Head: Focus on service delivery, not where bureaucrats’ work is done

Good column as service delivery is the poor cousin to policy and program development. And the TBS office return policy seems driven more by bureaucratic and political concerns than service delivery and outcomes:

I continue to be intrigued by the ongoing debate about the in-office work regime going on between the Treasury Board and federal public service unions. I want to say up front that both sides are entitled to their views and perspectives about what is required, and there are some legitimate arguments to be made on both sides. However, neither the Treasury Board nor the unions have focused on the needs of Canadians.

Most Canadians continue to be concerned about the access, quality, timeliness, and cost of services that are provided by the federal public service. There is no question that these elements have become more important since the onset of the pandemic. Consequently, where a public service employee performs their work is the least important issue for the public as opposed to the quality of the services received in an easily accessible and timely manner that does not create any additional costs to taxpayers.

There have been many examples in the media where the level of access and the quality of services have been at a standard that is unacceptable to Canadians and does not reflect experiences in previous years. While certain departments have established service delivery standards, those standards are not being met on a regular basis or are being changed to reflect the reality that has developed since 2020. One just has to phone some of the federal service agencies today only to be put on hold for lengthy periods of time. If you are lucky enough to get through to a service agent, you are likely to experience frustration because the quality of the phone connection is poor for a multitude of reasons, or the agent is not versed enough to deal with the issue being raised and you have to be put on hold again for a lengthy period time while being transferred to a more senior agent.

It is clear that some of these issues are directly related to federal public service employees working from home. The equipment they are using is not appropriate for providing the quality of service Canadians expect. As well, many service agents sound like they are working in a tin can. It is also not uncommon to be distracted by the background noise at the home of the service agent. In addition, public service employees do not have ready access to their expert network to assist with more complicated issues being raised by Canadians. These are not isolated issues as they are recurring examples of Canadians’ experiences dealing with the Canada Revenue Agency, the passport office, Service Canada agents, Veterans’ Affairs Canada, etc.

While these issues are real and significant, they are not insurmountable. Addressing these and other issues related to access, quality, and timeliness of services will truly make the discussion about where the services are provided a moot point. While this will require strong, effective leadership from the Treasury Board and all government departments, it also requires the unions to recognize that while the needs of employees are important, they do not trump the needs of Canadians.

Moving forward, there needs to be a major reformulation of the delivery of services to Canadians which reflects emerging and evolving societal needs, and how and when taxpayers access government services. While federal public service employees’ needs have evolved, so have the needs of Canadians. Accessing services between Monday and Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., with no access on federal statutory holidays or weekends, is a construct of the past. The evolving work-life balance needs of Canadian families must drive a new vision for service delivery in the federal public sector. This requires developing a service delivery model that is responsive, flexible, and adaptive to the evolving and changing dynamics of Canadian families.

Where these services are delivered from is a factor for consideration, but it is not the primary decision-making point. Any decisions regarding in-office hybrid models must be seen as an interim solution until a new, reformulated service delivery model is defined by the needs of Canadians and developed in a collaborative manner. Tinkering with one element of the terms and conditions of employment of public service employees while ignoring the need to evolve the basic service delivery model for Canadians will only lead to greater deterioration of support and confidence in the federal public service overall.

There is no question the Treasury Board and the unions must work together in moving forward on the larger agenda with constant and direct input from citizens. Tackling the service delivery model will truly instill greater confidence in Canadians that government services are accessible, timely, cost efficient, and of the highest quality. The definition of a new model will then logically lead to the development of meaningful dialogue and solutions between the Treasury Board and unions in relation to the needs of public service employees including their work locations, hours of work, compensation, and overall work-life balance.

There is no question that the pandemic and its effect on Canadians and the federal public service have actually created a unique opportunity. The time is now for reformulating, revitalizing, and reinvigorating the federal public service delivery model for the next decade and beyond—but it will only occur with determined commitment, dedicated collaboration, and effective leadership.

Don Head had a 40-year career in the public service, beginning in 1978. From 2008 until he retired in 2018, Head was the commissioner of the Correctional Service Canada and served on various deputy minister-level committees that were actively involved in various aspects of public service delivery. Head currently assists the Aleph Institute, which is a non-profit Jewish organization dedicated to assisting and caring for the well-being of members of specific populations that are isolated from the regular community.

Source: Focus on service delivery, not where bureaucrats’ work is done

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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