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Chapter 2: Unravelling internal red tape, one story at a time

In brief

Engaging public servants at the working level

A key element of the Engagement Phase was to listen to public servants at the working level about their encounters with internal red tape in order to identify common irritants. A variety of engagement channels were used to reach as many public servants as possible, in departments and agencies, communities of practice and networks. The Tiger Team sparked discussions online through blogs and discussion groups on the Government’s social media platform, GCconnex, under the group Blueprint 2020 – Reducing Internal Red Tape. The team held virtual and in-person workshops, and also provided public servants with the opportunity to participate anonymously via survey. Through these efforts, the Tiger Team reached more than 2,000 public servants, collected over 400 stories and boasted the most active participation rate on GCconnex, averaging eight interactions per day (e.g., comments, likes, blog posts).

In addition to describing the problems they encountered, public servants were asked how they would solve them in order to improve their experiences. Public servants were also asked whether some of the barriers (or “red tape”) they experienced were being addressed in their respective organizations or within the public service. It became evident that many organizations were already undertaking initiatives to streamline processes internally. As a result, the Tiger Team broadened its scope to include surveying those activities taking place across government. Over 170 initiatives across 45 departments were collected.

Internal red tape occurs in the tangential elements of day-to-day working life

Public servants encountered barriers in the tangential elements of their day, such as getting IT help, filling out a travel request, evaluating performance, and accessing electronic systems after new software was introduced. Changing departments was another major area where red tape was found, as this requires public servants to complete security clearance forms and reactivate their myKEY, which gives them secure access to government applications, including the Compensation Web Applications.

These are a few examples that have been brought forward, among many others. A snapshot of these internal red tape stories is available in the Annex of this report.

Unclear direction / burdensome policy and poor client service are top causes

Complicated processes, paperwork and policies often come to mind when talking about red tape. However, the findings from Phase I tell a slightly different story (see chart of DNA of internal red tape). When public servants were asked what hinders their ability to perform their jobs, unclear direction/burdensome policy and poor client service were top causes, even ahead of process overload. In contrast to what was assumed to be the case, policy plays a lesser role in the red tape story from the public servant’s point of view. The analysis further showed that the usability of technology linked to enterprise-wide initiatives, such as the performance management portal, myKEY, and the travel portal, was viewed as a hindrance. Further, this task contributed to more types of red tape.

Chart 1: DNA of Internal Red Tape
A chart of the “DNA of Internal Red Tape”, measuring mentions of unclear direction, poor client service, process overload, policy burden, and cumbersome technology across a variety of workplace activities.

Departmental efforts to reduce internal red tape are not addressing the key issues raised by public servants

In response to the Blueprint 2020 feedback, many departments had initiated internal red tape reduction exercises of their own. As the Tiger Team began cataloguing those activities, it became evident that many of the issues being worked in departments aligned with problem areas identified by public servants: procurement, staffing, internal processes and approvals. However, the solutions being proposed focused on streamlining processes (through LEAN and other methods), introducing technological solutions and producing toolkits. These initiatives were not addressing the primary pain points identified by public servants: unclear direction and poor service. Moreover, departments were working on similar problems in isolation, with limited sharing of experience and best practices.

Chart 2: Departmental Initiatives on Reducing Internal Red Tape
A chart of departmental initiatives to reduce internal red tape, including LEAN/process busting/streamlining, tech enablement, toolkits, or exposing and explaining.

Addressing the root causes of the irritants requires a multi-pronged approach

“ …senior leadership is going to do everything it can to make sure that the rules, the structures, the policies are enabling and empowering, that we get rid of bureaucracy and process for processes’ sake, rules for rules’ sake.” – Michael Wernick, Clerk of the Privy Council, at APEX Symposium 2016.

Addressing red tape in the federal public service will require a multi-faceted approach. As the stories suggest, the issues are shared, and there is no one simple solution to lighten the red tape load. Just as the issues are shared, the solutions depend on central agencies, departments and functional communities working collaboratively together to reduce the instances of internal red tape that hinder public servants in performing their jobs on behalf of Canadians every day.

Many layers that contribute to red tape have been identified. By focusing on each component that makes up red tape, we will be able to formulate a solid approach to making improvements.

Unclear direction / burdensome policy

What we heard

Public servants indicated that rules, policies and guidelines are unclear and difficult to find. As a result, departments apply their own interpretations, oftentimes not leveraging existing flexibilities and adding burden.

As shown in the DNA of internal red tape graph, “unclear direction” and “burdensome policies” are two of the most common barriers identified by public servants. If “unclear direction” is the foundation of the irritants, this is a clear indicator that we need to improve the ability of public servants to find rules, procedures and guidance. These must also be written in plain language, easy to interpret and, where applicable, accompanied by user guides and/or how-to videos.

Policy is a broad topic that affects public servants in different ways. Through the broad-based consultations that the Internal Red Tape Tiger Team (Tiger Team) conducted, stories were gathered regarding strict policy and the impact it has on public servants in their day-to-day operations. It affects everyone in different capacities: at a departmental level, through various occupational groups, and from a regional and National Capital scope. Policy in the federal government is designed to create rules that are easy to follow and minimize risk. Departmentally, however, certain policies are interpreted differently, causing the rules to be more rigid than they are intended to be.

Proposed way forward

Proposals to address the issue of lack of clarity include focusing on improving access to information through an enhanced, user-focused web presence. This would entail sophisticated search capabilities to close the knowledge gap between functional specialists and other public servants, and the ability to link information together. Additionally, the web presence should link to Canada School of Public Service (CSPS) training, such that employees are in direct contact with the School. This will ensure awareness of training and learning opportunities across the public sector. The new “Policy Suite Reset” website, released on June 6, 2016, is a step in the right direction. With time, its increasing functionality will improve the ability of the user to find and understand Treasury Board rules. However, there is a need to build more capacity at the working level to solve problems and identify innovative approaches. The Web 2.0 tools offer a venue, but their use is still very preliminary, and even if they become good tools for functional communities, there is also a need to include public servants.

Through the user-centric Policy Suite Reset, work is under way to review the Treasury Board Policy Suite in order to eliminate unnecessary requirements and reduce burden. Work is also under way to ensure that policies are written in plain language and understood by users. Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (TBS) is committed to having a clear and more understandable suite of policies.

As TBS works on the policy suite, it will be important for departments to review their own internal departmental policies through a user-centred approach, to ensure they are leveraging available flexibilities and do not end up creating additional departmental policies.

Poor client service

What we heard

“Poor internal client service” was a frequently-mentioned irritant identified by public servants during Phase I and the broad-based consultations. More specifically, the stories that the Tiger Team captured reveal that there is a lack of acknowledgement regarding how critical a culture focused on internal client service is to a successful organization.

Public servants told us that they experienced the following when accessing internal services:

As the federal government has centralized most of its services, many individuals shared their concerns about not being able to speak directly to a person, but rather having to send enquiries to a central mailbox via email, where responses are bounced around without the provision of consistent or appropriate information. Further, this also resulted in siloed information when specialized call centres were only able to answer a portion of the issue. These findings underscore the importance of focusing service excellence on internal services.

Proposed way forward

Concerted attention on developing and supporting a culture of service for internal services is considered to be critical to any effort to reduce internal red tape. It is recommended that a service strategy be developed for internal services, thus signaling the Government’s commitment, through Blueprint 2020, to improving the working life of public servants. This would entail:

Of note, the Management Accountability Framework (MAF) has included a few questions about service standards in its methodology. Early results indicate that many departments with service standards do not track performance against them and that there is no common way to measure performance for similar activities across departments. As a result, there is a wide range of results for similar tasks. For example, the days required to staff an AS-01 position range from 2.3 days to 195 days, and the mean time required to repair workplace technology device (WTD) related incidents ranges from 1 to 284 hours in the 37 large departments and agencies assessed in 2015-2016. The MAF will continue to promote internal service standard indicators within its methodology. While more work is required to arrive at fully comparative results, they serve as a starting point and could support a government-wide strategy for improving service delivery for internal services.

Process overload

What we heard

Accomplishing a single task involves undertaking too many steps and unnecessary processes. Through the analysis conducted in Phase I of the project, process overload was among the top three irritants which public servants indicated as having a serious impact on getting their jobs done. Stories and interviews that were collected detailed how accomplishing a single task involved undertaking many steps and unnecessary processes. Also, many individuals working in the regions have expressed their frustrations and concerns with their daily tasks, which are riddled with added process and longer wait times because they are far removed from National Headquarters.

Proposed way forward

Looking at the work currently under way in departments, it is clear that a lot of effort has gone into streamlining processes. As this continues, it may be helpful for departments to adopt a “show me the rule” approach, by empowering employees to seek justification as to why things cannot be done differently. The work environment should be such that employees have the ability to have an open dialogue with their managers so that decision-making is inclusive and gives employees the capacity to challenge processes that are cumbersome or that do not make sense.

It is also important, when scrutinizing processes, to ask service providers and clients what is working and what is not working by establishing feedback mechanisms to obtain the information and to determine sun-setting clauses to rules and proceed with change management exercises in order to change established practices. The users of the processes, both frequent and infrequent, are essential to having a successful streamlining exercise.

While streamlining processes is a necessary step, such efforts will only be temporary if the underlying culture and desire to add steps are not addressed. In addition, when the right conditions exist, departments may need to favour a risk-based approach to oversight and review. This can be done by establishing ongoing monitoring based on sampling rather than reviewing 100% of the transactions. This will provide sufficient documentation for audits and internal controls, as well as alleviate the time and pressure to overlook all processed documents.

Cumbersome technology

What we heard

The technology solutions introduced are not sufficiently user tested or intuitive. Technology, with all of its power and potential, was flagged as one of the barriers hindering public servants attempting to get their jobs done. A common argument and pain point expressed was that technology often gets rolled out to create efficiencies in business processes but, more often than not, it lacks the capacity to meet the users’ needs. As time is always of the essence, technological solutions get rolled out without adequate user testing or training and are not always intuitive. Countless frustrations surfaced when consulting with users, indicating that individuals are forced to conform to centralized technological solutions, such as GCDocs, the travel system and myKEY, which are implemented without the business process being designed with the users’ needs in mind.

Proposed way forward

Moving forward, it will be essential to dedicate ample time to the involvement of users in the early stages of designing technological solutions before they are implemented across government, to ensure that users’ needs are met. This would involve incorporating usability testing and user engagement at the outset of business planning so that those who will be using the technology can make known their needs to ensure efficiency and money well spent. In addition, it is imperative to dedicate sufficient attention to user testing and implementation of new technology. More often than not, more time is spent on establishing the concept rather than on the implementation.

As many of these technological solutions are already in place (e.g., travel system, myKEY, PSMP, MyGCHR), it is critical to establish a formal mechanism to obtain regular feedback from the users on what is working and what could be improved. The feedback received would then feed into system improvements.

Lastly, although training, user guides and/or online tutorials are often made available when new technology gets released, it would be beneficial to test the material with users with varying levels of proficiency before rolling the material out to the entire public service. Some questioned the wisdom of overlaying technology onto overly complex business process, suggesting that business processes be streamlined before technology is adopted.