Q&A with Art Stevenson, Institute for Citizen-Centred Service

Speaking with Art Stevenson, the theme of collaboration keeps on popping up. There’s a reason for this, as senior writer Lisa Williams discovered in conversation with one of Canada’s most renowned senior public administrators. There’s no science about collaboration, and there’s often no sign where it might lead. As the founding executive director of the Commonwealth Association for Public Administration and Management, and currently executive director of the Institute for Citizen-Centred Service, Stevenson looks back on an extensive career grounded in the right mix of people skills, financial and IT management, and good governance.

Q. With respect to your public-sector experience chairing boards, especially with the work you did as former president of the Institute of Public Administration of Canada (IPAC), what were some of your most notable highlights and memorable achievements?

A. I had a long connection with IPAC. I was involved initially with the Toronto regional group because IPAC is basically a national, membership-based organization with groups across the country. Subsequently I was the national treasurer of IPAC before becoming president. One of the real challenges that faces an organization like IPAC is in some respects comparable to the challenges of managing a federation in a country like Canada.

Basically, IPAC has to satisfy the requirements of the regional groups and the national office has to find some balance between the regional programming and those undertaken at the national level. The memberships in IPAC are primarily managed by the regional groups.

There’s a close working relationship: one of the real challenges is to “keep it a happy family.” And the other piece, of course, is to ensure that the programming of IPAC allowed it to continue to be a profitable organization. Leading up to my tenure as treasurer and president, some of the important programming that the institute introduced was to become more active in international programming with CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency) and to introduce an innovations awards program.

Both have turned out to be very successful for the institute. The quality of the international work, the innovations awards programs, and research, have mobilized strong interest in Canada and internationally.

Q. You’re now executive director of the Institute for Citizen-Centred Service (ICCS). What is the main driver for you with the work you’re doing with ICCS?

A. What’s exciting about the ICCS is that it’s unique, and when you say something’s unique, you better mean it. ICCS is the only institute in the world that is concentrated on improving services to citizens. ICCS is also intergovernmental, working with all three levels of the government, and we’re able to do very exciting work.

The challenge is to make it work by using the national intergovernmental Public Sector Service Delivery and Chief Information Officer Councils, and all of the research work – whether it’s “Taking Care of Business,” which is currently a major project, the “Citizens First” survey, or our Common Measurement Tool (CMT) – to advance priorities for our intergovernmental partners.

As the executive director of ICCS, this is a difficult institute to manage. What you have to do is make sure you’ve got staff who are providing high-quality support for all of this work that’s going on intergovernmentally. I think my management experience is the greatest strength I bring to this position.

And being a non-profit, one part of it that’s very important is financial management. When I started, implementing a strong financial management system was a priority. Being a non-profit, you have to think about every cent that you spend, and you have to do it responsibly.

Q. What really motivated you to pursue a career in the public sector?

A. To be honest with you, I think it was more a set of circumstances. I have an MBA from Queen’s University and I was a die-hard private-sector person.

I did some very exciting work in the oil industry, where the emphasis was really at the marketing and refining end. But the industry changed dramatically to the emphasis being at the producing end, and I saw that as not being positive.

I was approached by the City of Toronto as they were undertaking major restructuring, and I was living in Toronto at the time. I was asked to head up this restructuring. I decided to do it, and that’s how I ended up in the public sector.

I have no regrets. I have to say that I found managing in the public sector much more difficult than in the private sector.

Q. Why is that?

A. I’ll take my experience in the oil industry as an example. Normally, there’s a certain culture within the organization itself that, when you want to bring about change, it’s much easier. You’re given a mandate, you go out, get the team you want, make your presentation to the president, it’s taken to the board and approved.

In the public sector, everything’s public. As a result, I think it’s much more difficult to bring about change. And you’ve got the situation where the media is present and quite often I think the good stories are not reported, but the bad ones are front-page.

In my experience, I felt it was more difficult. It was a big adjustment, especially the first year at the City, until I realized what the best way was to manage a complex city like Toronto.

In the public sector, there’s never enough money for all the demands that are out there to manage a city like Toronto. That in itself means you really must have the best management for a city the size of Toronto these days, which has a budget larger than many of the provinces. It’s a huge challenge!

Q. You’ve referenced restructuring organizations and you obviously have a lot of experience in that area. What sort of changes to the structure of governance in the public sector have you seen over the span of your career?

A. You can only relate to your own experience. In the case of the City of Toronto, I had the general management responsibility.

I chaired a committee of department heads for the City, and we worked out a structure with them, which involved lead commissioners that took responsibility for certain projects and they worked with three or four other commissioners. That was the kind of informal structure that we established for Toronto, which from a governance point of view worked well.

I also had responsibility for the city’s finances, its IT, and human resource development. These three functions combined – money, people and information – are really important.

I call it a central management function, and what it’s all about is to make sure that when you undertake a study, that it’s financially acceptable, and that it’s handled properly from both the HR development and the technology side. If you bring this together, then I think you have a much better chance of being successful.

Q. Lac Carling traditionally looked at collaboration between government departments; now it’s extending to look also at collaboration between government and the public it serves. What do you see as the link between Lac Carling and ICCS?

A. Clearly the history of Lac Carling and the evolution of ICCS into a non-profit are very important. Gradually, I think where Lac Carling made a significant contribution is the national councils [Service Delivery and CIO] coming together and the research side of the institute. Products like the Common Measurement Tool, “Citizens First” and “Taking Care of Business” have evolved and built credibility.

Lac Carling is a really good example of collaboration. I feel very strongly that you can’t have too much collaboration. One of the greatest benefits with the Commonwealth Association for Public Administration and Management (CAPAM ) was the networking.

A lot of networking that goes on is informal: you don’t even know about it. But it’s an opportunity for people to share their experiences, and that can lead to them learning to do things in a different way.

In the absence of that collaboration, you don’t have the network and you’re more or less left to do things on your own. And it might not necessarily be the right way to go.

Lisa Williams is a senior writer with InterGovWorld.com. She can be reached at lwilliams@intergovworld.com.