Category: John Wilkins

Leader as Hero: The Power of Commitment

When times get tough, we turn to leaders for courage. Yet rarely is courage found in the competency profile of any leadership position. Selection systems cannot abide responding to queries from rejected candidates with “You were not found to be courageous enough for the job.”

No one wants to be rejected on the basis of something they cannot easily change or control. Right or not, courage is perceived as inborn rather than learned. Competency frameworks dance around attributes like courage.

A retired British ODA advisor recently shared a career moment: “I was in a traditional Zimbabwean village explaining leadership development to the local chief. Why we got onto this subject I cannot remember. He replied that this had always been the way with chiefs, otherwise you end up with a spear in your back.”

What this story illustrates with humour is the idea of the leader as hero – called to action by a serious, urgent, or growing threat. Heroic leaders respond in times of need or crisis through the power of commitment. Their resolve is unshakeable and superordinate to other causes. We admire and celebrate these leaders, despite their human foibles and fears.

The heroine of The Book of Negroes is Aminata Diallo, a West African girl of eleven sold into slavery in the American colonies in 1756. Canadian novelist Lawrence Hill tells a people’s story of oppression, loss, and emancipation. As one of the Nova Scotians, Aminata is repatriated to Sierra Leone in 1787. She gives testimony in London for passage of the Bill to end the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in 1807.

Aminata is courageous and a survivor. Her commitment comes from an enduring belief in a higher purpose for her life as a storyteller for her people. Her resilience is grounded in faith and love of family. She manages to bridge the chasms between antagonists, making them better for knowing her.

Public service leaders need to face challenges head-on to be effective policy advisors and crisis managers. They must have the courage to provide fearless advice, push for change, and stand behind decisions. They must navigate accountability labyrinths with political savvy, enacting tough decisions in an era of fiscal restraint. Risk aversion is not a viable option.

Martin Luther King understood both the dream and the risks of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. He led three marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965 to secure voting rights for Black Americans. It was a dramatic act of collective courage that still inspires human rights advocates worldwide. The heroism of Selma was not so far removed from the commitment of the Nova Scotians 178 years earlier.


John Wilkins
John Wilkins was a Commonwealth diplomat and a career public servant in Canada. He is Associate Director with the Public Management Program in the Schulich School of Business at York University (jwilkins@schulich.yorku.ca or johnkwilkins@gmail.com).

Fellowship of the Ring: Government and civil society

Commitment to social justice can erode in times of austerity, change, and uncertainty. The divergent views of the blue-ribbon panel that opened the 2014 International Research Society for Public Management Conference at Carleton University are a sign of challenging times:

  • People have never been more dependent on government.
  • Deficits in public trust, consultation, and advocacy make it easier to mess up.
  • Industrial-age regulation is failing in the modern digital era.
  • People must make it happen where government obstructs progress.
  • Business has a responsibility to improve society, not just make money.
  • There is a growing marketplace for unmet needs and social good outcomes.

How is government changing in response to cross-sector manifestos like David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’? Will problem solving, networking, negotiation, and collaboration remain at the heart of the future state? What are the implications for civil society?

Canadians enjoy quality of life derived largely from the public value added by an activist Third Sector. Volunteerism and contributions per capita are traditionally double those of our more affluent American neighbours. There are over 86,000 charities, making up a $190 billion sector, employing two million people, and accounting for seven percent of GDP. The minefield of law, policy, advocacy, politics, and funding is complex and fraught with perils.

International Development Minister Christian Paradis makes the case for partnering with civil society to strengthen democratic governance and development: “Civil society engages citizens in their countries’ decision-making processes that affect them. Empowered by the fundamental rights of freedom of expression, association and assembly, civil society enables citizens to hold their governments to account, providing legitimacy to the governing institutions, which in turn ensures growth and sustainable development and reduces poverty.”

The Minister recently announced an initiative to develop the capacity of civil society organizations in 50 countries. At the same time, Canada stepped back by suspending £10 million in annual funding to the Commonwealth during Sri Lanka’s two-year term as Chair in Office. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird levied sanctions in protest of Sri Lanka’s human rights record.

Paired with British cuts to public sector development, Commonwealth governments can expect diminished support for technical cooperation. Funding leakage could impair the work of 77 accredited Commonwealth organizations like the Commonwealth Foundation that work with civil society.

Canada is sending mixed messages. It may regret stepping outside the Commonwealth tent where it has influence. It risks relegation to the ranks of those who are not always welcome in developing countries.


John Wilkins
John Wilkins was a Commonwealth diplomat and a career public servant in Canada. He is Associate Director with the Public Management Program in the Schulich School of Business at York University (jwilkins@schulich.yorku.ca or johnkwilkins@gmail.com).

New Public Management… the New Latin?

For many, Latin was one of those subjects that you had to take in school.  We were told that it was good to know the roots of modern languages.  Sceptics argued that Latin is a ‘dead language’ – no longer in common parlance, used only in certain religious and scholarly circles.  What we came to learn was Latin’s usefulness for deriving the meaning of words and for appreciating heritage.

What has become of the New Public Management?  It seems ages since the gladiatorial debates in the IPAC arena between Sandford Borins and Donald Savoie – Borins sounding the rallying cry to NPM’s power of reinvention and Savoie decrying the mess made of public administration orthodoxy.  While neither could claim outright victory, the real winners were academics and practitioners who manifested the debate in their dedication to excellence in public service to Canadians.

NPM has left its mark on public sector management and reform, along with lingering questions:

  • To what extent is it reasonable to expect government to become more entrepreneurial?
  • What are the implications for accountability of separating policy and operations?
  • What have been the outcomes of public choice and citizen-centred service delivery?
  • What capacities should government develop to systematically review programs?
  • What are the prerequisites, tools, and benchmarks of good public management?
  • Why are New Zealand reforms the most visited but the least replicated?

There has been a millennial shift in thought and practice from the restructuring and transformational leadership of NPM towards networked government and collaborative leadership.  International nobility assembled to consolidate learning in A New Synthesis of Public Administration: Serving in the 21st Century.  The reader is left wanting for more.

Like Latin, NPM seems destined to be taught in the curriculum of schools of public policy and administration, despite the naysayers.  What does the next generation hold?  More than noblesse oblige, we need a pragmatic way forward.  Time to return to our roots for inspiration on a ‘new improved’ view of public management.


John Wilkins
John Wilkins was a Commonwealth diplomat and a career public servant in Canada. He is Associate Director with the Public Management Program in the Schulich School of Business at York University (jwilkins@schulich.yorku.ca or johnkwilkins@gmail.com).

A Long Way Gone*

Stephen Harper’s bullish foray into Commonwealth politics is a late entry in this long-running saga.  His boycotting of mid-November’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo and his threat to rescale Canada’s £10 million in annual funding are attributed to Sri Lanka’s human rights record.  Canada may also be carrying a message on behalf of an elitist, backroom consortium.

While appearing unfazed by the Prime Minister’s shenanigans, Marlborough House remains wary of exacerbating badly bungled diplomacy.  Choosing his words carefully, a spokesperson was more clever than useful in offering that, “Canada is a valued member of the Commonwealth family, and its contribution to the association is appreciated by other member countries and the Commonwealth Secretariat.  Like other members, it too is able to avail itself of the advantages of Commonwealth membership.”

Among the highlights of October’s unfolding drama were:

  • The United Kingdom’s £3 million cut over two years in its £16 million in annual funding;
  • The UK’s targeting of its cut in public sector development;
  • Canada’s stop payment on its contribution while considering potential cuts;
  • The Gambia’s bizarre pull-out in protest over the arrogance of a “neo-colonial club”; and
  • Calls for Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma’s ouster as “the wrong person for the job”.

Two Commonwealth public sector stalwarts are in jeopardy — the Governance and Institutional Development Division, widely regarded as the visible face of the Secretariat in member countries, and its sidekick, the Commonwealth Association for Public Administration and Management.  To paraphrase Robert Frost’s self-penned epitaph, they are having “a lover’s quarrel with the world”.

The spectre of the membership following suit haunts, but does not sufficiently humble, the Secretariat.  It is advertising for a new Deputy Secretary-General: Corporate Affairs as an upgrade to the existing Assistant Secretary-General post.  More than the dosh, the Commonwealth’s credibility and survival are at stake.  For a change, this CHOGM will be one to watch.

*Title of Ishmael Beah’s memoirs as a boy soldier during Sierra Leone’s civil war 1992-2002.


John Wilkins
John Wilkins was a Commonwealth diplomat and a career public servant in Canada. He is Associate Director with the Public Management Program in the Schulich School of Business at York University (jwilkins@schulich.yorku.ca or johnkwilkins@gmail.com).

For What It’s Worth

In 2006, a new budget watchdog, the Parliamentary Budget Officer, was created under the Federal Accountability Act to improve the transparency and credibility of the Canadian Government’s fiscal forecasting and budget planning.  The mandate was to provide parliamentarians with independent information and advice on economic, fiscal, and budget issues.

Kevin Page was appointed as the first PBO two years later.  Trouble is, his economic and deficit forecasts were often more accurate than the Government’s.  His penchant for ‘speaking truth to power’ in public, while courageous and refreshing, embarrassed the Government and met with resistance.  The Prime Minister’s Office continued to centralize control over an emasculated bureaucracy.

Mr. Page completed his term of office last March.  He sounded off about the need for change at the recent IPAC Conference in Montreal.  In a provocative and sometimes flamboyant keynote, he observed that we live in an age of insecurity where government practices the politics of fear, accrues democratic deficits, and withholds information out of self-interest.

Hovering between the eccentric and the inspirational, Mr. Page called for open, connected, coordinated government.  He pressed for urgent public service renewal and reform.  He grounded his hypothesis in these words from speculative fiction novelist William Gibson: “The future is already here¾it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

Delegates reflected upon how what traditionally passes as accountability has changed.  A host of issues need to be probed:

  • The relevance of the principle of ministerial responsibility;
  • The centralization of power at the expense of central agencies and departments;
  • The impact of constrained transparency on accountability;
  • The implications for combating corruption and promoting integrity;
  • The consequences for public service capacity and development; and
  • Citizen trust and confidence in government.

Beyond Mr. Page’s new fiscal studies institute at the University of Ottawa, where do we take the fight from here?


John Wilkins
John Wilkins was a Commonwealth diplomat and a career public servant in Canada. He is Associate Director with the Public Management Program in the Schulich School of Business at York University (jwilkins@schulich.yorku.ca or johnkwilkins@gmail.com).

Does Blueprint 2020 Hold Wouters?

Clerk of the Privy Council Wayne Wouters advocates the need for “… a clear and shared vision of what Canada’s Public Service should become in the decades ahead.”  Dubbed Blueprint 2020, senior leaders developed and are marketing the vision of a revitalized, world-class public service through employee engagement and public consultation.  Cynics might ask if this is just another in a long line of public service renewal efforts, admirable in word but short on deeds.

The timing is curious.  It follows hard upon federal budget cuts and downsizing in an environment characterized by top-down compression of policy, budget, program, and communication decisions.  The Prime Minister’s Office often eschews analysis and advice from public servants in favour of external sources.  Is Blueprint 2020 a grudging response to placate a battered and disconsolate public service?

If the roundtable at the recent IPAC National Conference is any indication, the motives and prospects are doubtful.  Andrew Treusch (Revenue) and Louise Levonian (Finance) seemed constrained in ‘selling the goods’ by their bureaucratic gatekeeper roles.  Like a gunslinger with nothing to lose, Ken Rasmussen (University of Regina) prodded and provoked, but to little avail.

The real stars were the audience and tweeters who asked tough questions like:

  • Why is Blueprint 2020 a top-down initiative?
  • How do you plan for the future if the present is not convincing?
  • How will Deputy Ministers report to public servants in their departments?
  • How will ‘heretics’ be indemnified for their views?
  • Is Blueprint 2020 mostly capturing good ideas dismissed over the past decade?

It was clear from comments that legislation and the private sector do not hold the answers.  To promote cultural change, authentic public service renewal is required.  This calls for a bottom-up approach, top-level commitment, and continuous improvement.


John Wilkins
John Wilkins was a Commonwealth diplomat and a career public servant in Canada. He is Associate Director with the Public Management Program in the Schulich School of Business at York University (jwilkins@schulich.yorku.ca or johnkwilkins@gmail.com).