Cole: What Canada’s public service employee survey is really telling us

The one time that I found the Survey particularly helpful was when I was managing the merger then CIC citizenship and multiculturalism divisions following the 2008 decision to move multiculturalism from Canadian Heritage (reversed in 2015 under the Liberals).

The survey indicated much higher satisfaction from the citizenship side than multiculturalism, a sober reminder of just how hard and how long it takes to integrate different diversions from different departmental cultures.

And of course, like all government surveys and publications, there is a certain amount of sugar coating (we rely on the OAG for more candour!) but the survey nevertheless serves a useful function in providing an opportunity for departments, down to the DG-level in my day, to get an absolute and relative sense of employee views:

Here’s my take on the 2019 Public Service Employee Survey, which was recently made public:

• The published results are unduly positive and actually misleading;

• Meaningful results are not published;

• There is no acknowledgement of good or bad results;

• No one seems to be accountable for the results; and

• No apparent effort is being made to improve on the results.

I have been involved in and reporting on the PSES since it was first implemented in 1999. Here’s the clear message coming out from employees in this survey: “We’re mostly not a happy bunch.”

Yes, the official results overall look fairly good. Look closer. Reports state that 62 per cent have confidence in their senior management. What is not stated is that only 29 per cent have a lot of such confidence. Isn’t this misleading? Results for many other questions are similarly skewed.

Here are some other meaningful responses to some specific questions:

• Only 24 per cent feel their agency does a great job supporting career development;

• Only 21 per cent seriously feel that any good idea they presented would be supported;

• Only 25 per cent think their workplace is very healthy;

• Only 15 per cent think that change is handled very well in their agency;

• Only 27 per cent feel the agency does a great job of explaining what it does; and

• 38 per cent gave their implicit opinion: They did not return the survey.

It’s fairly easy to score the results and rank the agencies on a “best agencies to work for” basis. That list effectively acknowledges the top federal agencies while establishing target benchmarks for the rest.

Agency heads do not appear accountable to achieve positive results nor to take any specific action responding to negative results. Based on my own experience and hearing from a few current employees, there’s a little buzz created with the survey but things rapidly return to the status quo. It’s like the French expression, “Plus ça change, plus c’est pareil.”

There is no evident major effort made to act on the PSES results by improving the workplace. Certainly nothing like that shows up on the Treasury Board website. There used to be a very telling question in the survey asking employees if they thought senior management was going to do much with the results. In 2014, the response to that question showed that just 17 per cent of employees were much convinced. That question has since been removed.

Here are a few suggestions to act positively in response to the survey:

• Give the straight goods when reporting the results. No sugar-coating;

• Officially publish a “best” list. Reward agency heads or not, according to their placement on the list. Heck, put their names on the list too:

• Ensure that agency heads demonstrate care and compassion for employees as a mandatory requirement to being hired;

• Celebrate the top-rated agencies on the list, such as Western Economic Diversification Canada, number one on my list. Tell their story. Reveal their secret to success.

• Publicly describe what the other agencies are doing to improve: what’s working, what isn’t.

• In future surveys, offer employees the chance to suggest ways to improve their workplace, their work or the whole public service. Review all suggestions, pick the best ones, implement them, reward the contributors.

• Add a bit to the survey so employees can confidentially answer a few key questions and get a sense of their health risks with pointers to improve their health. Such tools are already used and available in Canada.

These are just a few strategies that can fire up and empower the 300,000-some public service employees to better use their creativity, knowledge and experience to improve their workplace and, consequently, better serve all Canadians.

That’s what I want to see.

Jake Cole spent 34 years in Canada’s public service working in six different agencies. For his “best” list of all 66 major PS agencies, contact:

Source: Cole: What Canada’s public service employee survey is really telling us

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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