Lessons from the field: An interview with Andrew Treusch, Part 2

This month’s blog features Andrew Treusch, Commissioner of Revenue and Chief Executive Officer of the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA). This is Part 2 of our conversation (for Part 1, see below, Sept 17, 2014).

Legacy of wisdom

Reflecting on his years in the public service, Andrew shares what he sees as his legacy:

When I think about what is really going to count for me, it’s quite simple. When you come to the end of your career in the public service, and I have been in 30 years now, you realize that most of the accomplishments you took so much pride in are quite transitory.

When I was younger, if there was an initiative that found its way into the budget that was favoured by government and money was put into it, I was really quite proud. But in a year or two, the water washed over those initiatives as I saw similar things in other budgets and realized they were less impressive.

In the end, you think more about the public service. How it has been important to you – the individual – and how you want to bring good, smart, passionate and ambitious people into the public service and give them the advantages you have had.

You think a lot about those advantages and opportunities and you do what you can to see others, the next generation of public servants, having great opportunities too.

You also get concerned by those people who tarnish the reputation of the public service, those who talk it down and criticize it – calling it old, rigid and high-brow.

And you do get behind the Clerk’s Blueprint 2020 vision – to change the public service so it is a modern, dynamic workplace of the future.

There are some things about the public service that we do need to preserve that are enduring and remain relevant. And there are many things that we do need to change so we can best serve this country for the next 100 years.

Like many other leaders, I’m also passionate about wanting to leave the Agency I’m working with now a better place. For me, that means I do all that I can to make sure that the CRA is a modern, world-leading tax administration that other countries admire.

I want to hear our colleagues across the world say that Canada has the best tax administration – that we are cutting-edge, use modern technology and offer good, fair and impartial service.

I have done my best to leave a whole cadre of people here, many younger, who are using new technology and who are leading the thinking as we go forward.

Without a doubt, there is a new generation of public servants who are more than competent, ready, and well-equipped to take over the leadership of this Agency for the next decade.

This is what makes me most proud. I believe most of my colleagues feel the same way.”

Andrew shares final thoughts and key lessons:

1. Technology drives change.

2. Go to the frontline – this is where sources of change lie – in your front line. It’s not your managers; it’s your frontline people who are in touch with clients, customers, and Canadians. The frontline is the nerve endings of your organization. They suffer the results of any dysfunction, and the associated frustrations when they get the complaints and are unable to do things people ask for. So, get in touch with the frontlines of your organization and don’t bottle yourself up in a boardroom with your management team.

3. Get out! You can’t drive organizational change from only within – you need to get out because that is the source of great, fresh ideas. This is where you are going to get an external view of your organization to make the most effective changes.

4. This is a point I’m very passionate about: you have to connect with the young people in your organization! Make a deliberate effort and develop a strategy to connect with NextGen employees. If you want to imagine the needs of the workplace of tomorrow, it’s pretty simple – just go to the younger people in the organization. They are already consuming the latest information trends, using modern technology and they are the ones who are most adaptive.

Once I was asked about what I predict or foresee for the future on a panel. I had to laugh. No one is a futurist – you can read things and guess, but you can’t predict the future.

There are a lot of things happening in this world that we’re behind in the public service. Things that other cutting-edge organizations have been doing for some time now. We are definitely behind. So, the first effort in getting to the future is to get caught up in the present.

And the same goes for young people – if I want to envision how people will want to do their taxes in the future, I just spend time with young people now and listen. That is why the Agency now has a mobile app.

It’s not trying to be a futurist, it’s trying to get to know the young generation now because they will take their practices up through their life-stream and they will get us caught up to those leading edge organizations.”

Given Andrew is a government trendsetter in the Twitterverse, I asked him why he buys into the power of social media.

That is a two-part answer. As I got to higher levels of leadership, I really started to think about what it means to be a leader when you can’t talk to everyone you’re supposed to be leading.

There was a point mid-career where I made ADM-level and I led an office of approximately 50 people who worked on one floor. To be their leader, I took the time to meet everyone, know them by name and each of their jobs, which is not all that impressive, but I was able to walk by and talk to people if not every day, every second or third day.

So, that’s one form of leadership.

Later on in my career, I was an ADM of a branch with over 800 people, in over a dozen buildings. I didn’t know everyone’s name and didn’t walk by their desks regularly, and in fact, there were divisions I didn’t know a lot about. And now, in an Agency with over 40,000 people, I definitely don’t know everyone’s names and have people working within the Agency doing tasks that I barely understand.

So what does it mean to be a leader in this scenario? A scenario where you lose the ability to have a personal relationship with everyone, which is important to me.

One of the tools is new media, for example, Twitter – which I took a real liking to. It’s easy to consume because of the short messages and there is something about Twitter that crosses the boundary between professional and personal.

People are looking for authenticity in their leaders these days. They are looking for a little more than just the Commissioner’s message because they want to see that personality more. Twitter offers that sense of immediacy and personality. I think it’s a great tool and I enjoy using it.

Twitter isn’t the only medium. I like webinars. And again, none of these are amazing technologies but you can get thousands of people connected and cross geographical boundaries easily. You’re not there in person, but it’s a close facsimile. Plus, you can be interactive and take questions and comments. We can organize a webinar, accompanied by Twitter, get about 6,000 people connected and we can run a full question-and-answer process. People get a sense of me because they have heard from me directly, and I can answer their specific questions.

How many days of travel and airports would that otherwise take?

We’re making quite a bit of progress here using social media tools. We have developed a Blueprint 2020 electronic for employees to put their ideas forward.

Now, we’re using this tool in a more purposeful way where we’re going to make changes to our HR policy with feedback from it. We are giving employees options and we’re going to use the tool to make decisions.

These are tools that enable you to connect with a lot of people and drive towards outcomes in a pretty efficient and exciting way for an organization that is pretty large.”

Andrew pointed out that there is a lot of organizational experimentation going on within the federal government these days, such as tiger teams, and nudge approaches and behavioural economics, which are in collaboration with the UK around work they have been leading.

We’ve got crowdsourcing and there are many more TED policy ignite talks happening as a result of Blueprint 2020. Many departments have taken a dragon’s-den approach to finding good ideas.

Departments have taken different innovative initiatives – some are big and some are small, but all this is bubbling away.

It will be interesting to reflect back and see what processes have really worked. Blueprint 2020 is geared to carry on until 2020 with annual reviews and progress reports. Through horizontal reporting it will be interesting to see the common trends across the public service.

CRA may not be perceived of being innovative, but because of our size, we ought to be front and centre. We have a lot of people who have done spectacular work on service delivery. As I mentioned, we are advanced on nudge approaches, and we have thousands of young people who are passionate and looking for the opportunity to talk about change, take new approaches and lead us into the future.

Let’s just say it’s a very energizing time to be in the public service.”

To learn more about Blueprint 2020, check out these links:

You can follow Andrew on Twitter at @AndrewTreusch.


Colleen McCormickColleen McCormick is Director of Strategic Issues with the Ministry of Jobs, Tourism, and Skills Training and former Director, Innovative Partnerships where she managed the social innovation file in the Ministry of Social Development. Colleen is also the founder of Social Innovators Network Foundation. Previously, she was a TEDxMileZero organizer and National Chair of the New Professionals for the Institute of Public Administration of Canada. She has an MBA from RRU and a Graduate Diploma in Social Innovation from the University of Waterloo. You can contact her on Twitter @SInnovatorsNet.

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