Dr. Maria Barrados: Future Opportunities for Canada-Mongolia Relations

Keynote Address

22nd Annual General Meeting

North American Mongolia Business Council

Ottawa, Apr 18-20, 2012

Dr. Maria Barrados

Former President, Public Service Commission of Canada

Future Opportunities for Canada-Mongolia Relations

San Bainu! Good afternoon. Thank you for the invitation to speak to you today. A number of you here today probably have spent more time in Mongolia and have more experience working in Mongolia than I have had. I hope my observations will provide some different perspectives and some basis for further discussion.

Most Canadians don’t know that much about Mongolia. Even seasoned Air Canada agents ask about what the country is like.    As a country it had the world’s largest empire and now is the least densely population country in the world. It apparently also has the highest number of horses per capita. Outside the urban areas it is a strikingly beautiful land.

For Canadians, no Ottawa is not the coldest capital in the world, Ulaanbaatar is! Ottawa is only number 7. And as you know — Canada ranks as Mongolia’s 2nd largest foreign investor after China. For the shoppers like me even if I have only half an hour, Mongolia has the finest cashmere products and great buys on wool carpets.

Mongolia is an emerging democracy between the large powers of Russia and China.    It remains a poor country, ranking 110th of 187 countries on the UN Human Development Index. Those of you of who have been to Ulaanbaatar have experienced the congestion and pressures on the infrastructure in the City as people move into it look for a better livelihood. However, its abundant mineral wealth offers the potential, if managed effectively and sustainably, to make rapid strides in economic growth and poverty reduction.

Mongolia is a country on the one hand in need of development assistance and on the other offers great potential for investment in the natural resource sector.

The World Bank’s measures of governance (with the six areas that they measure including voice and accountability; political stability; government effectiveness; regulatory quality; (rule of law); and control of corruption)    have identified issues that are widely acknowledged within Mongolia. The 2011 World Bank Country Survey cited improved governance and government effectiveness as, by far, the key development priority for the country. {World Bank Country surveys canvas the opinions of public sector, private sector, and civil society with respect to the development priorities of the country and the World Bank’s role. In the current Mongolian survey, government effectiveness/governance is cited by 31% as the most important development priority, well ahead of economic growth, identified by 12%.} The success of political and economic reforms is critically depending on the governance capacities of the public administration.    This is the context for the context for the work we have been doing in Mongolia with their public service.

Public Service Reform

The public sector as a whole in Mongolia has undergone, and is still in the process of undergoing, several reform initiatives (such as rationalization, privatization, decentralization, tax reform, reforms in health and education sectors).

Public administration and civil service reforms have been on the agenda of various successive governments in Mongolia over more than a decade. Today, the Government is in the fourth stage of public service renewal, which started in 2008. In order to strengthen public personnel systems and professional civil service, the Parliament of Mongolia in 2008 amended the Law on Civil Service to mandate civil servants to be non-partisan and free from any political activities. This marked the move to creating a professional civil service which is politically neutral and is hired and promoted on the basis of the principles of merit.

These amendments did not result in the rate of change anticipated and the law is being examined for further amendments. In this area Canada is viewed by many countries as a model because of our professional, largely merit based nonpartisan public service.

The Civil Service Council of Mongolia had visited the Public Service Commission of Canada and was anxious to exchange experience and best practises on the building of a merit-based, non-partisan public service. This relationship was formalized with the visit of Prime Minister Batboldt to Canada in September 2010. Three MOUs were signed in the presence of both Prime Minister Harper and Prime Minister Batboldt at that time —one with Agriculture Canada, The Standards Council of Canada and the Public Service Commission of Canada.

John Walter, the President of the Standard Council is here today and he can speak to the work he is doing in Mongolia. SCC is engaging in a number of capacity building activities with the Mongolian Agency for Standardization and Metrology (MASM) and a number of ministries in the Mongolian government.

Prime Minister Batbold suggested that he would like to take Canada as a model for development particularly as it related to mining, infrastructure, construction, agriculture, service and public service.

This capacity building will strengthen Mongolia’s standardization and regulatory infrastructure and will contribute to Canada’s relationship with Mongolia as an important trading partner. Shared standardization practices will serve to strengthen ties between the two countries, reduce trade barriers and open the door to new trading opportunities.

The Public Service Commission undertook comparative work of the Mongolian and Canadian staffing systems which provided a better understanding of the similarities and differences between the two systems. The Mongolian Civil Service Council – closely equivalent to the Public Service Commission of Canada- wanted to make changes that strengthened their system more like ours in Canada.

Assistance was provided by CIDA’s Deployment for Democratic Development (DDD) program. Work was initiated with the Civil Service Council and a Prime Ministerial working group designed to make amendments to the existing legislation.
After a year of work under phase 1 of the DDD project a lot was accomplished but not surprisingly a lot more remains to be done. Draft legislation was completed by the Civil Service Council in January 2012 closely following the recommendations made by the project and achieving a key result for the project. However, the legislation has not yet been tabled since the President’s Working Group has not completed its work.

The project also started to work with the President’s Working Group. Both groups are “inspired” by the Canadian model to find an appropriate solution for Mongolia.
The project provided significant support to the CSC enabling them to do their work, through various activities. These included the preparation of proposed recommendations, cooperation with different working groups, national and international seminars, and ongoing advice on specific requests. This required a number of missions to Mongolia by the Canadian delegation and also involved visits by Mongolian delegations to Ottawa.

The final step of bringing together the results of the different working groups in Parliament has still to be taken, most likely in the fall of 2012, after the elections in June. Of course, legislative amendments are just the first step in effecting change.

Some Observations

1. The Reformers and Leaders

Many of the people in the government and public service in leadership positions are young, very well educated, usually abroad, and committed to reform. They are keen to modernize democratic systems and processes. Their experience in organizational implementation is often more limited and they are dealing with a bureaucracy that is not uniformly committed to change The challenge, of course, is to bring the whole system into the change process. Articulating a vision and putting in place enabling legislation are important parts of change but many initiatives flounder on implementation.

Building capacity needs to deal with the challenge of implementation and dealing with inevitable resistance to new, more formal, transparent, accountable ways of operating.
The Mongolia media has been interested in the reform process as it applies to getting jobs in the public service and the general philosophy of change. An interesting public debate led by one of the local television commentators was started on developing a more service oriented public service. He argued that terminology should be changed from civil service to a public service.

OECD has observed that new democratic states from a Soviet past need to be particularly vigilant is moving their public service from serving the interest of the state to serving the public interest. In democracies, public servants have the obligation of carrying out their duties and responsibilities in the public interest rather than the interest of the state.    This requires fundamental change throughout the bureaucracy.

Indicating responsiveness on the part of the State Great Hural, the language was changed in the new    Law on Regulation of Public and Private Interests in the Public Service and Prevention of Conflicts of Interest.

2.    The Size of the Population and the Natural Resources

The population of Mongolia is about 3 million people with about half of the population in the capital City. This relatively small population that has traditionally been educated is more manageable for government to provide services and support. Without doubt there are numerous development challenges. There is potential in the responsible development of natural resource.

While aspects of the problem appear daunting, many countries, including Canada, have been willing to provide development assistance. With the smaller population, the scale of the issues to be dealt with is more manageable. The proximity of China has also provided for Mongolia a source of labour where they cannot meet the demands themselves.

3.    The Commitment to Building a Strong Democratic State

Freedom House currently rates Mongolia as “free” with a 2.0 rating.2—this is good. {Freedom House annually rates 184 countries as being free (1-2.5); partly free (3.0-5.0); or not free (5.5-7.0) using a methodology that gauges civil liberties and political rights.} This rating reflects what I have observed in their leadership. A significant achievement that will hopefully be solidified in upcoming election processes.

Mongolia with its unique geo-political location and history can be a model democratic state to other new states and other states in the region.

For further societal progress to be made robust public service institutions need to support government. This is certainly recognized by the Mongolian leadership.

The work of the World Bank and other financial institution have concluded that social and economic development and well- being are directly related to the existence of a professional, competent, merit based public service. A society’s strength is directly related to the strength of its public service.

4. The Linkage with Canada

There are a number of factors that bring us together, not the least of which is our climate, proximity to strong powerful neighbours, and many similar natural resources. The land and conditions in our Prairies resemble parts of Mongolia.

In addition to the MOUs with the federal government, MOUs have been signed in British Columbia with the University and lumber. These are also linkages with the Saskatchewan Trade and Export Partnership (STEP). And of course, the investment of our mining sector in the development of the environmentally sustainable mining. There are number of bilateral linkages that have developed based on mutual common interest.

From my experience with the Civil Service Council, there are many Canadian practises that are of interest to them. Canadian government officials are proud to be able to share their experience and work with Mongolians to find solutions based on our experience that would work best for them.

5. The Development Challenge

Civil service reform in Mongolia has been receiving support from other countries/donors since the early 90s’. The Civil Service Council has worked with a number of Agencies including the Asia Development Bank (ADB), the World Bank (WB) and the Swedish Development Agency (SIDA) in the implementation of the Mid-Term Civil Service Reform Strategy and Implementation Action Plan from year 2007.    These reforms were heavily influenced by the New Zealand model of public sector management.

As we started our work we would ask questions about existing structures and practises, for example, formal selection processes, review processes classification systems. We were told it was all there but there was a frustration that they were not working as intended. From further discussion it was evident that there were issues with a capacity to implement both from a knowledge of the people, willingness to change and the absence of necessary tools and support. The new frameworks were imposed on old practises and informal traditions.
In the absence of accepted conventions necessary powers were not put in place, for example, in my view the Civil Service Council did not have sufficient enforcement powers to carry through on implementation and ensure that past practise did not persist.

The culture and institutional traditions in New Zealand that allowed their contract model to work were not present in Mongolia. As is well argued by Allen Schick ( ‘Why Most Developing Countries Should Not Try New Zealand’s Reform’, The World Bank Research Observer, vol. 3, no. 1, February 1998, 123-31), developing countries dominated by informal structures are risky candidates for applying the New Zealand model. He goes on to argue that new public management reforms such as those in New Zealand are unlikely to succeed unless sound management practises are in place to begin with.    His observations are consistent with the situation in Mongolia today requiring further reforms.

6. Government and Business

The development of the government and business sectors is not a question of either/or but both need to be strong and viable. There are debates in Mongolia as in other parts of the World about the amount of centralization versus decentralization, privatization or government control, out sourcing or in sourcing. These will be political decisions but both sectors need to be developed

Public services play many different roles – some more visible than others from development of policies and regulations to providing policing, border services and diplomacy. And many more. All services needed in a modern state.

Modern societies all rely on a bureaucratic structure to support the leadership. Different governments have different approaches to how they organize their bureaucratic arm. However, there is a consensus on its importance and the crucial role it plays in the development of society. While government organizations vary across cultures and societies. They have two factors in common:

  • the special status of their public service, and with that special status come special obligations which are set out in codes of conduct,
  • the importance of good people management. It is only through the people that things get done.

The driving forces of sound management, formalization and transparency, and appropriate control are important for both sectors. Analysts such as Allen Schick argue that progress in either sector requires parallel advances. However, I believe that leadership can and should come from government.

Prospects for the Future

My crystal ball is no better than anyone else’s. From our experience in the first DDD project we learned that there has to be considerable flexibility to be able to adapt to the issues and circumstances in Mongolia. As Canadians few speak Mongolian so there has to be a reliance on interpreters and translation.

Our project for the short period that it ran had considerable success in forming good working relationships, exchanging practises and drafting legislative proposals. The Mongolian public servants we worked with were very good partners. We shared a common vision of a professional, merit based, non-partisan public service. They are keen to continue their collaboration.

We had very good support from the Canadian Government—the Ambassador Greg Goldhawk and his staff was always there to help, CIDA officials provided much needed support, and the Public Service Commission allowed me to continue this work when my term was unexpectedly extended. I understand there is a commitment to continue providing development support on the part of the Canadian government.
We both live in democracies so with elections things can change. In Canada we have the good fortune to have a public service that does not change with electoral change but clearly political direction can change. This gives government stability and continuity. Hopefully Mongolia can achieve the same thing.

From the young leadership that I met from both political parties I was very encouraged by their commitment to modernization and reform within the democratic framework.
So I would say that the prospects for future collaboration on development initiatives are good. This collaboration would provide a stability and clarity in frameworks that would support further business development.

There are opportunities for effective collaboration on development with very willing and able partners. Modernized government that is based on formalized structure with greater transparency provides a more stable environment that will only help business.

As you can see I am quite optimistic and I don’t think I have on rose coloured glasses.


Ms. Maria Barrados served as President of the Public Service Commission of Canada from November 2003 to December 2011, during which she organized cooperation with the Civil Service Commission of Mongolia as the result of the MOU signed during Prime Minister Batbold’s historic visit to Ottawa in September 2010. Ms. Barrados had originated the suggestion of such an MOU to Prime Minister Harper. She is still actively involved with the PSC program in Mongolia and in fact departed for Ulaanbaatar only a few days after delivering this keynote address.

She previously served as Assistant Auditor General at the Office of the Auditor General of Canada. Educated as a sociologist, Ms. Barrados began her career as a lecturer and later as a Research Project Supervisor at Carleton University. She is a member and former Chair of the Canadian Council on Health Services Accreditation. Ms. Barrados earned her BA with high honours in Sociology from the University of Saskatchewan in 1966, an MA in Sociology from McGill University (1970) and a PhD in Sociology from Carleton University (1978). She is a recipient of the Confederation Medal (1992). Ms. Barrados is married and has one daughter.

About Julian Dierkes

Julian Dierkes is a sociologist by training (PhD Princeton Univ) and a Mongolist by choice and passion since around 2005. He teaches in the Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He toots @jdierkes@sciences.social and tweets @jdierkes
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