Local heroes of the Commonwealth
Author: John Wilkins
Article Date: 6 Mar 2008
John Wilkins looks ahead to this year’s Commonwealth Ministers Forum on Public Sector Development
In travels around the Commonwealth, one is struck by the innovation that abounds in the public sector. It is a diverse, fast-paced, and ever-changing environment, with mounting pressures on governments to reform their structures and processes and to achieve excellence, responsiveness, and integrity in public service.
Public sector development is everyone’s responsibility. There are ‘local heroes’ throughout the Commonwealth. And politicians and public servants alike are the champions of change.
While governments innovate to improve services for their citizens, to reduce costs, to increase efficiency, and to stimulate economic development, change also depends on individual country circumstances. Different countries can have very different public sector requirements, depending on their stage of development, institutional arrangements, and capacity to deliver. For best results, reform requires stable policy, predictable funding, enabling measures, entrenched accountability, and citizen and stakeholder voice.
More and more, reforms must connect with and support the Millennium Development Goals. Working towards achieving these goals is a key undertaking of the Commonwealth. Poverty alleviation and sustainable development depend on placing the people most affected at the centre of decision making and service delivery.
‘Think globally and act locally’
In many Commonwealth countries, the metaphor of the village is a powerful cultural symbol, as well as a motivator of national development. It recognises that the diversity of people and of nations is a strength and reinforces the need to ‘think globally and act locally’ for sustainable development.
In 2004, when the Commonwealth Association for Public Administration and Management (CAPAM) met for its biennial conference in Singapore, the consensus was one of ‘networked government’: of many agencies but one government, of citizen engagement, and of networking beyond borders. We in the Commonwealth are being challenged to think collectively ‘outside the box’ to find new ways to be inclusive and collaborate.
Public sector development is a process of continuous learning and improvement. And naturally, member countries are impatient to see quick results. They have imperatives to improve services and to help the neediest in society.
A capable public sector is grounded in the principles of good governance. Governments need a professional and apolitical public service, guided by shared values and ethical standards. The value system of progressive public organisations today is about service, not bureaucracy. Accountable leaders have the self-confidence to model the desired behaviours, and they also know instinctively that it is good politics.
While issues of public sector transformation have been on the Commonwealth radar for more than a decade, the Secretariat must continue to consult with its primary stakeholders to advance public sector development. As change leaders, ministers and their senior officials are vital to success.
Creating more transparent governance
Just less than 18 months ago, in Sydney, Australia, the Governance and Institutional Development Division at the Secretariat convened the first Commonwealth forum of ministers responsible for public service. Its aim was to advance public sector development in the Commonwealth. Ministers were asked to mark their progress, to exchange experiences, and to chart the way forward. The outcome of that meeting exceeded expectations.
More than 100 delegates representing 28 member countries and five stakeholder organisations attended. The level of response was testimony to the desire of Commonwealth politicians to lead from the front to create more transparent and accountable governance, as well as improved service delivery to citizens.
Ministers capitalised on the special bond of trust, respect, tolerance, and understanding that is shared among the Commonwealth’s 53 member countries and with the international community. The Summary Report on Proceedings and Communiqué from that meeting can be read here.
The Commonwealth Ministers Forum on Public Sector Development is to become a biennial fixture, with the next Forum to be held in Barbados in October 2008. Meanwhile, the Secretariat has responded to ministers’ priorities for action by featuring three major initiatives in its future plans.
The first is about developing a governance framework to guide improved service delivery by member governments. The second focuses on strengthening public service training institutes in partnership with other Commonwealth associations, in order to close public sector skill gaps. And the third involves using national information and communication technology strategies, e-governance, and knowledge management to accelerate Commonwealth Connects, a multi-stakeholder partnership, which aims to bridge the digital divide in the Commonwealth.
We live in interesting times in the public sector. Growing complexity, not just rapid change, is causing us to rethink and redouble efforts in public sector development. The first gathering of Commonwealth public service ministers was a historical nexus from which a new order of things can unfold. The Commonwealth and its people are counting on it.
John Wilkins became Head of Section and Adviser (Public Sector Management) with the Governance and Institutional Development Division of the Commonwealth Secretariat in October 2005. He served 32 years in the Canadian public service, the last four in Ottawa, advising the Treasury Board on governance and service delivery innovations. Previously, he managed in the Province of Manitoba’s health, government services, culture, and finance portfolios and taught public management at The University of Manitoba.