the recent past. It cannot be our approach in the future. (Wouters, 2012: 10)

Employees have told us that they are equally concerned about internal red tape as Canadians were about external red tape prior to the successful Red Tape Reduction exercise. Public servants are looking for the reduction of unnecessary burden in internal processes, and provided many ideas on to how to streamline business processes, including approvals. (Wouters, 2014: 26)

However, while they recognize the need for rules, public servants noted that the current rules, policies and guidelines are difficult to find and, once found, difficult to understand. The judgement applies to both Treasury Board policies and the vast number of rules created by departments to supplement them. (TBS, 2016: 3)

We also need lighter processes and simpler structures in order to be more agile and nimble in serving Canadians. We must make sure that the rules, structures, and policies in place are enabling and empowering. We need to get rid of process for the sake of process, or because we have always done it that way. If certain things are not working or getting results, we need to have the courage to change course, and sometimes stop doing them. (Wernick, 2017a: 21)

This question of finding the right balance – the right mix of freedom to operate, and of responsibility to due process and accountability – has been at the heart of many reform efforts that have taken place in the Public Service of Canada.

Enough reform?

It is clear there have been consistent efforts at reform. These have likely been instrumental in delivering results and ensuring that the Public Service of Canada has been able to continue to meet the expectations and demands placed upon it.

And yet, another ongoing theme that is clear from looking at the history is that differing reforms have been perceived as insufficient to meeting the challenges at hand.

When PS 2000 was launched in 1989, it included an objective to change the public service from a focus on rules and regulations towards an approach which promoted initiative, entrepreneurship, and innovation. Senior leaders, both political and bureaucratic, as well as public servants at all levels, have expressed disappointment at the results. (Public Policy Forum, 1999)

Yet, after more than a decade of grappling with many governance challenges, some unique to Canada and most encountered by all OECD governments, and as well as a series of reform initiatives by governments and public service leaders, there are decidedly mixed views about what has been accomplished and the state of the public service. On the one hand, there has been considerable restructuring and innovation to address significant challenges, resulting in deserved pride about accomplishments. On the other, there is a perception that the Canadian government has been less bold and coherent in its approach to public sector reform. (Lindquist, 2006: 1)

Notwithstanding the benefits of being cautious and avoiding faddish reforms, our research found that past reform initiatives did not effectively address the core challenges confronting the civil service. Nor have past reform efforts set the civil service on solid footing to effectively respond to the scale of disruption currently taking place. (Jarvis, 2016: 6)

In many ways, this fits with the earlier observation that renewal has been consistently understood as an ongoing undertaking, and therefore something that will always need further work. In this light, any perceived shortcomings about renewal and innovation efforts can be perceived as part of a broader recognition that change requires ongoing learning and discovery. From this perspective, any (and every) initiative will naturally not be sufficient, because each one represents a single stepping stone on a longer path.

There is no master plan – nor can there be. Everyone must join in and make a contribution. We will learn from each other. In so doing, we will discover new ways of modernizing the public sector and the Canadian federation at the same time. (Bourgon, 1997: 27)

Need for further innovation

Given this mature understanding of renewal and innovation as an ongoing journey of discovery and learning, it is logical that there would also be an acceptance that more innovation is needed. Indeed, this is apparent throughout the recent history of the Public Service. There is an ongoing awareness that more innovation is required; that previous efforts to encourage, allow and support innovation have not been enough; and that many public servants also actually want to innovate.

However, the general sense remains that an adequate level of innovation and responsible risk-taking has not yet been reached at either the management or staff levels. An inquiry is needed to identify the barriers that still exist to innovation as a more frequent characteristic of good performance in government. (Public Policy Forum, 1998)

We have begun the transformation to a modern, people-centred Public Service of Canada, one which is more flexible and responsive, adaptive and innovative. But the transformation is taking place too slowly. Current laws, rules and structures for managing people in the Public Service are neither flexible nor responsive enough to allow us to compete for talent in a knowledge economy. As well, the industrial era mindset and culture is still alive in many parts of today’s Public Service. (Cappe, 2001: 3)

Earlier, I outlined a number of significant public service innovations. While these are notable, more are needed and I look forward to seeing them. (Wouters, 2010: 14)

The level of public service innovation in Canada appears low and disconnected. A defined innovation process and strategic approach is required. (Deloitte and Public Policy Forum, 2011: 1)

To meet the rising expectations of Canadians, we need to accelerate the pace of modernization and renewal. (Wernick, 2016: 9)

More efforts are also needed to make successful and innovative practices the norm. (Wernick, 2017a: 21)

It is, thus, fair to say that the Public Service of Canada has had, and continues to have, both an expectation and a desire for more innovation, as a means to achieve better results, meet rising expectations and to continue to be a Public Service that strives for excellence.


The thematic analysis of the innovation journey of the Public Service of Canada of the past 30 years highlights a number of issues including:

  • Recognition of a changing environment – there has been consistent acknowledgement of drivers of change.

  • Recognition that change is accelerating – there has been consistent acknowledgement that the pace of change is not slowing.

  • Longstanding interest and attention in renewal, innovation and looking to the future – there is acceptance that things need to change.

  • Ongoing emphasis on traditions and core values – there is a focus on retaining core elements of the Public Service, even while seeking to change how it operates.

  • Ongoing reform efforts – there are consistent efforts to effect change.

  • Continuous improvement and/or/versus innovation – these two concepts are often blurred.

  • Renewal and results – there is a focus on results and impact on citizens, rather than just on activity or outputs.

  • Renewal and risk – there is an evolving, but still consistent, concern with risk.

  • Balancing empowerment with accountability and control – there are ongoing difficulties with finding the right balance between flexibility and restriction.

  • Enough reform? – renewal and innovation are seen as an ongoing journey of learning and discovery.

  • Need for further innovation – there is an expectation and desire for further innovation to meet a changing world.

The actors in the history

Throughout the history, the roles of different actors can also be noted. In a complex interconnected system the contribution of individual actors is hard to truly quantify, and so the following should not be taken as a definitive assessment of the historical role of each player. Rather, it seeks to show that the innovation journey has developed through the efforts of many organisations and many individuals.

  • The Privy Council Office (PCO) and the Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS) have played the most significant roles, in accordance with their functions as central agencies. They have been priority setters, enablers, process owners and sometimes potential blocking points (for reasons both structural and otherwise).

  • The relationship with other actors across the system and with PCO and TBS has not always been harmonious. As might be expected with an issue under constant evolution, the respective roles and contributions of different players with regards to innovation have not always been clear, and sometimes this has led to tension.

  • Some departments, such as Natural Resources Canada, appear to have had a longstanding engagement with innovation, which has contributed to more developed innovation capabilities or understandings of the value and use of innovation.

  • In the absence of more formalised structures, informal groups and networks appear to have functioned as a significant avenue for individuals to engage with innovation, build their understanding and as a means to develop their innovation practice. The impact of these groups, many of which have been temporary, can only be truly appreciated in retrospect as their members progress in their careers and share their lessons/experiences over time.

  • A review of the history highlights the impact of certain individuals over time. This might reflect the fact that public sector innovation has not been a “crowded space”. As innovation has not been either a routine or a formalised practice, despite the consistent highlighting of this need, individuals have often had an outsized impact as compared to other, more established practices and systems.

A long history of innovation

In summary, the Public Service of Canada has a long history of innovation. It also has a lengthy tradition of engaging with active efforts to foster, support and stimulate innovation, to varying degrees of success. Canada has, at times, been at the forefront of this field, even if it has not necessarily been as bold as certain other countries.

It is also apparent that this has not, at times, been a comfortable journey. There have been challenges. Finding the right balance between holding on to core traditions and engaging with new ways of working, between engaging with risk-taking and “care-taking”, and between control and empowerment has been difficult. Innovation has been valued, but it has not necessarily always fit neatly with some of the core elements of the Public Service.


What is the significance of this historical view of the innovation journey of the Public Service of Canada? What does it matter to the current or future journey? The following implications are proposed as considerations for future efforts to support innovative activity within the public service.

  • Innovation is hard: Innovation as an idea is not a new to the Public Service of Canada. It has been reflected in action, discussion and high-level messaging for at least 30 years. Existing activity has been significant, in some ways, and has contributed to the Public Service of Canada being generally well regarded and perceived as effective. However, there has been an ongoing sense that more needs to be done to encourage and engage with innovation. This suggests, then, that getting to grips with innovation is not an easy task, nor one that can be accomplished quickly or with a single push. It takes consistent, significant and repeated effort.

  • It is not enough to do the obvious: The Public Service of Canada has already implemented many of the actions expected to encourage, stimulate, support and recognise innovation. For instance, it has:

    • created awards to recognise and raise the profile of innovative efforts

    • looked to reduce the barriers and hurdles for those trying to undertake innovation

    • introduced a structural driver for innovation (the experimentation directive)

    • produced ongoing messaging about the need for and the importance of innovation (the Federal-Provincial-Territorial Declaration on Public Sector Innovation)

    • introduced dedicated spaces and units (labs and hubs) to help build innovative practice

    • introduced and enabled new tools

    • engaged in an ongoing discussion about risk and how to negotiate it when undertaking innovative activity

    • issued a signal from the centre of government that innovation is both important and expected.

There are some possible gaps and there may be debate as to whether some of these initiatives were as consistent or sophisticated in their implementation as needed or whether the underlying support was truly sufficient. However, this does not negate the fact that many of the more immediately apparent or logical approaches have already been attempted. This suggests that there are no easy answers, in line with the implication that innovation is hard.

  • Beware of innovation theatre: Another possibility, although one that is not mutually exclusive, is that there may have been some instances or occasions of “innovation theatre”. Such activity and initiatives and rhetoric are not serious in intent or sufficient in scope to be effective. Innovation theatre can be detrimental because it can engage and then disappoint or de-motivate people, as the gap between what is promoted and what actually occurs becomes apparent. It can also absorb resources and support that could otherwise be deployed towards emergent or more serious endeavours. This is a particular risk where innovation is not really understood, is seen as a fad or where the impetus for change is not really appreciated.

  • The informal is as important as the formal: Formal initiatives are of course important, but the history presented here demonstrates that informal groups, networks and activities are also significant and can have lasting impacts. By their very nature, they cannot necessarily be mandated or arranged, but they can be facilitated and supported if and when they do emerge.

  • Repeating patterns and the need to understand the history: Over a longer timeframe it becomes possible to see certain patterns in activity as well as recurring issues and themes. This suggests that the relevant lessons are not always captured or disseminated. This is especially a risk when innovation practice is not identified as explicitly related to innovation, but rather as an individual issue, project or management change process. If something novel is viewed only through the lens of a specific policy domain or issue (e.g. improving veteran services), it will probably be harder for those working in unrelated areas to learn from it (e.g. fisheries management), even when the knowledge is relevant or of use. Innovative practices can only develop across a diverse system if they are seen and talked about it in a cross-cutting manner, and are clearly referred to as innovation.

Further developing the innovation practice of the Public Service of Canada

The practice of innovation in the Public Service of Canada has developed over time. However, given the established desire (and need) for further innovation, and ongoing attempts to build more sophisticated and mature innovative practices, more is needed. But what form might they take?

The next chapter examines current knowledge about public sector innovation and considers what the implications might be for the Canadian context.


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