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The Alternative to 'Death by a thousand cuts'

Alcide DeGagné

Earlier this week, the Ottawa Citizen published a Susan Riley piece entitled “Death by a thousand cuts”.  In it she expressed her concern that “no good will come” from the current round of federal budget cuts.  While I don’t subscribed to her largely cynical notion that only bad things will result, I do share her worry that the total focus on cuts pushes aside the need to build a “leaner, more nimble public service.”

I also want to stress my belief that the Public Service is populated with talented and intelligent people. But let’s face it, to arrive at a leaner, more nimble public service—one that builds creative capacity and embraces risk—there must be a radical cultural shift. But the culture, well that’s something else…

We have danced this dance before.

Many of us went through this same exercise during the downsizing that took place during the 90’s, and some of our lessons learned from that experience:

  • Ideally, cuts should target positions—not head count

    An open-ended incentive package for early departure is only about saving dollars; unfortunately, it’s often those with the most knowledge and the most talent that leave.
  • Failure to inform people what lies ahead—the why and the when—generates fear, uncertainty, and stress

    The bottom line is that this negatively impacts productivity and capacity immediately, and results in a deteriorated workplace climate that discourages change.
  • Wrong end of knife-280x186Those employees that remain are often left to fend for themselves

    The skills and experience that have walked out the door cannot be replaced or learned quickly, so remaining employees must struggle through as best they can.

This reshaping of the Public Service will require rethinking your business and how you do business. Ideally, this should be done concurrently as you re-define the organizational mandate and expected results, streamline business processes, re-design jobs, and build competencies and capacities.

Getting Lean Is More Than Trimming Fat

In contrast to the cost-cutting mentality that is usually applied, building the creative capacity of the professional public service is a theme with great merit.  And private and public sector organizations, faced with the same need for capacity growth in an environment of limited financial resources, are shaping “lean” organizations. 

The Lean concept is a management approach that has evolved from the automotive manufacturing floor, and is now finding its way into the halls and cube farms of the “office”.  More than just another management tool, Lean is really an all-embracing philosophy, one that considers the use of resources for any goal other than the creation of value for the end customer to be wasteful—and thus a target for elimination.

And, as you consider the application of lean to any public sector organization, remember that the first two principles of lean are continuous improvement and respect for people.

The remaining 4 are:

  • long-term thinking;
  • belief that the right process will produce the right results;
  • adding value to the organization by developing your people and partners;
  • and, continuously solving root problems drives organizational learning.

To be clear—Lean is about reducing waste in every form, and, ultimately, costs.  It is not about reducing head count!

Trimming Fat is More Than Counting Pennies

Now wouldn’t it be wonderful if the goal of every department within the Government of Canada was just that: any expenditure of resources for any goal other than the creation of value for Canadians is wasteful and thus a target for elimination!  Of course, this approach would be aligned by political and strategic intent, and implemented by a committed cadre of executives and a core of engaged employees. Wow!

For several years running the Clerk of the Privy Council, Canada’s most senior public servant, has given an accounting of activities aimed at improving public service management in his Annual Report on Public Service Renewal to the Prime Minister. While many good ideas, initiatives and interesting insights were reported, most observers believe that the public service culture and workplace climate has remained unchanged—this is particularly so with the 'net generation'.

With these issues in mind, I feel that that there are two critical things to be aware of if this deficit reduction process is going to be successful:

  1. The resource allocation decision-makers must NOT focus exclusively on dollars and cents, but bear in mind the need for a leaner, more nimble public service.
  2. Those who are implementing the decisions must recognize the need for effective change management and alignment processes.

If you have not already read our series on managing in a SOR and DRAP environment, you may find these posts relevant:

Strategic and Operating Reviews: We Can't Agree to Disagree
Strategic and Operating Reviews Part 2: Alignment and Failure
Strategic and Operating Reviews Part 3: Change and Failure
Strategic and Operating Reviews Part 4: A Framework for Success
$90k-a-day for Consulting? Depends What You Are Buying.


Great advice here for leaders caught up in strategic review. The reality is the measure will be in simple numbers. That said, the only way to make those numbers and still deliver service to Canadians is the Radical Re-Design you speak of. In that lies an opportunity to make something better.

Culture change will not change with another plan or what I have seen called change management. It changes when leaders decide to change their behaviour. In changes when we begin to see ourselves as leaders. It changes one conversation at a time.

By @thomkearney on 2011/10/08

Thom, thanks for your good points. Exactly, the numbers in the end must work given the strategic objectives the government has established to reduce the deficit—a goal that all thinking Canadians subscribe to. There’s not a lot of magic available to make that happen without the pain and hard work that is entailed.

That said, there’s still an upside possible for managers who can see that the “doing more with less” needs a people engagement effort to make it work. Aligning strategy, operations, and people engagement at the pointy end of Federal Government Services would work wonders. It is also a test of the Clerk of the Privy Council hard work of recent years on the “management competency framework”.

Otherwise, the result with simple be “doing less with less”.

By Alcide DeGagne on 2011/10/11

Thom, you hit on exactly what I was trying to point out in the piece that I recently posted on Kotter’s 8 Steps to Creating Change.

Yes, building a “guiding coalition” is a critical step, but it must include the right people.  It can’t be just people from the top—it must include leaders from all levels of the organization.  However, it is even more important that it does include people from the top.  If the organization’s leadership just hands off the change program to the implementation team, makes it their job, and doesn’t engage in leadership or follow-up, the effort will fail.

It is possible to create change via policy and directive.

It is not possible to create transformational change without engaged and sustained leadership from the top.

By Geoff Schaadt on 2011/10/11

Interesting comments! At the risk of being facetious, the SOR / DRAP can be seen as the “perfect burning platform” on which to build the kind of radical change needed that so many public servants wish for.

I suppose it all depends how bad off PS managers seen the climate will be after the cuts have been metabolized. 

Interest thought… What do you think the current round of SOR offers the potential to be that “burning platform”?

By Alcide DeGagne on 2011/10/11

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Posted by Alcide DeGagné
Posted on September 28, 2011

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Categories: change management, competitiveness, current events, lessons learned, public service renewal