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Leading Projects in the Government of Canada, episode 2: Learning for effective project management with Taki Sarantakis

In this podcast, we speak with Taki Sarantakis, President of the Canada School of Public Service, about the skills and knowledge needed for effective project management in the Government of Canada.

Drawing on his experience at Transport Canada, Infrastructure Canada and the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, Mr. Sarantakis explains why he believes all public servants need a basic understanding of project management. He describes the ways the Canada School of Public Service is helping public servants learn about project management through updated courses and targeted in-person events that feature experts from the public service and beyond.

A key way to learn—from both failure and success—is to go beyond the public service to discover how others are managing projects. For Mr. Sarantakis, this is especially important in government, where we have a tendency to make people responsible for overseeing and implementing major projects even though they have limited functional experience in doing so. He makes the case that public servants need to carve out time for learning, especially for reading, in order to discover new ways to improve their work.

Duration: 51:04
Date: December 16, 2019

Transcript

Pablo Sobrino: We'll start by introducing ourselves. I'm Pablo Sobrino, a Distinguished Fellow at the Canada School of Public Service.

Taki Sarantakis: And I'm Taki Sarantakis, President of the School.

Pablo Sobrino: We're here to ask you some questions about what you think about project management within the Government of Canada, and how we instil a culture of project management in the public service.

Taki Sarantakis: That's a great question, Pablo, and it's one I've been grappling with a long time during the course of my career, long before I got to the School.

For me, project management is an absolute critical skill, not of project managers per se, but of almost everybody who works in the Government of Canada.

When you think about what project management is, project management essentially is here is my problem, on the one end, and on the other end of the spectrum, here are my resources. My resources can be time, they can be money, they can be people, but at the end of the day our jobs as civil servants are to match our resources with our problems and come to solutions.

I think project management, or the ethos of project management, is one of the best ways to get there.

I don't see project management as something that's, you know, 5 percent of the civil service does project management, or 7 percent, or those are the project managers. I see project management, and especially a project management mindset, as something that every civil servant has to have.

Now, obviously, there are people who are specialists in project management, and those are the people that buy the computer systems and build the bridges, and deal with payroll systems and all that. They need to have a far more sophisticated sense of project management. But to me, every single civil servant needs to have the basics of project management.

Taki Sarantakis: Regarding the second part of your question, culture.

Taki Sarantakis: That's the tough nugget for me. How do you instil that notion that we all have resources, we all have problems, and it's our job every day—whether you're an AS or a PM, or an EC or an EX or a DM, project management is your business.

Pablo Sobrino: So what do you see as the role of the School in effecting this kind of cultural change, really, because a mindset is culture. It's not an instruction manual, it's not a how-to book.

There are specialists, as you had mentioned, that actually do study and prepare for project management. But if you're asking for everybody to have that, what's the role of the School in instilling this culture, and how is the School going to go about trying to do that?

Taki Sarantakis: So a few things. I think, first, we have to start providing the basic tools for these things. And we can do those in a multiplicity of ways.

Taki Sarantakis: First through in-person classes. It's very important to have courses available to promote the interests of public servants.

Taki Sarantakis: Second, we have not done as good a job as we can, or could have historically, with making good online materials available for people to access.

We're busy cleaning both of those areas up.

The third is where I think the School can play an absolutely vital role in brokering the knowledge that's out there already. We at the School have no business reinventing things that are out there already. We're not going to be able to do project management materials better than very sophisticated accounting firms, or universities, or the Project Management Institute, or the like.

The fourth is linkages. It's really important for us—and it's probably related to the third—it's really important for us to help link governmental problems with potential solutions.

And then, more specifically to your last point about culture, it's just talking about this over and over again. If you think of a lot of the "failures" that we've had in the Government of Canada, during the course of your career and my career, in one way or another, most of them are failures of project management. Some of them are failures of ethics. Some of them are failures of values. Some of them are failures of other things. But mostly, it's about project management.

When we talk in the Government of Canada about we're not good "executers"—we are very good at coming together with these ideas about, you know, it's a really good idea to take all the payroll systems of 45 departments and put them together, and drive efficiencies and change, and have common data and all of that. But it means nothing if you don't execute it properly.

So I think if you were to ask most people, What is the government good at? I think they would say that the government is really good at doing diagnostics, the government is really good at coming up with options, the government is really good at coming up with policies.

Conversely, if you were to ask people "What's the government not so great at?"—and not the Government of Canada, but government per se—I think they would say it's about execution. I think it's about delivery. It's about taking that good idea and making it real. You can't do that if you don't know what project management is. 

Pablo Sobrino: Very good.

Pablo Sobrino: Have you received any advice on this from your deputy minister colleagues?

Taki Sarantakis: Yes. Many deputy ministers are very interested in this subject.

Taki Sarantakis: But one of the things we're really trying to do is we're trying to make it that project management isn't something that's left to PSPC, or left to SSC. We really need to drive home the notion that project management and project management ethos is something that informs everybody's work all the time.

Deputy ministers get that. Deputy ministers get that the project management skills in their organizations probably aren't as good and probably aren't as robust as they would want them to be. We've been taking steps in the last little while as a community to really start addressing this and having an opportunity to talk about this subject.

I'd really like to congratulate Roch Huppé, who has a very, very big role to play in this area.

We have a lot of levers, whether they're policy levers, whether they're training levers, whether they're expenditure levers. I think for the first time in my lifetime, in the Government of Canada anyway, we're starting to take this matter really seriously. Whether it's from OCIO [Office of the Chief Information Officer], whether it's from OCG [Office of the Comptroller General], whether it's from the Clerk [of the Privy Council], whether it's from the School, things are aligning in a way that I haven't seen aligned before in this area.

Pablo Sobrino: Interesting, I think you referred to Phoenix, which is the poster child right now of a failure of project management and project oversight. But building that capacity, and building on what we do succeed on— because there have been successes, but they don't get the profile.

There are nevertheless these project failures. Why do you think it's important to learn from failure? Why do we always point to the failures, as opposed to some of the successes that have been done?

Taki Sarantakis: Well, I didn't say that. So for me, I like to learn from everything, whether it's failure or success. I particularly like to learn from others. For me, I don't particularly feel a need to stick my finger in an electrical socket and learn from the fact that something bad will happen. I like learning that from others. So to me, you learn all the time. You learn from good things and from bad things.

In the government, we're not particularly great at going back and saying, okay, so why did this fail? Why did this succeed? We always move on to the new thing, really quickly.

Like you said, we have a lot of successes in the Government of Canada, and thank God, because if we didn't, society would be in a horrific state. But we don't do post-mortems on things.

It's really surprising, because if you look at a lot of professions, they spend as much time dissecting what they have done as they do planning for the next thing. In hospitals and universities, in judicial proceedings, and the like, people look back and they say, Okay, so why did that simple operation go wrong? or Why are the infection rates in this hospital higher than the provincial average? Like what's going on? Let's talk about it.

We don't talk about it as much as we should in the Government of Canada. One of the problems is maybe people move around really quickly in jobs.

But we tend to have people in jobs, and we think that whoever happens to be sitting in that job right now can do everything that's required in that job. And that's just not the case.

If you're sitting in PSPC in 5 or 6 jobs related to payroll, you're there because you're running payroll systems. But once in a generation, or twice in a generation, or once every2 generations, you're actually building a payroll system. That's a very different skill from running a payroll system.

The same if you're building a bridge. If you're at a Crown Corporation and you're running bridges, and then all of a sudden, somebody taps you on the shoulder and says it's time to build another crossing, you don't necessarily have those skills. Even though you're in the big bridge business, you're not in the bridge-building business. That's a completely different thing.

So I think one of our failings in government is if you happen to be a DG of X, or an ADM of Y, and something falls in your area that is outside of the reason why you got that job, we still expect you to know that other thing.

I'll give you an example here just from my organization. We, in the last year, have been having a lot of challenges with accommodations because we've had some building problems. And we vacated our primary teaching spot at Asticou because we gave the spot up for a high school as a result of a tornado that happened a year ago.

All of the people that we have in our Accommodations are here because they're really good at running a physical plant and what we have. They don't have much expertise, nor should they have much expertise, in how are we going to acquire another facility? How are we going to fit up another facility? How are we going to do asbestos abatement on a facility across the street so we can occupy it?

So I don't expect them to have that knowledge because that's not their job. It's not reasonable to expect somebody, for a part of a job that happens once every 10 years, to have that in-house capacity. It's not the right thing.

If you think about it, Pablo, you've spent a lot of time in the Government of Canada. You've seen all of a sudden, where you had units in the Government of Canada that were steady state units—whatever they were, wherever they are, in economic policy or social policy. And then all of a sudden, something happens, a government changes, something that was never a priority becomes a priority. All of a sudden, that unit has to write MCs, write Treasury Board submissions, appear before parliamentary committees. And then it's like, Whoa! None of those people signed up for that. Yes, they happened to be there. But they weren't there to write MCs or do Treasury Board submissions. They were there to run existing programs.

Pablo Sobrino: So these changes you're talking about, the rapidly and constantly changing work environment. It's obvious there's a lot of change.

How will the School play a role in supporting this change, this shift we see everywhere, that requires a project management culture?

And it's more than that. What role is the School going to play in this change? Because the School is not a big place, but it has the potential to have a big impact on the public service.

Taki Sarantakis: For me, the School has great potential to help public servants and government and public administration meet the challenges of the future.

The government is the largest employer in Canada. The government is probably the most important institution in society. It can't do its job well without a highly functioning workforce. And how do you get a highly functioning workforce? Well, you hire highly competent people, you train highly competent people, and you keep the skills of those highly competent people evergreen.

We don't do as good a job as we should in training and learning. I'll say something very frankly that'll probably get me in trouble. There are a lot of jobs in the Government of Canada where people get minimal to no training. There are some jobs and there are some employers who train their people, more than we do in some cases, like McDonald's and Walmart. Some of their front-line people maybe get more support from their organization, in terms of training and learning, than some of our people maybe do in the Government of Canada.

So we have been operating under the framework that once you're hired, you know what you're doing and we'll see you 35 years later to give you your retirement watch.

Maybe that was the way the world worked in the past, but that's not the way the world works today. The skills that I came in with when I joined the Government of Canada in 1997 are very different than the skills that you need to join the Government of Canada today to be a good contributing employee of the Government of Canada and a servant of the people of Canada.

You know when I joined, nobody talked about data literacy. Nobody talked about machine learning. Nobody talked about disruption. Nobody talked about how the rate of change of things was happening at the greatest rate in human history. And 22 years later, it's happening even faster.

We were just starting to talk about the commercial internet, and potentially, about e-government or e-services. So the fact that I'm fluent in those things is because I've been reading in them, because I've been interested in them.

But we don't systematically attack that in the Government of Canada. And the world is changing. I don't need to tell you this Pablo, because you know this better than I do, but I'll just repeat it for the purposes of this podcast. The world is changing at a rate that's breathtaking.

Like, when we started in the Government of Canada, the top retailer was Sears. Sears is gone. If somebody were to tell you at the beginning of your career that Sears would be gone when you retired, you'd probably laugh at them. When we started in the Government of Canada, people bought Chryslers, Fords and General Motors. Now people are buying Teslas. If somebody had told you, we're going to be even closer to self-driving vehicles, you'd have kind of looked at them really funny, right?

If people had told you, Pablo, you're not going to be buying VHS or Blu-rays or DVDs, you're just going to click a button and something will fly through the air. And all of a sudden, you will have 4K resolution, Ultra High Definition resolution, and you'll get it instantly because it's flying through the air. Or you're going to throw away all of your records and your CDs. And you're going to pay $9 a month and you will have unlimited access to all the music in the world. You would have locked that person up.

So change happens really, really quickly. And I think a function of the School is to help prepare the civil service for change. But you can't just do that through the School. Everybody has to prepare for change.

To me, learning and training isn't something that you do one week of the year, and you go to the Canada School, or you go to Carleton, or you go to the Institute of Corporate Directors, whatever. You've got to learn and train all the time.

You as an employee in the Government of Canada, you've got to make that one of your top priorities. You've got to learn from everything, not just from formal training. You've got to learn from your boss, you've got to learn from your peers, you've got to learn from your spouse, you've got to learn from your children. You've got to learn from reading. You've got to learn all the time.

Can I just do a little plug for reading?

Pablo Sobrino: Yes, please do.

Taki Sarantakis: I can't tell you how many times I hear people say, Oh I wish I had time to read. Oh, I am too busy to read. I can't remember the last time I read a book. And when I hear that, it just drives me nuts.

Because do you know how many books Bill Clinton would read when he was President of the United States? When he was President of the United States, he'd read like a minimum of 40 books a year. Do you know how many books Barack Obama would read when he was President of the United States? He'd read at least, again, 40 books a year. Do you know how many books Bill Gates would read when he was running Microsoft? A minimum of 50 books a year. Do you know how many books Warren Buffett reads? He reads like at least 30 books a year.

So if your job is more important than being President of the United States, or running Microsoft, or being one of the world's richest men, if you're that busy, more power to you. But the people that run one of the biggest governments in the world, and the people that run one of the biggest companies in the world, they carve out time for reading.

And they're not carving out time for reading. Effectively, what they're doing is they're carving out time for learning. They're carving out time for looking at the future, and for preparing themselves for the future. If you can't do that, I think you should maybe look at what your priorities are.

Pablo Sobrino: Interesting. Can I ask you, what book are you reading right now?

Taki Sarantakis: Right now I'm reading Nervous States, which is a book that talks about all the big things that are happening in different ways. What is truth? What is the role of government? What does the rise of digital mean for government? And I'm not sure government has really grappled with what digital will ultimately mean.

A lot of our institutions were based on the notion that it took a really long time to consult with citizens or to interact with citizens. You know, one of the reasons why we have Parliaments and legislatures and Houses is because you couldn't really ask people what they wanted. So you would get people together once every 4 or 5 years and ask them to vote for somebody to go and represent them somewhere.

Part of that, if you think about it, was very clearly because it was very expensive to ask people what they wanted. It was very difficult. A couple hundred years ago, somebody would get on their horse and ride to Ottawa and come for 4 years, or again ride on their horse and go to Washington, or go to Westminster in London, and they would represent people for 3, 4 or 5 years.

Now any little kid can consult with anybody in the world, almost instantly and almost for free. How does that change government? If you think that that's not going to change government, I think you're deluding yourself.

Government as an institution has to really start grappling with what instant communication means. With anybody in the world being able to reach hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people instantly, that has profound consequences for governance and how we organize ourselves. I'm not sure Western governments are moving on this as fast as they should be.

Pablo Sobrino: It's interesting. I like your appeal for reading and for critical thought. It's the reading that gives you that informed perspective, when you're having those conversations that happen instantaneously.

Taki Sarantakis: On the flip side of that, one of the dangers we're having is that people are just reading things that they want to read. So you hear about the echo chamber, and things that reinforce what you want to read.

I forget who it was, but somebody said, Do you remember the last time you read something you disagreed with? Do you remember the last time something made you mad? It's happening less and less, because most of us now read through aggregators. They know what you like and show you more of what you want to read.

But it's almost the difference between reading through electronic aggregators, or the web, or browsers and newspapers.

If you think of newspapers, again, when you and I—I don't want to make it sound like we're 100 years old, but we are old—when you would read a newspaper, when we were younger and you'd read a newspaper, there was a business section, and there was a sports section, there was a political section, and there was an opinion section. There were classified ads. So you had a little bit of everything.

For better or worse, you had them curated. There was an editor of the business section and an editor of this. And somebody had vouched for the quality, so to speak, and then we all read the same thing.

So there are good things and there bad things about that. But we need to start looking at what does it mean when % of the population passionately believes X? then another % of the population passionately believes Y, and those  will never come together?

Maybe we should talk about project management a little though.

Pablo Sobrino: Well, no, I think actually this is useful, because it is really what the School's role is, which is what we're talking about. And project management is a big element of the discussion.

I did want to go to the Digital Academy, maybe to talk a little bit about what your vision is there, and again, how it might fit into the project management thing, but also the broader frame.

Taki Sarantakis: So the Digital Academy is one of the most important new things that we've done at the School. And we were very blessed in October that our Minister at the time announced the Digital Academy for us and gave it a mandate.

Basically, the Digital Academy—I don't view it as a technical thing. I view it as teaching, or exposing, or socializing parts of the civil service to modern business techniques. Because when you say "digital," a lot of times, really what you're saying is just code for "do business the right way."

When you look at a lot of the core anchor aspects of digital, you think about "agile," and "put the user first," and "focus on experience." The best companies in the world have been doing that for a long, long time.

If you look at a Four Seasons, or a Tiffany, or Harvard University, they're always focusing on users, they're always focusing on experience, they're always trying to stay relevant.

So when you hear "digital," yes, it's about instant communication and data and all of that. But it's also about principles that every good organization should be doing. Government has been lucky in that government has thought of itself and, for a lot of history has been, a monopoly provider of a lot of services.

But government going forward has to stop thinking like a monopoly. Because if you think like a monopoly, you become lazy. If you think like a monopoly, you think of people as annoyances as opposed to clients. And if you think like a monopoly, you're always behind.

And again, because we're old farts, when we were growing up, there was a time when your telephone was a monopoly. There was a time when your television was a monopoly. And you'd call Bell Canada, or Rogers, and you'd say, X and Y and Z is wrong.

And they'd giggle and go, Yeah, yeah, we'll get to you. We'll be there a month from Tuesday. We don't know whether it's going to be 9o'clock or 5 o'clock. So book a day off, because we might come, we might not. We might be there at 9:00, we might be there at 4:30, but you really have no choice but to deal with us. We have all the power over you.

Again, that's not the way our society works.

Pablo Sobrino: You have a lot of experience in the governance and oversight of projects, programs, and broad, complex change initiatives in your career in several departments.

Can you describe some of these experiences? What key lessons did you take away?

Taki Sarantakis: Yes, I've spent my career mainly in 3 or 4departments. Not much movement. I started as a summer student at Transport Canada. At Transport, I was very involved with Toronto issues the Olympics, the Waterfront, and Air Rail Links.

Pablo Sobrino: Big projects.

Taki Sarantakis: Yes, very big projects.

After that, I transferred to the Treasury Board to work on infrastructure files. It was effectively the first program in which the government had started spending money.

This was just at the end of Program Review when everybody was cutting, cutting, cutting, cutting. And the infrastructure program was one of the very, very few programs where the government was actually spending money and introducing new programs.

At the time, I think it was about $2 billion, which at that time was like all the money in the world.

I had the opportunity to draft the Memorandum to Cabinet to establish the program parameters, the investment categories, the rationale, the eligibility, all that. So it really gave me a sense that words weren't just things on a piece of paper. They meant you're investing in highways, you're investing in broadband, you're investing in water treatment plants.

It also was a great connector between ministers having ideas, and then this being infrastructure, a couple of years later there would actually be a building, or a recreation facility, or a bridge, or a highway.

When I go to meetings all across the country now, there isn't a place where I go to, whether it's Toronto, or Vancouver, or Montréal, or a smaller city, where I'm like, You see the Vancouver Convention Centre. I remember writing the first briefing note on that. Or the Winnipeg floodway, I remember going, I wrote the briefing note to the Prime Minister on that that secured the funding. Or here in Ottawa, our convention centre, or the LRT.

So these were all things where you had the policy world, the idea, and what we started our conversation with, execution. At the end of the day, something actually happens.

After that, I went to Infrastructure Canada, which was created at the Treasury Board.

It was split off from the Treasury Board Secretariat and became its own department in, I think it was, 2004.

I spent 15 years, I think, at Infrastructure Canada as an analyst, a director general, and an assistant deputy minister, where I experienced many interactions between ideas, policies and public administration.

And that was just a wonderful, wonderful period. Especially, even though it almost killed us, during the economic crisis.

So in 2008, the global economy started getting wonky, and the government decided to put a massive stimulus program in front of the Canadian economy, just like governments all across the world did.

It was an exceptionally busy time.

The amount of work that we did—at some point we were actually doing environmental assessments on a -hour cycle. We had broken our environmental assessment team into 3 groups, and they worked three 8-hour shifts. We were doing environmental assessments around the clock, so that we could get projects in front of decision makers in time.

I think at one point, I forget the actual number, but we were sending something like $100 million of approvals up to our Minister and to Cabinet a week, something in that order. It was like about $100 million a week of projects going up and out.

But the last thing that it really taught me was the importance of time.

There was a very interesting, I don't know if you remember, there was a very interesting feature of the EAP money. It all had to be spent within 2 years, and everything ended March 31, 2011.

That was the first time, and maybe the only time I remember, where the government actually said, This has to be done by this time, or the programs and the money lapse. That, coupled with a global financial crisis, really focused the attention on getting things done.

Talk about project management, right? Talk about execution. You're now not only executing something, but you're executing against the clock. And at the time, we were like, Oh, my God, how are we going to do this? This is impossible.

But then, now looking back on it, I think the clock actually helped us. I think the clock focused everybody. I think the clock made people go, We've already burned 3 months here in design, we've got to now start executing, we've now got to start delivering or this will never happen. So that was a real, real highlight.

Then I went 5 years at the Treasury Board Secretariat, which really cemented the rules of the government, so to speak. Some of them very obvious, some of them very arcane. But it's really important to know the rules.

So just when I'm starting to figure out what I know and what I'm doing, I'm looking more towards the end of my career than the front of my career.

Pablo Sobrino: Time moves quickly. Yeah, I've got to say that, as retirement comes, time moves quickly.

Taki Sarantakis: Yeah. If you're out there listening, and you're just starting your career, pay attention. Because it goes by so fast.

Pablo Sobrino: Yes, absolutely. It's interesting you talk about, in your current role, going and seeing all this infrastructure that got built. You've talked a little bit about having a real deadline as a way of forcing results.

Are there any other little takeaways, mindsets, behaviours that you got out of that work at Infrastructure around project management?

Taki Sarantakis: That's a great question. And I'll answer it this way. I'll start with a little introduction to something, and then I'll veer back into the example at Infrastructure.

One of the problems that we have in the Government of Canada isn't so much with the project managers. It's with the oversight of projects. And let me give you an example.

So if you're doing the biggest capital project in your company, you are going to go before the board of directors maybe monthly, maybe weekly. What's our schedule? Are we on schedule? Are we behind?

So pick an industry, pick a company—whether you're introducing a new television screen to the market, or whether you're building a new model car, or whether you're Amazon and you're building a fulfilment centre. If that's a big capital project, you're going to get a lot of oversight, like a lot, because people will want to know, Are you on budget? Are you on time? Where are you slipping? How can I help you?

So one of the things that we did at Infrastructure Canada, we did real oversight. All of the projects were kicked in front of an ADM committee every week, where all the ADMs would kick and poke and prod, and say, What do you mean this can be built in  2 years? Absolutely not. You're crazy. It's like, Well here's why it can be built in 2 years. You're still crazy, don't do that project. And we wouldn't do the project a lot of times. But we had good oversight, and serious oversight.

In the Government of Canada, in my experience, we don't do that kind of oversight as well as we should.

If you're building a $300 million  payroll system, or if you're introducing a new billing system, and you're a hydro company, or Rogers, or somebody where you're competing, you're not going to introduce that system without a lot of oversight from your board of directors. You're never going to put that system live, unless you've tested it 8,000 times in all kinds of scenarios. You're never going to release that system until the error rate is under, whatever it is, 1% or 0.00%, whatever your metric of success is.

I don't sense that we do that as much in government. I don't sense that—and not to pick on Phoenix because we all talk about Phoenix—but I don't know how many times we did dry runs on Phoenix. Did we do 6,00 dry-run payrolls? Did we ever say, We're not launching unless the error rate is under 2%? Did we ever say, What happens if this part of the system goes down? Have we tested if that part of the system goes down?

I'm not saying we did. I'm not saying we didn't, because I genuinely don't know. But I would be surprised if we did, with a level of rigour that probably a typical private sector company would take with something as important as their payroll system.

So project management oversight is just as important as project management.

One of the things we see in the Government of Canada is you see dashboards. Like all good project managers, you have dashboards. You don't see a lot of red in Government of Canada dashboards. You see green, green, green, green. Then, after you launch and something goes wrong, flashing red. And you're like, Wait a second, what happened to yellow?

So it's really important that we take oversight of projects seriously. Whether that oversight is at the ADM level, the DG level, the ministerial level, the Cabinet level, the parliamentary level, we all have a role to play in oversight. And sometimes we don't do oversight as much as we could.

One of the things that happens is you ask a question, and people say, Yeah, we've got that covered, we have a contingency. And you're like, Oh, great. Next question. But just somebody saying I have a contingency, that's pretty meaningless. It's like, What is your contingency? Have you stress tested your contingency? Have you run it? What would happen?

Often, if you asked just those 3 or 4 follow-up questions, you get a sense that, Oh, we really don't have a contingency.

Pablo Sobrino: Maybe that's the yellow.

Taki Sarantakis: Or actually our contingency is something really silly. So again in a billing system scenario, if your project manager says, We have a contingency, and you're like, What's the contingency? And he said, We'll manually write out bills to our 17,000 customers. You'll be like, Well, that's not really a contingency. How long would it take us to manually write out 17,000 bills? It would take us about a year and a half per billing cycle. And you're like, But we have billing cycles every month, or every week. Yeah, I hadn't thought of that.

It's the same thing with other projects in the Government of Canada. I guess another way to say what I'm saying is, we undertake a lot of these things as checkbox exercises. If they really are checkbox exercises, as opposed to real oversight, then we're doing more harm than good because we're giving ourselves a false sense of security.

The deputy looking at dashboards on projects—if I'm a deputy minister, and I see nothing but green, I'm like, Great, nothing to see here. Let me go on to my next burning fire.

So people have to start telling the truth and putting in yellow or red in the dashboard. Because if it's yellow and red, I as a deputy, or Mary as a deputy, or Jane as an assistant deputy minister will start paying attention to the yellow or to the red. But if everything is green, Mary, Jane, Bill and I are not going to look at it. We're going to go on to our next problem.

So project oversight is very important.

Pablo Sobrino: It's very interesting. It's about the project management policy and framework that have been introduced, which a lot is about governance and oversight and how to do challenge, and how do you go through the gates so that you can make decisions.

Taki Sarantakis: There's a tendency, if I can just interject, there's a tendency sometimes people get their shoulders up or their elbows up on challenge. If somebody is getting upset, or dancing, or skating when they're being challenged, you should dig harder. That means there's something there that's not good.

If you know what you're doing, and if your project is on track and you're doing well, you welcome oversight. You welcome challenge, because it's an opportunity to show off the good work that you're doing and to show off the thinking and the planning.

But if somebody is like, What, don't you trust me? I said we have a contingency plan. Don't you trust me? That's a huge red flag. Because it really should be if you have a contingency plan, show it to me.

If you do, that's wonderful. But if you don't, don't tell me you have one and ask me to trust you. I'm not saying that we've been trusting too much. But if somebody takes challenge as an affront, that basically is a big red flag.

Pablo Sobrino: Well that's completely along the lines of what I've heard as well.

I just have 2 little questions.

The first one is, internationally. I know that you have been trying to find out what's going on internationally in project management and what they're saying as leaders out there in the global context.

What are some of the key things that we might hear from them? I assume project oversight is one of them, but are there any other bits of the big thinking in project management globally?

Taki Sarantakis: To me I think the messages are, these are all the same problems, whether you're working in the UK civil service, or the American civil service, or the Canadian civil service, or in the private sector, or in an NGO, or in a large for-profit or in a small not-for-profit, project management is project management.

We all have a lot to learn from each other. And one of the tragedies is that we don't learn from each other.

If I was in charge of building a new bridge, one of the very first things I would do is I would go talk to people who have built bridges. If I was in charge of introducing a new payroll system, I would go talk to people who have introduced new payroll systems.

If I couldn't find anybody that had introduced new payroll systems, I'd talk to people who have introduced analogous things like billing systems, or tracking systems.

So it comes back a little bit to not sticking your finger in the electrical socket. Go out and ask people, What happened when you stuck your finger in the electrical socket. Oh, it wasn't a good thing. I'm going to try not to stick my finger in the electrical socket when I'm building a new billing system or a new bridge.

So for me, the international is really about sharing lessons. Everything is either old, or new, or new to you. And we don't do the "new to you" well, because everything that's new to you isn't necessarily new to other people. So go talk to other people who have done this before.

Pablo Sobrino: So just in closing, what are your thoughts as to where the public service needs to be on project management 5 years from now?

We talked about culture and mindset. When will you say they're doing it, they're getting it right? Not doing it right, getting it right.

Taki Sarantakis: Yeah, I don't know if it's 5 years.

I think a couple of factors. One, we have to professionalize rapidly. And that doesn't just mean certification, or learning, or training. We have to professionalize processes.

We have to start taking proper inventories of our resources. We have to start doing rational allocations of our resources, whether they're time, energy or money. We have to become much better at defining the problem, the objective, to be much sharper in terms of what we're actually building. We have to start taking oversight seriously. We have to start taking timelines seriously.

And we have to stop becoming afraid to speak truth to power, whether that power is your Director or your DG, or your Minister to say, "Yes, I know you want this bridge in 10 minutes. I'm telling you, a bridge cannot be built in 10 minutes. And if you want to pretend that we can build a bridge in 10 minutes, that's not going to work. So I'm not going to do you the disservice of lying to you."

The same thing with your DG. The same thing with your ADM. The same thing with your Deputy. If we get to the point where people are telling the truth about resources, and timelines, and energy, and downside, and risk, I think that is a big, big step.

I don't think we need to wait 5 years for that. I think we can do that tomorrow. But we need to reward our people for telling the truth, and not going, "Don't you understand? The bridge has to be built in 10 minutes."

One of the things we really have to start looking at is how do we put in the right systems of incentives, so that when you see red on your dashboard, you're not, as a deputy or an ADM, getting really angry. You're actually getting quite pleased that somebody is drawing this to your attention.

But where you still should get angry when you're seeing red, is if it was green, green, green, green, green, green, green and then post-launch it becomes red. Because that means people were not being straight with you before.

Pablo Sobrino: Great. Thank you Taki. It was an excellent little interview.

I liked how we went through project management as well as the broader elements of the School, because all this training and culture change is really what the School is about.

There's the technical piece, but there's really how do you change thinking, whether that be project management, or change or change management in the digital world.

It's been a real pleasure listening to you.

Taki Sarantakis: Thank you Pablo. It was a pleasure to be here.

Pablo Sobrino: For me too. Thank you.

Credits

Speaker: Taki Sarantakis, President, Canada School of Public Service

Moderator: Pablo Sobrino, Distinguished Fellow, Canada School of Public Service

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