I actually voted for Greg Selinger. It’s true. Irony is clearly not dead.

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This article was published 4/11/2021 (204 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

I actually voted for Greg Selinger. It’s true. Irony is clearly not dead.

As clerk of the executive council, cabinet secretary and head of Manitoba’s public service, I sat on the advisory council that chooses new members of the Order of Manitoba. Greg received his last week in a ceremony at the Manitoba Legislative Building.

He chuckled when I told him that after the council had agreed to his name, I interjected saying, "Let the record show that this was the first time I have ever voted for Greg Selinger!"

He deserved the honour and I am glad I had a small role in seeing it happen. Recognition for public service is sometimes controversial.

That is sad, for us all. Public service and public servants deserve far more recognition for going "above and beyond" than they are given. Especially during COVID-19. I know because I was there.

What I experienced was some of the finest examples of innovation, dedication, creativity and sheer hard work from Manitoba’s public servants in my 30-year career in national and provincial governments and politics.

To “get ‘er done,” public servants needed permission to take risks. A risk–averse culture had to be turned upside–down to accept risk–taking as the best, only way forward.

COVID-19 pushed every one of us in government out of our comfort zones. It stressed and challenged our traditional systems of responsible government and considered decision making. It demanded different solutions. It required new decision-making processes. It was uncomfortable for some, ministers and officials alike, but necessary for all.

The stakes were high — literally, life-and-death — and time was short. The need to decide overrode the traditional machinery of government and the traditional roles of public servants to simply "listen and obey." Often, it was act first and advise later.

To say this made many uncomfortable is an understatement. It did. As it should. The conventions of considered advice and traditional cabinet government could not emerge from a hidebound, siloed and hierarchic system of a sprawling government apparatus.

So, we created dedicated task forces on everything from vaccines to enforcement. We met daily, sometimes hourly, to figure out issues amidst crumbling deadlines. "Don’t stand on ceremony" became my watchword inside. Or, more succinctly, "get ‘er done."

To "get ‘er done," public servants needed permission to take risks. A risk-averse culture had to be turned upside-down to accept risk-taking as the best, only way forward.

Taking risks is not easy when every action is under the severest public scrutiny. But, when given that permission to innovate and think outside the box, Manitoba’s public servants did.

That is why Manitoba had the first digital immunization card in the country. Why it held the first and largest fully immunized outdoor sporting event in the country in August. Built the first provincial pandemic response system. Realized the best First Nations vaccination effort in Canada. Established the first vaccination passport system, now followed everywhere else. And established the smoothest vaccination and testing mandate initiative for public sector workers of any government.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

It’s easy to demand something be done fast and faultless from outside. It’s a lot harder to get it done quickly and effectively in the stress and strain of a pandemic. Manitoba’s public service did a far more credible job here than people realize.

It’s easy to demand something be done fast and faultless from outside. It’s a lot harder to get it done quickly and effectively in the stress and strain of a pandemic.

While COVID-19 was beating us down, I commenced a "lessons learned" exercise to figure out how to rise back up. It had three goals and one mission. The mission: create a citizen-centred public service. The goals: make Manitoba’s public service the best it can be, achieve results for Manitobans and deliver at the speed of need.

This meant becoming a public service more truly responsive to people’s needs, agile in delivery and forward-thinking in advice and outcomes.

It is unavoidable that governments focus on the day-to-day. It is unforgivable that they neglect the years to come. "Lessons learned" was animated by that impulse.

No government or public service is perfect, Manitoba’s included. It requires transformation, not regression. The governance models of yesteryear are not the right ones to meet the post-pandemic moment citizens expect. It needs to make the extraordinary of COVID-19, ordinary. The creative mindset and actions galvanized under COVID-19 should become business as usual for the public service.

The creative mindset and actions galvanized under COVID–19 should become business as usual for the public service.

In every conversation I had with public servants — young, old, new and experienced — the desire for changing the way government works was paramount. Government should not be the place where good ideas go to die. It should be a laboratory for exploration and invention.

Most public servants want to make a difference. They know change is needed. And many, especially new ones, want to help lead that change.

To do so means confronting the old shibboleths surrounding public service. It means confronting the cheapest pay scales outside of P.E.I., an ethos that privileges operational implementation over innovative ideas, and a low-risk culture in the face of needed transformation.

"Making Manitoba average again" is not a winning slogan to recruit and retain the best public servants Manitoba needs to meet the big challenges ahead.

Although the transition denied me the chance to say "thank you" in person, I do it here, as publicly as I can.

It was a privilege to serve this province. And most of all, it was a privilege to serve with and lead Manitoba’s extraordinarily smart, creative and committed public servants during a great moment. You rose to the occasion. Be proud.

David McLaughlin was clerk of the executive council, cabinet secretary, and head of Manitoba’s public service from 2020 to 2021.