The federal public service desperately needs renewal

Under-reported:

The 28th Annual Report to the Prime Minister on the Public Service of Canada was released on Dec. 13, two weeks after the throne speech, one day before the economic update, and three days before the prime minister’s mandate letters to his cabinet.

The thread that connects each of these major transition milestone documents is the impact of the pandemic, the response to it, and its long-term economic and health implications for Canada. This report addresses the same theme with a focus on the professional public service.

Admittedly, the annual report to the prime minister generates few headlines in the mainstream media. Nevertheless, the report is one of the few public communications between the clerk of the Privy Council and the prime minister in his role as head of the public service. It’s one of his three roles, including deputy minister to the prime minister and secretary to cabinet. The latter two seldom lend themselves to regular or even annual public disclosure.

In broad terms, the report acknowledges the relationship or “partnership” that exists between the elected government and the professional non-partisan public service. While governments may change, the permanent public service supports peaceful transitions from one political party to the next, as well as continuity of services to Canadians, and, indirectly, a measure of predictability that financial markets crave.

The role of the public service is an important one and seldom discussed in any great depth. The annual report on the “state of the public service” provides a measure of transparency to the public, parliamentarians, and civil society. The report usually touches on the dominant issues, challenges, and opportunities that faced the country the previous year, and how the public service responded. While the clerk often highlights significant achievements, such as accepting 50,000 Syrian refugees in 2016, it also acknowledges failures, such as the Phoenix pay system.

This year’s report (April 2020 to March 2021) covered the standard “boilerplate” information contained in annexes, including the composition of the public service, key demographics, and the public service’s more notable achievements and successes that both the prime minister and the public should know about.

The report also looks forward. It recommends doing more to improve diversity and inclusion in the public service, as well as harnessing the “lessons from the pandemic.”

“Like an elastic band, we stretched to support the government’s response to the pandemic,” reads the report. “As the pressure eases, and, in time, it will, the natural inclination will be to ‘snap back’ to our previous state. That should not happen.”

Such strident language by the head of the public service reveals that the pre-pandemic situation wasn’t working particularly well, and the “suspension” of certain rules and procedures was necessary to respond to the public-health crisis at hand.

Yet, it would be a mistake to believe this was a call for the “swashbuckling” days of an older era in Canada that likely never existed in the first place. The clerk notes the need to ensure that probity, risk assessment, transparency, and accountability not be set aside, but perhaps applied in new, less cumbersome ways.

It also recommends exploring the benefits of going fully digital and increasing remote workforces. Each area interconnects with collective agreements, real property, official-language requirements, and possibly employment equity. The Accountability Act, which passed in 2006, would likely need updating.

Taken together, questions posed by the clerk in his report to the prime minister amount to a robust agenda for public-service renewal. Yet no such ambition was referred to in the throne speech, the ministerial mandate letters, or the economic update.

It’s interesting to note that the last reference to public-service renewal in a speech from the throne was under prime minister Stephen Harper in 2013. Admittedly, he didn’t have a global pandemic to contend with, but he did have his fair share of global problems, including the economic crisis of 2008, deficit reduction, and international events requiring the deployment of the Canadian military. Harper nevertheless made space on his policy agenda for altering the public service.

If public-service renewal isn’t in Budget 2022, it probably won’t be on the 44th Parliament’s agenda. It will be interesting to see what next year’s Annual Report to the Prime Minister on the Public Service of Canada says about the issues raised in this one.

Stephen Van Dine is senior vice-president of public governance at the Institute on Governance.

Source: The federal public service desperately needs renewal

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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