May: The black hole of public service contract spending

Of note:

A parliamentary committee is trying to unpack the $15-billion back hole of spending federal departments spend on contracting.

Not sure how much progress MPs will make with four hearings.

A big question for MPs on the government operations and estimates committee: why is the public service growing in leaps and bounds while outsourcing is exploding right alongside that growth in the bureaucracy? MPs want to know if taxpayers are getting value for money using all these contractors. They have become a “shadow” or ghost public service that can dodge the staffing rules bureaucrats have to follow.

How big is big? A Carleton University research team has been digging into contracts to get a handle on how many billions are spent and on what. Last year, it estimated the government spent $15 billion, and $4.7 billion was on IT contracts.

A big part is amendments. About 272,075 contracts have been active since 2017-18. About 16 per cent of them have been amended at least once. These amendments added $25.6 billion to the original cost.

On average: Contract duration is about 10 months and is worth $423,000 (for contracts over $10,000).

Longest: 34.8 years (June 2015 to March 2050 for the consortium to replace the Champlain Bridge in Montreal).

Biggest: $5.7 billion to Brookfield Global Integrated Solutions for office building management.

ArriveCAN: The committee’s probe comes at the same time as a head-scratching revelation that the cost of the much-reviled ArriveCAN app is on track to hit $54 million. Stunned, app developers say it could have been done for about $1 million. Even public servants are aghast. There is a shortage of app developers in government. One long-time official, who is not authorized to speak about the subject, argued the app’s development should have been contracted out to the experts. Trying to build inhouse, where there’s a shortage of the right skills, means bringing in an army of consultants.

Some MPs on the committee want to have a separate probe into why developing the ArriveCAN app cost so much.

Here’s a look at some of the $15 billion in contracting costs across the government of Canada, according to a Carleton University research project:

Source: Carleton SPPS Research Project.
Source: Carleton SPPS Research Project.

CONTRACTING 101
Why does it matter? Why do it?

The Professional Institute of Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) has long been consumed by outsourcing – especially for IT – and has done a number of reports. It concludes outsourcing means higher costs and lower quality services for Canadians. It erodes transparency, accountability and the institutional knowledge of the public service.

The fact is departments will always need to outsource for expertise they don’t have, especially for IT and digital talent to modernize government and services for Canadians.

The I-need-it-now pace of the public service picked up during the pandemic. Now a global talent shortage meets the public service’s turtle-slow hiring process. Departments can’t wait. They contract.

Why does it matter?

  • About $15 billion a year is spent on contracts in the core public service. (The Liberals also promised when elected to reduce spending on consultants to 2005-06 levels.)
  • It strikes at the heart of the kind of work the public service should be doing and what should it contract out, says Conservative MP Kelly McCauley. “A lot of lot these (consultant) reports should be done by our ever-expanding public service. So, what does this say…. about size of our public service if we have to source out so many contracts to the Deloittes of the world?”
  • Accountability. It raises questions about influence and who has the government’s ear in making policy and decisions.
  • Then there is question of value for money when both contracting and hiring is increasing but services don’t seem to be getting any better. We saw a summer of delays for passports, immigration applications and at airports. NDP MP Gord Johns has asked: “What steps are being taken to ensure that the quality of the service to the public and to other government departments is the first order of business?”

These questions will become even more important when the inevitable spending reviews and cuts come.

Main reasons departments contract:

  • They need special expertise and have no in-house skills to do the work.
  • Talent shortage, major recruitment and retention issues for the full gamut of IT work.
  • The time to hire staff, often months, is too long to meet the ever-shortening deadlines of the work.
  • Surges in workload.
  • No funding of public servant positions so departments use operating budgets for contracts.

IT contracts will become even more important as all governments push to modernize services. Digital expertise, hiring and contracting them, is central to Canada’s Digital Ambition, to modernize. In a speech, Treasury Board President Mona Fortier outlined her IT priorities: “escaping the trap” of decades-old legacy systems, establishing digital credentials so that Canadians can securely access all government services online, and pursuing a strategy to recruit, keep and develop in-house digital talent.

Where’s Treasury Board? Treasury Board is the employer and rules-maker, but the actual authority for contracting and human resources has been turned over to deputy ministers to manage their departments.

“Does Treasury Board have any role apart from setting a general framework,” asked McCauley. “Does Treasury Board as a guardian of the public purse ever follow up on any of these contracts that are sent out?”

Last week, MPs were all over the map during the first hearing, questioning contracts from big IT projects to cleaning services and everything in between. They grilled bureaucrats to get a handle on what is outsourced and why.

Finally, Conservative MP Kelly McCauley threw up his hands (watch here, at 12:28:30) and asked:

“I just want a quick question to the three departments here. Just a real quick yes or no if you believe taxpayers are getting fair value for the money, the billions being spent on outside or outside contracts. Just a quick yes or no?”

No takers. Crickets.

Source: The black hole of public service contract spending

The public service’s biggest disruption in decades : hybrid work

Happy I’m retired. That being said, I tried to work from home one day every week or two weeks to prepare presentations or thought pieces, away from the transactional files (but of course remaining available as need be).

In some cases, such as coordination with regions, being virtual placed NHQ on the same footing and improved engagement compared to the tedious phone conference calls, according to some colleagues and friends who worked during the pandemic.

But understand employee preference as well as political and management concerns regarding appearances, after all, those who can work from home are privileged compared to those in front-line service, whether public or private sector:

The return-to-work pushback of Canada’s public servants could lay the groundwork for the most radical change in the federal government’s relationship with its employees in a century.

The resistance reveals a grassroots shift taking place in the public service that’s all about power and control.

The public service is one of the most hierarchical employers in the country. It has operated the same way for decades. Management decides everything about staffing; how and where people work. Employees have little choice but to toe the line.

The pandemic that sent public servants home to work challenged that hierarchy by giving federal employees a taste of controlling their time and job location – factors that had been largely out of their hands.

After more than two years of working remotely, public servants like it and resent the idea of giving up the newfound control of time. They feel more productive, enjoy better work-life balance, have more child-care options. It’s also cheaper: no commuting, no parking, no restaurant or takeout lunches.

And for the first time, they had control of their space. No more cubicles. Hundreds took jobs without having to move to Ottawa and many others picked up and moved around the country.

But that flexibility has come with a price, and no city has felt the pinch like Ottawa, the nation’s capital and home to most departmental headquarters. The Ottawa Board of Trade estimates one-quarter of the city’s workforce worked downtown pre-pandemic and 55 per cent of those downtown workers were public servants sent home, leaving ghost offices behind. (A CBC radio broadcast on Aug. 25 talked about the topic.)

It also forced the biggest rethink of the future of work and the government’s relationship with employees as it officially shifted to a hybrid workforce this fall.

It will not be an easy ride.

Lori Turnbull, director of the school of public administration at Dalhousie University, called the shift to a hybrid workforce the most disruptive change in decades.

The public service has had its share of disruptions over the years – unionization and collective bargaining in the 1960s, massive downsizings and restructuring in the 1990s, the Y2K bug, 9/11, even the disastrous Phoenix pay system. This, however, could be as seismic a shift for the employer-employee relationship as when patronage was abolished a century ago and replaced with the merit system for the hiring and promotions of public servants.

“As far as disruptions go, this is the biggest one in decades, if not ever, because it’s a completely different ballgame when it comes to relationships, and how people manage their lives,” Turnbull said.

Turnbull said remote work gave workers flexibility and the value of that newfound freedom flowed more to their personal lives than their work lives. The government can’t expect to “put that genie back in the bottle,” without a fight, she said.

“Now, people, even the lowest rungs of the organization and seen as the least powerful, were given the sense of autonomy about their time and space and that is having fundamental repercussions on how the organization and management works,” said Turnbull.

The big question is whether the return-to-office will end this flexibility or will it spark worker rebellion? Before the pandemic, the thought of working only two days at the office was beyond the wildest of dreams. Today, it’s not flexible enough.

Public servants are openly voicing their displeasure about returning to the office. A growing number are mobilizing internally, speaking out on social media, signing petitions and writing letters to MPs. Some are resorting to access to information requests to get to the bottom of the decision to send them back.

Employees who want to work remotely feel the return-to-work guidelines are arbitrary and imposed top-down from management with no rationale. They feel unheard and that there is no evidence supporting why employees have to spend specified days in the office unless to satisfy political pressures, said one union official who is not authorized to speak publicly.

“If there’s a need to have public servants in the office, what is it?” the official said. “What we’re seeing right now is people being called back for the sake of being called back for political reasons.”

It will be a top issue at the bargaining table. Unions are hoping to enshrine remote work provisions into the collective agreement to give employees more say in determining where they work. Just as important is inflation, and unions, which are emboldened by a global talent shortage, are asking for big raises.

The unions’ long game is that employees will permanently have the option to work remotely. That’s a big and controversial change, however, which would mean rewriting rules, policies and collective agreements. Not to mention that Treasury Board President Mona Fortier has already said working at home is a privilege, not a right. She insists Treasury Board won’t give up its power to organize the workplace, including where employees work.

Unions hope to find some negotiating room around where public servants work. They also want less arbitrary decisions about who can work from home and what they can do remotely. That could mean explanations in writing beyond the blanket “operational requirements” that workers are hearing.

Turnbull warns a workforce feeling management exercises too much control over their time can breed mistrust and resentment that undermines productivity.

But flexibility is unknown territory for the government. More than any other employer, it has little experience with flexible work models. A study by Jeffrey Roy showed that the senior echelons are most comfortable with the traditional in-person office model – from ministers’ offices to deputy ministers and central agencies.

Flexibility on where people work opens a pandora’s box of issues. What happens to the value of work? How does it affect the 7.5-hour work day, overtime and pay? How are employees accountable when they no longer report to the office? How to track productivity, performance or deal with discipline when working from home.

Meredith Thatcher, cofounder and workplace strategist at Agile Work Evolutions, said the unfolding workplace evolution will depend on the “maturity and skills of the individual managers and whether they have the trust of their employees.”

“It is a societal earthquake that has happened, and the fallout will be years to come,” she said. “Assuming everyone will just fall in line and return to the office either full-time or mandated time is naive. The world of the office has shifted on its axis and many executives have not figured that out yet.”

But Donald Savoie, a leading public administration expert at University of Moncton, argues there is a lot more at stake than flexibility. Back in 2003, Savoie wrote Breaking the Bargain, about the unravelling of the traditional bargain underpinning the relationship between politicians and public servants.

He says public servants also have a bargain undergirding their relationship with Canadians. The public is losing confidence in the public service and its ability to deliver services – crystalized by a summer of chaotic delays at airports and passport offices.

He said Canadians are discontent with government, and populist leaders like Pierre Poilievre and anti-institution protest groups are tapping into that mistrust. He said a public service griping about going back to the office is ripe for attack.

Many see public servants asking for the freedom of an independent contractor or entrepreneur to work when and where they want while keeping the job security, pay and benefits few other Canadians enjoy.

“My advice to federal public servants: think about the institution. Think of the public service, not just your self-interest. There’s something bigger at play here. It’s called protecting the institution that you’re being asked to serve. I think too many federal public servants have lost sight of that.”

And Turnbull said Privy Council Clerk Janice Charette, a head of the public service, bears a big responsibility for the institution. She’s out in front urging departments to get employees back to the office.

“The clerk has to worry about the reputation of the public service and the sense that they have been given too much flexibility and now we see services crumbling. Even if there’s no truth to that the perception, it’s something she has to worry about,” said Turnbull.

Source: The public service’s biggest disruption in decades : hybrid work

May: Top bureaucrat urges summer test drive of hybrid public service workforce

Will be interesting to see how this works out and how departments develop and implement guidelines and requirements:

Canada’s top bureaucrat wants public servants back in the office part-time this summer to test drive running federal departments with a hybrid workforce.

Privy Council Clerk Janice Charette recently wrote to deputy ministers calling on them to use the summer to experiment with hybrid work so their departments are ready for a full implementation by the fall.

“My expectation is that departments are actively testing hybrid work models,” Charette wrote.

“Encouraging broad employee participation in experimentation, particularly with onsite presence, is key to working through the challenges and making the most of the opportunities to shift toward a new way of working.”

The clerk is the top boss, but can’t issue directives to the public service. That authority rests with Treasury Board as the employer. However, the clerk’s power over deputy ministers, who serve at the pleasure of the prime minister, comes from her recommendations on the hiring, firing and performance pay of deputy ministers.

Treasury Board approved the move to a hybrid workforce, but took a hands-off approach and left it up to departments to decide how to make the shift and how to bring workers back to the office. This sparked complaints about inconsistency and indecision that fed the notion among public servants that they can work anywhere.

Many office workers – about half of the public service – don’t want to  come back to the office as they did before COVID. Surveys show 85 per cent want a hybrid approach, working at home and at the office. The rest – from border and prison guards to nurses, scientists and spies – are not able to work from home.

After more than two years working from home, many public servants feel successfully delivered the government’s pandemic response.

They’ve adapted their lives but now a new more contagious Omicron subvariant is making public servants even more resistant to spending time in the office or riding transit. High gasoline prices make it even more difficult to convince people to commute.

Several senior bureaucrats who are not authorized to speak publicly said hybrid work is a new ballgame that departments haven’t figured out yet – partly because they can’t get enough people in the office to test it. They hope Charette’s letter will help bring more structure or guidelines on how to do it.

“What was happening is that everybody thought ‘yippee’ we can do whatever,” said one senior bureaucrat. “People’s idea of flexibility is that every single day they can work from home; not show up at the office or work from anywhere in the country or the world.”

“We can’t be driven by people’s emotions, preferences and opinions. Let’s be driven by experimentation and get the facts and data on what works and what doesn’t.”

Another said something had to give “because we seemed to be the only employer in the country that thinks it’s outrageous to ask people back to work.”

The move to hybrid is a massive shift for the public service. It will change everything about work and how it’s done. The need for security, technology, bandwidth, office space and design will change, as will labour agreements and the way services are delivered and policies are executed.

Meredith Thatcher, co-founder and workplace strategist at Agile Work Evolutions,  said the current version of hybrid is not the same as it was working in an emergency during the pandemic when rules and processes were streamlined, bent or even discarded.

“It’s going to be new. Sometimes you just have to live it in order to figure out how to make it work, and they haven’t had the opportunity to live it. So that’s what the clerk is saying is, ‘Please let’s start living this because we can learn only if we start living it.’”

In her letter, Charette said the “one-size fits all approach” has limits for an organization as large and complex as government, but employees deserve “coherence in how hybrid approaches are applied across the enterprise.”

She reminded deputy ministers they have two responsibilities – the management of their departments and being stewards of the public service as an institution.

“You are collectively responsible for the development of the federal public service of today and tomorrow. I urge you to keep in mind this dual responsibility as you test new ways of working,” she told deputies.

Many say departments dragged their feet because they didn’t have central direction; or were scared of setting guidelines that might not work or backfire; or waited to see what others did. A big worry now, for example, is that workers will pick up and move to the departments that offer the most flexibility to work remotely.

Thatcher said another problem is understanding what people do, when and how they perform the tasks of the job. That’s more than figuring out what tasks need to be done in the office.

A public servant could do all the tasks of their jobs at home, but what about the benefits of working in the presence of others? Departments have to figure out how, when and where to do that. In-person meetings – whether for camaraderie or collaboration – leads to brainstorming that generates new ideas or innovations.

That’s all part of what Charette wants deputy ministers to figure out.

“Now is the time for us to test new models with a view to full implementation in the fall, subject to public health conditions,” she wrote.

But Charette noted this call back to the office is not signalling a return of the old ways of working pre-pandemic. Working from home offers employees flexibility and a way for managers to recruit a more diverse workforce outside of Ottawa and across the country.

She said bringing people together in the office means opportunities for “enhanced idea generation and knowledge transfer, and building a strong public service culture.”  She said the hybrid workplace should “blend” the best of the traditional and new ways of working.

For unions, the ideal is finding the balance between where employees prefer to work and the operational requirements of the jobs.

Dany Richard, co-chair of the joint union and management National Joint Council, said the clerk’s letter is a “gamechanger” which is reverberating across departments. He said the big takeaway is no one can “predominantly work remotely.”

Richard, who is also head of the Association of Canadian Financial Officers, said members who previously had the go-ahead to mostly work remotely are now being told they may have to come into the office for a day or two every week.

“Before that letter, no one was in a rush. Everyone was saying, ‘Okay, let’s work out our plans, our office designs, let’s get ready, and then slowly start bringing people back.’”

Jennifer Carr, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, said Treasury Boards guidelines were too wishy-washy and never really defined hybrid work.

This left departments all over the map, she said.  Some allowed remote work while others arbitrarily demanded workers return to the office – one, two or three days a week.

She said employees are already shopping for jobs, looking to move to departments that offer the most flexibility. Public servants have created Facebook pages to advertise remote jobs and some unions are ranking which departments are the most open to remote work.

Source: Top bureaucrat urges summer test drive of hybrid public service workforce

All-powerful PMO, mistrust “destroying” the public service: Paul Tellier

Of note.

Would be of interest for other former and more recent clerks (e.g., Michael Wernick, Wayne Wouters, Mel Cappe etc) would also be surveyed on their perceptions on trust/mistrust between the public sector and PMO. Certainly existed under the Harper government although diminished over time for most:

A lack of trust between politicians and senior levels of the public service, and a Prime Minister’s Office that calls all the shots, is “destroying” Canada’s public service, warns Paul Tellier, Canada’s former top bureaucrat and former head of both Canadian National Railway and Bombardier Inc.

“The current government, with centralization of everything in the PMO, is in the process of destroying the public service … and the word ‘destroying’ is not too strong,” the former clerk of the Privy Council in the Brian Mulroney era said in an interview.

Tellier made his comments after the release of a new report, Top of Mind, by two think tanks – the Ottawa-based Institute on Governance, and the Brian Mulroney Institute of Government at St. Francis Xavier University – which threw the spotlight on the increasingly troubled relationship after probing public service executives at all levels of government about their biggest challenges.

The report found that today’s executives worry about falling public trust in government; the decline in senior bureaucrats giving “fearless advice” to ministers; a hollowing-out of policy capacity; a post-pandemic economic reckoning; conflicts among levels of government; and the need for public service reform.

The relationship is a longstanding problem, one that Tellier argues was aggravated by the Stephen Harper rules-bound Federal Accountability Act. But he thinks the problems have worsened under the current Justin Trudeau government.

Tellier questions how the public service can recruit and keep top talent, as well as drive change if deputy ministers and ministers feel compelled to check everything they do with PMO.

“There is no way that if I was a cabinet minister, I would allow a bunch of people in PMO to tell me how to do my work. And it’s at every level, it’s not only for junior ministers, the most senior ministers… It’s for deputy ministers and departments.”

“So why, if you trust the minister and if you trust the advisors to the minister in his office and in the department, do you want six people in PMO to review a draft press release, or a tweet?”

Tellier has never been far from Canada’s public service over the past five decades. He joined as a young lawyer in the 1970s, went on to lead the public service and advise ministers and prime ministers. He has watched various public service renewal efforts come and go – including Public Service 2000 (PS 2000), which he led under Mulroney.

Mulroney came to power after the Liberals had ruled for all but a few months from 1963-84. At first, the new prime minister distrusted the public service and promised to issue them “pink slips and running shoes.” But Mulroney said in a recent interview he grew to trust and rely on public servants who gave him the “straight goods,” even poaching senior bureaucrats like Derek Burney and Mark Entwistle to join his PMO.

Mulroney also told the Institute on Governance that without the work of public servants, “we wouldn’t have got our major agenda through.”

Today, many experts say much about the public service needs fixing, but Tellier believes the first step is to restore trust between politicians and bureaucrats – a key relationship in Canada’s Westminster-style democracy.

“There’s no trust,” said Tellier. “And it starts at the top.”

“I don’t know what happened (to trust). I like to say, if you write a good policy paper or a good briefing note, it is going to be read. But if it’s not going to be read, why bother?

The relationship has been strained for years, but respect for the public service nosedived during the Harper era as its role was diminished, its advice devalued and its neutrality undermined.

The Federal Accountability Act, with its focus on rules, oversight and compliance, changed the role of the deputy ministers, which left them inward-looking and isolated from Canadians.

Tellier pulls no punches about the accountability act, introduced by the Harper government in response to the sponsorship scandal. He called it a “mistake” that must be reviewed.

He said the act deepened a culture of risk-aversion, putting a stop to public servants meeting with business leaders, which was essential to understanding the various forces at play when developing policy.

“The accountability act was a mistake – not every single clause – but I think that it went way too far. As a result, it has deprived future governments of very useful input from the public service and the business sector and visa-versa.”

The public service’s job is to offer policy advice, then deliver programs and services to Canadians. Of late, the focus on reforming the public service is aimed at fixing problems that get in the way of implementing programs and service – an archaic human resources regime, a gridlock of rules and outdated technology.

But Tellier argues such reforms miss a key problem – fixing the relationship between ministers and deputy ministers.

“I think that Tellier is right about that,” said Lori Turnbull, director of the school of public administration at Dalhousie University.

“There’s only so much the public service can do by way of self-improvement that will really change anything if the political classes aren’t interested in what they say or what ideas they have.”

Take innovation. If politicians aren’t interested in public servants’ advice or innovations – unless it’s risk-free – then there is no impetus for innovation, Turnbull said.

A big problem is politics. Parties get elected on campaign platforms they consider a “contract with the voter” that they must deliver. As a result, they come to power knowing what they want and don’t believe they need any advice from public servants.

This leaves little “time and space” for public servants, who end up “playing at the margins,” taking care of implementing promises, but not coming up with the big ideas, Turnbull said.

Also, ministers want advice and answers fast. They complain that public servants take too long to gather evidence and assess options. That urgency has ramped up over the years because of technological change, the 24-hour news cycle and the rise of social media.

“There’s always been a kind of time difference between how fast the political side wants things, and how quickly the public service can move while still doing its job responsibly,” said Turnbull. “That time crunch seems to be getting worse. At one point, it was a healthy tension and now it’s becoming unhealthy, where the political side stops waiting and just does it. “

But Turnbull worries what could happen to the already fractured relationship with the shift to a public service with more flexible working arrangements in the wake of COVID-19.

She said executives and politicians are more likely to return to the office “in real time” while the rest of the public service could work remotely from anywhere across the country. That could further distance senior bureaucrats and politicians from the rest of the public service, which delivers services and does the legwork for evidence-based policy advice.

Stephen Van Dine, senior vice-president of public governance at the Institute on Governance, said those “opportunities to have a quiet word” with the minister that are critical to building trust are less likely in a public service where some are working remotely.

“The hustle and bustle of briefing a minister, whether in the car to-and-from the Hill, over a sandwich, in a hallway where you can grab one-on-one encounters where the minister and deputy can have a quiet word,” Van Dine said. “If these opportunities become fewer and fewer, that is like the compounding impact of (playing) broken telephone.”

Canada is not alone in facing this issue. The tensions between ministers and senior bureaucrats have been studied to death over for years. A major U.K. study on the relationship called it the “fulcrum” of a Westminster system. When it’s not working, policy and service delivery are compromised.

But past efforts at fixing it in Canada have focused on making the public service more accountable – such as the accountability act – and responsive to what politicians want. There’s been little discussion of what ministers could do to repair the relationship.

Tellier said there must be a “healthy tension” between public servants and politicians, but that balance is out of whack with politicians increasingly dominating.

Without trust, frank discussions between politicians and public servants — which Tellier called “the tennis match” — don’t happen, putting policy and delivery at risk.

He said a fix begins with the prime minister, who must make it clear that ministers should consult their deputies. And if they don’t trust them, the prime minister should replace them with deputies they do trust.

Source: All-powerful PMO, mistrust “destroying” the public service: Paul Tellier

May: Speaking truth to power discouraged in public service

Good summary of the report. Reminds me of the issues I faced at the DG level during the previous Conservative government (Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias: Resetting Citizenship and Multiculturalism).

The corrosive nature of much of social media makes today’s environment more difficult than even 10 years ago.

But one also has to recognize public servants have their own biases, that are harder to recognize when they align with those of the government, biases that can influence “fearless advice” and which temper how that advice is communicated:

Canada’s public service leaders have a problem telling the truth to their political bosses.

A new report, Top of Mind, says they feel ill-equipped to gather evidence for policy advice, especially in a world where facts are distorted and drowned out by disinformation, polarization and hyperpartisan politics.

To make matters worse, they appear afraid to tell their political masters the hard truths when they do find them.

Getting back to the basics in policy-making and execution are among the top worries that senior bureaucrats raised in the new study into the state of the public service In Canada. It was conducted by two think tanks, the Ottawa-based Institute on Governance (IOG), and the Brian Mulroney Institute of Government at St. Francis Xavier University.

The study, launched in the middle of the pandemic, was aimed at understanding the challenges these executives face when doing their jobs, which is to provide reliable, well-run services for Canadians as well as policy advice to ministers. It was based on interviews with 42 senior leaders from all levels of government and a survey of 2,355 public servants in the same departments and agencies.

The big worries – which many felt were accelerated by the pandemic – included falling trust in government; the decline in sharing “fearless advice”; a hollowing out of policy capacity; a post-pandemic economic reckoning; conflicts between different levels of government; and the need for public service reform.

The report didn’t dig into the root causes, but the responses raise enough red flags to justify a debate and development of a roadmap for reform, said Stephen Van Dine, IOG’s senior vice-president, public governance.

“We have enough from this report to say we better be looking into this,” he said.

An impartial public service is a cornerstone of Canada’s democracy. Bureaucrats are supposed to speak truth to power. The ethos of “fearless advice and loyal implementation” is its motto, and public servants take an oath to uphold it when hired.

“The participants felt rational thought and evidence-based decision-making are being circumvented by politicization, polarization and disinformation,” said Van Dine.

“Do public servants have access to enough truth to give fearless advice? If all their information is coming from above rather than from networks in and outside government, how much truth is there really? What happened to the role of public education in the policy development process?”

The responses paint a picture of a bureaucracy that’s too isolated from Canadians and not independent enough from politics, said Van Dine.

Over the years, rules restricting travel and hospitality expenses put a damper on public servants’ ability to meet with provincial counterparts, industry representatives and civil society. They aren’t networking, developing contacts outside of government, or educating Canadians about the factors at play in policy-making.

“This has isolated the public service from the outside world and given the outside world the only door into government, which is through the Prime Minister’s Office or a minister’s office,” said Van Dine.

But public servants need new skills and modern technology. They need people who think digital, understand systems, analytics, data and can manage projects. That means attracting people to government and hiring them more quickly than the eight months it takes now.

All of this is having an impact on a long-strained relationship between public servants and ministers. Two-thirds of respondents said that relationship was “an important challenge that requires more effective management.”

Many respondents said the relationship is being eaten away by the “over-politicization of policy-making and choices, and the lack of opportunity to constructively challenge political direction.”

The report concluded that “speaking truth to power…seems less achievable to many participants.” Bureaucrats don’t have “safe spaces” among themselves to have all-out debates about analysis or options that “are unpopular“ or “not in tune with their government’s political position.”

Instead, they are expected to toe the party line and give politicians the advice they want to hear.

It’s unclear why. Is it because the deputy ministers aren’t encouraging dissent? Are bureaucrats holding back for fear of falling out of favour with their bosses or being seen as disrespectful?

“The strong undercurrent is that the public service has lost an element of independence and is now expected to deliver on platform commitments rather than offer objective policy advice on the feasibility of the commitment or alternative ways to achieve the objective of the platform commitment,” said the report.

This is an old problem.

Experts sounded the alarm more than 25 years ago about public servants’ hesitancy to speak to truth to power. It led to the 1996 Tait report, the foundation of the public service’s values and ethics code.

Donald Savoie, a leading public administration expert, has repeatedly warned that the concentration of power in the Prime Minister’s Office is politicizing the public service. He likened it to “court government” where senior officials act like courtiers trying to ingratiate themselves, rather than delivering hard truths.

The Gomery inquiry concluded that a grey zone between bureaucrats and politicians was at the heart of the sponsorship scandal and recommended ways to reset it.

The late auditor general Michael Ferguson famously linked the Phoenix pay system disaster to a risk-averse and “obedient public service.” He concluded that the “ability to convey hard truths has eroded, as has the willingness of senior levels—including ministers—to hear hard truths.”

Despite these warnings, little has been done to fix the problem. The Harper government introduced the Federal Accountability Actin response to the sponsorship scandal, but many experts argue its focus on rules, oversight and compliance made matters worse.

Today’s deputy ministers climbed the ranks over the 20 years since the sponsorship scandal and the Federal Accountability Act is the world they know. Many argue they got to the top because of their skills in dodging risks, following the rules and keeping government out of trouble.

In the new Top of Mind report, it is unclear how a lack of fearless advice is “cascading” down the ranks. Van Dine worries that assistant deputy ministers aren’t speaking up as they should now that Public Service Commission has turned over “talent management” to the deputy ministers who appoint them.

“Now the deputy minister is holding all the cards about promotion and appointment… To what extent are they becoming more deputy servants than public servants?” he asks.

The Harper era is also when public servants found themselves drawn into partisan communications with directives, events, activities and website designs to promote the Conservative Party brand.

Today, some respondents worry that a focus on communications is supplanting policy. The current focus is on how a policy will play out or how its “messaging” will be received by Canadians, rather than getting to the nub of the issues the government wants to address.

“Make stuff less about the announcements and actually make it about the issue,” said one leader, quoted in the report. “Communicate with Canadians on that front—what is the problem you are trying to fix here?… People have the basics wrong, and it leads to bad discord.”

The Top of Mind report makes a series of recommendations that could lead to a top-to-bottom overhaul of the federal public service.

At the top of the list is a proposal for a joint Senate-Commons committee to review the Accountability Act, zeroing in on whether its onerous compliance and reporting requirements stifle innovation and create an obedience culture.

The paper also recommended modernizing the ground rules for relationships between bureaucrats and politicians and examining what’s needed for public servants to create “safe spaces for fearless advice,” so they can provide facts, analysis and policy options that don’t toe the government’s party line.

Source: Speaking truth to power discouraged in public service

Should it stay or go? Ottawa weighs the vaccine mandate for the public service

Will be interesting to see what government decides and whether it is applied consistently across departments and organizations:

The timing and pace of return-to-office plans for Canada’s public servants will hinge on what the federal government decides to do with its vaccine mandate for employees.

The federal Office of the Chief Human Resources Officer is leading a review into the six-month-old mandate, seeking input from unions and other stakeholders, but a decision will be based on the advice of public-health officials. The results of the review will be given to Treasury Board President Mona Fortier.

While the review had to start by the six-month anniversary on April 6, it is not a deadline for a decision.

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, said public-health officials are at a “very important juncture” in reviewing COVID-19 policies such as mandates, which are shifting from “an emphasis on requirements to recommendations.”

But Opposition MPs repeatedly pressed Tam and Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos at the Commons health committee this week on when mandates for travellers and public servants will be lifted. Tam said the situation is unstable because of surges caused by the latest Omicron variant. She said Canada is taking a phased approach with the lifting of mandates that must be closely watched.

“I think this is just waiting to see what happens with that situation, ensuring the provinces are still able to cope as they release measures. They are just doing that at the moment and (with) that observation, the federal government makes a decision,” Tam told the committee.

Dany Richard, co-chair of the National Joint Council, a joint union and management committee, said the review is a political “hot potato” for the government. The factors to consider are many, including the risk of lifting the mandate too soon or appearing to be capitulating to the pressure of the February convoy protests.

“They might play it by ear, extend for three months, but if they remove it, we’ll have people saying ‘Hey, I don’t feel comfortable returning to work’ knowing they’ll be working with someone who is not vaccinated,” said Richard.

Last October, the government introduced a vaccination policy requiring all public servants and RCMP employees to prove they’re fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or face unpaid leave. Today, more than 98 per cent of public servants are fully vaccinated. Vaccine mandates are also imposed on employees of federally regulated industries.

Benjamin Piper, an employment lawyer at Goldblatt Partners, said keeping the mandate has become more difficult as provinces drop COVID-19 restrictions with recent declines in serious illness and death.

“There’s no doubt that the law would say that at some point, if the situation has improved sufficiently, this will no longer be justifiable. The question is when you reach that point,” Piper said.

Health officials say the two-dose vaccine mandates that initially proved effective in increasing vaccine uptake and limiting spread aren’t offering much protection in reducing transmission of Omicron.

“We know is that, with the Omicron variant, having two doses – the protection against infection and further transmission goes really low,” Tam said during a recent news conference. “You really need a third dose to provide augmentation against transmission. All that should be taken into account as the federal government looks at the policies going forward.”

But Tam suggested expanding the mandates to three doses isn’t in the cards now. It would difficult because eligibility for a booster varies by age. Also, people who have Omicron infection are asked to wait up to three months before getting the third dose.

The mandate review also comes as the more contagious COVID Omicron variant called BA.2 is on the rise and expected to create another surge in cases. The BA.2 sub-variant is on its way to becoming dominant in Ontario and across Canada. Although more transmissible than the original Omicron, it does not appear to be as severe.

All these factors are converging as the government tries to ease the workforce it sent home to work during the pandemic back to the workplace after two years.

The government is moving to a hybrid workforce, a mix of working at home and remotely. Departments are returning at their own pace and the progress is slow. Many don’t expect a major return until the fall but a new variant could change all that.

Many argue scrapping the vaccine mandate could derail imminent return-to-office plans. Many public servants want to continue working from home. Employees could resist returning to the workplace without a vaccination policy or assurance the employee next them is vaccinated.

Richard said unions would press for workers to work from home if safety fears rise. They are particularly concerned about departments that issued blanket orders for all employees to return to the office two or three days a week.

It is an open question whether the government can justify imposing the mandate and proof of vaccination on remote workers who don’t come to the office. Since the pandemic started, the government has hired hundreds of remote workers who don’t have an office to go to.

Meredith Thatcher, co-founder and workplace strategist at Agile Work Evolutions, argues keeping the mandate for now, along with social distancing and other precautions will help get people back to the office sooner.

“I think having a mandate in place will make people feel more comfortable. If I am told I have to return to the office three days a week and there’s no vaccine mandate, I may say, ‘I’m sorry; I have an immunocompromised person in my house. I’m not coming.’”

Lifting the mandate could also fuel a wave of internal churn as employees pick up and move to departments that will allow them to work remotely.

“I’m telling you there’s going to be a kind of Darwinian natural selection. My members have mobility. They can go work where they want and if telework is a big deal for them, they’ll go and work somewhere else,” said Richard.

Whether the mandate stays or goes, unions argue it’s time to stop punishing the unvaccinated and let them go back to work.

Greg Phillips, president of the Canadian Association of Professional Employees (CAPE), argued the 702 unvaccinated employees should be provided with accommodations such as remote work or daily testing and personal protective equipment if they have to go to the workplace.

“We feel that those that remain unvaccinated should be allowed to start working again and start earning a living again, and that if people are going into the office, they should probably be vaccinated,” Phillips said.

Phillips said the mandate was introduced as a temporary measure and the 98-per-cent vaccination rate shows it was a success. If extended, CAPE wants a plan that explains the rationale and outlines milestones.

“We want to know the game plan for when they see an end to the policy,” said Phillips. “Every sporting event has a time limit or a score limit. You always know when the game is going to be over.”

Source: Should it stay or go? Ottawa weighs the vaccine mandate for the public service

May: Never tweet. Social media is complicating the age-old neutrality of the public service

Easier in my time when the major worry was appearing in the press regarding a leaked document. Safer to never tweet on public policy issues and debates while in government, as tweets can give the perception that the public service is not neutral and impartial by the political level.

Public service did give the impression of not being impartial at times during the Harper government:

Social media is a part of life that is increasingly treacherous for Canada’s public servants, who may need better guidance to navigate their public and private lives online.

The blurring of that line was on display during the so-called freedom convoy protest that paralyzed downtown Ottawa. Some public servants took to social media to oppose or support the protest, sometimes with funds. Other public servants criticized colleagues who backed the protest as well as government mishandling of the nearly month-long blockade.

The storm of often anonymous allegations of misbehaviour on social media underlined an absence of transparency in the government agencies responsible for the ethical behaviour of bureaucrats. Neither the Treasury Board Secretariat nor the Office of Public Sector Integrity Commission were willing or able to say if any investigation or other action has been taken against any public servant.

On Reddit, members of public servant forums questioned the loyalty of federal workers who donated money to a convoy with an underlying mission to overthrow the government. Public servants on Twitter chided anyone who may have used government email to send a donation; accused them of ethical breaches. One suggested any of them with secret security clearances or higher should face a loyalty interview from CSIS, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

Some demanded they be investigated or have security clearances revoked. Others called for dismissal. One senior bureaucrat told Policy Options public servants should be dismissed if they funded anything to do with removing the elected government to which they pledged loyalty.

Meanwhile, eyebrows were raised when Artur Wilczynski, an assistant deputy minister for diversity and inclusion at the Communications Security Establishment, tweeted a stinging criticism of Ottawa police’s handling of the protest. As a rule, senior bureaucrats, especially from such a top-secret department, keep such opinions to themselves. The CSE called Wilczynski’s criticism a personal opinion, noting it would be inappropriate for the CSE to comment on matters that don’t fall within its mandate.

It’s unclear whether any public servants are being investigated or disciplined for an ethical breach – or an illegal act.

Public servants typically have a lot of latitude to engage in political activities before risking an ethical breach. That changed when the Emergencies Act was invoked, making a peaceful protest an illegal occupation.

The Treasury Board Secretariat, the public service’s employer, knows some public servants supported the protesters, a spokesperson said. But it is unaware of whether any were warned or disciplined by their departments for any public support online or offline.

“We do not collect information about complaints or disciplinary actions against employees,” the Treasury Board said in an email.

Social media users suggested at least a dozen public servantswent to the Office of Public Sector Integrity Commission to report the possibility that a handful of bureaucrats were on a leaked list of convoy donors that was exposed when a hackers took down the crowdsourcing website GiveSendGo. The commission investigates wrongdoings that could pose serious threats to the integrity of the public service.

Commissioner Joe Friday refused to say whether he has received or is investigating any complaints. His office sees a spike in inquiries and disclosures when hot-button public issues dominate the news, he said.

Social media is here to stay. But how public servants use social media to balance their duty of loyalty to government with their right to free speech and engage in political activity seems to be an open question.

Public servants have rules for behavior at work and during off-hours, though the line between on and off the clock has increasingly blurred after two years of working at home. The rules come from the Public Service Employment Act, the Values and Ethics Code and the codes of conduct for each department.

But some argue there’s a grey zone now that partisan politics and political activities have moved online.

Jared Wesley, an associate professor of political science at the University of Alberta, said governments have not done a good job updating their ethics protocols, standards of practice and codes of conduct to manage social media. They amount to deputy ministers offering a rule-of-thumb “if your boss wouldn’t like, don’t post it,” he said.

Carleton University’s Amanda Clarke and employment lawyer Benjamin Piper examined the gap in guidance in a paper, A Legal Framework to Govern Online Political Expression by Public Servants. Clarke, a digital and public management expert and associate professor, said this uncertainty about the rules cuts two ways.

“What we can learn from this incident is that there is already a grey area and it’s dangerous for public servants who are not equipped with sufficient guidance,” said Clarke.

“There are two outcomes. One: they over-censor and unnecessarily give up their rights to political participation …. The second is they go to the other extreme and abandon their obligation to be neutral, which can put them into dangerous positions, personally and professionally and, at the larger democratic level, undermine the public service’s credibility.”

In fact, public servants believe impartiality is important, a recent survey shows, and 97 per cent steer clear of political activities beyond voting. Eighty-nine per cent believe expressing views on social media can affect their impartiality or the perception of their impartiality. But it found only about 70 per cent of managers felt capable of providing guidance to workers on engaging in such activities.

Clarke argues the modernization of public service must address how public servants reconcile their online lives with their professional duties.

“You can’t expect public servants not to have online political lives. This is where politics unfolds today. So, anybody who is trying to say that is the solution is missing the reality of how we how we engage in politics today.”

More than 40 years ago, the Supreme Court’s landmark Fraser ruling confirmed public servants’ political rights – with some restrictions. They depend on factors such as one’s rank or level of influence in the public service; the visibility of the political activity; the relationship between the subject matter and the public servant’s work and whether they can be identified as public servants.

David Zussman, who long held the Jarislowsky Chair in Public Management at the University of Ottawa, said the rules should be the same whether a public servant pens an op-ed, a letter to the editor or a tweet.

“Public servants should be able to make personal decisions about who they support, but the overriding consideration is keeping the public service neutral and apolitical.”

Shortcomings of existing rules, however, were revealed in the 2015 election, when an environment scientist, Tony Turner, was suspended for writing and performing a protest song called “Harperman” that went viral on YouTube.

His union, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, argued he had violated no restrictions: he wasn’t an executive, his job was tracking migratory birds, he wrote the song on his own time, used no government resources and there was nothing in the video or on his website to indicate he was a public servant. He hadn’t produced the video or posted it to YouTube.

About the same time, a Justice Department memo surfaced, warning: “you are a public servant 24/7,” anything posted is public and there is no privacy on the Internet. Unions feared public servants could be prevented from using social media, a basic part of life.

Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube have complicated the rules for public servants posting an opinion, signing an online petition or making a crowdsourced donation, Clarke and Piper argue.

Social media can amplify opinions in public debate and indiscriminate liking, sharing, or re-posting can ramp up visibility more than expected.  Assessments of whether a public servant crossed the line have to consider whether they used privacy settings, pseudonyms or identified as public servants.

Clarke and Piper question whether public servants who never mention their jobs should be punished if they are outed as government employees in a data breach – like those who donated to the convoy protest. What about a friend taking a screenshot of a private email you sent criticizing government, sending it others or posting it online?

The Internet makes it easy to identify people, Piper said. Public servants who avoid disclosing their employer on their personal social media accounts can be identified using Google, LinkedIn or the government’s own employee directory.

So back to the convoy protest. Before the emergency order, would public servants have unwittingly crossed the line by supporting the protest or donating money to it?

The protest opposed vaccines and pandemic restrictions, though the blockade also became home to a mix of grievances. Many supporters signed a memorandum of understanding by one of the organizing groups calling for the Governor-General and Senate to form a new government with the protestors.

“It’s hard for me to see how a private donation by someone who has a job that has nothing to do with vaccine mandates or the trucker protest could attract discipline. That would be a really aggressive application of discipline by the government,” said Piper.

But Wesley argues that the convoy was known from the start as a seditionist organization and anyone who gave money to the original GoFundMe account should have seen the attached MOU. It was later withdrawn.

“Most public servants sign an oath to the Queen and should have recognized that signing or donating money to that movement was an abrogation of your oath,” he said. “I think a re-examination of who they are, who they work for and implications of donating to a cause that would have upended Canada’s system of constitutional monarchy is definitely worth a conversation with that individual.”

Perhaps part of the problem is the traditional bargain of loyalty and impartiality between politicians and public servants is coming unglued.

The duty of loyalty is shifting. The stability and job security that once attracted new recruits for lifelong careers in government aren’t important for many young workers, who like remote work and expect to work for many employers.

A recent study found half of the politicians surveyed don’t really want an impartial public service. Brendan Boyd, assistant professor at MacEwan University, suggests they prefer a bureaucracy that enthusiastically defends its policies rather than simply implements and explains them. However, 85 per cent of the politicians say that outside of work hours, public servants should be impartial.

“There will be further test cases, and how we define a duty of loyalty is going to either be confirmed or adapted or changed,” said Friday.

“But public servants are still allowed to communicate, hold or express views as a means of expression. And the pace at which the views, thoughts and opinions are expressed is so phenomenal that I think it fundamentally changes the playing field.”

Source: Never tweet. Social media is complicating the age-old neutrality of the public service

Ottawa and unions agree to simplify pay rules for public servants

Ottawa and unions agree to simplify pay rules for public servants

Government has far too long expected technology as a solution for the harder work of simplification and streamlining of payrolls, processes, and definitions. Harder work to do (remember the Universal Classification Standard fiasco of the 90s and how much time was spent to no avail).

And as to the union demand that the most beneficial provision be the basis, using the median would likely be more reasonable .

But needs to be done, otherwise IT solutions will never work well:

For the first time, the federal government and its 17 public service unions have agreed to discuss simplifying the thousands of pay rules and processes that derailed the troubled Phoenix pay system from the start.

This simplifying, which could take years to unfold, is a key piece of the government’s pilot project to build a new system – the Next Generation Human Resources and Pay (NextGen) – to replace Phoenix.

A joint union and management committee for NextGen has been examining issues around the new pay system for several years. The upcoming round of collective bargaining will be the first to take a stab at simplifying the rules and processes that have gummed up Phoenix since its launch in 2015.

However, there are many potential problems.

“They (the government) can’t let technology drive their business processes. They have to fix business processes before implementing new technology. In the case of Phoenix, the opposite occurred. Not having fixed those processes and collective agreements dooms NextGen,” said a source familiar with the project who is not authorized to speak publicly.

Some say this willingness to simplify a myriad of contracts could be a watershed moment in federal labour history, which has been rocky since the Lester B. Pearson Liberal government introduced collective bargaining in the 1960s. Public service reformers have pressed for decades to modernize compensation and a human resources regime built for another era.

They are also heading into these talks at a time when COVID-19 has upended work. As provinces lift pandemic restrictions, departments are gearing up for a partial return to the office with a hybrid workforce, part of which will continue to work from home. The federal government is also studying the future of work in a world where technology, automation and AI are changing jobs and the skills needed in the public service.

Despite the pressure to modernize, it remains to be seen how far the two sides are willing to go. Unions say no proposals have been put on the table.

Phoenix was built on PeopleSoft 9.1, an off-the-shelf software. IBM built the system, which was heavily customized to handle the complicated public service regime with 80,000 pay rules and 105 collective agreements for 300,000 employees.

Technology experts long argued the complexities of the pay rules were a root cause of Phoenix’s problem. They say rules and processes should have been reduced before the government started work on Phoenix, and they argue that these remain a significant challenge for any new system. On top of that, the government has a mishmash of 37 human resource systems that feed into Phoenix, each with its own processes.

Canada’s auditor general has issued the same warning over the years and said in this year’s audit of Phoenix’s continuing pay errors that it would be closely monitoring the NextGen project.

“We continue to be concerned that the new HR to pay system could repeat weaknesses we found in the HR to pay process and could pay some employees inaccurately,” said the report.

This time, however, the government wants a new combined pay and human resource system that can be configured to handle the pay regime without rewriting code to customize the software. That makes paring down the myriad of rules all the more critical.

Shared Services Canada (SSC), a federal agency responsible for technology across all federal departments, is leading the NextGen project. In an email, SSC said Toronto-based Ceridian, which bills itself as a global “human capital management” company, is configuring Dayforce, its flagship software, for a test run with the Department of Canadian Heritage to see if it can “support the government’s human resources and pay activities.”

However, concerns remain.

“What we don’t want here is for the employer to think: ‘Well, the reason why NextGen is having issues implementing is because the collective agreements are too complicated.’ Fine, let’s simplify them. We’re not against that,” said Dany Richard, president of the Association of Canadian Financial Officers, who co-chairs the joint management-union committee for NextGen.

As much as both sides are on board for the sake of getting a pay system that works, the pinch point will be cost. Unions don’t want their members to take a hit on their pay or benefits

The Public Service Alliance of Canada, the largest union, is having preliminary discussions with Treasury Board about the pay system and harmonizing the language of its contracts.

“We’re going in curious and with an open mind to see what’s being proposed, and what they want to talk about, and seeing what we can come to agreements on,” said Greg Phillips, president of the Canadian Association of Professional Employees, the third-largest public service union.

“But at the end of the day, it’s the employer’s responsibility to pay employees and they need to have the system in order to do that. And for modernizing HR, that’s their decision. It shouldn’t be done on the backs of employees.”

Unions have previously argued that if the government wants to reduce rules, the fastest way is to pick the most beneficial provision and make it the standard for everyone. Take, for example, the nearly 40 different rules for overtime. The unions want the government to pick the most generous of the overtime rules and apply it to everyone.

Unions argue that bringing employees up to the most generous provision may cost more in the short term, but it would be considerably cheaper than continuing to sink millions of dollars into fixing and maintaining Phoenix, which has already cost $1.4 billion in fixes.

“Let’s just put it to the common denominator, whatever it is, and write it off. It may sound like public servants gain and will get more benefits. But having clear collective agreements that are consistent will help simplify the pay system,” said Richard.

The government already spends about $53 billion a year on salaries and benefits for employees, which is 60 per cent of its total operating costs. After the spending spree to combat COVID-19, there is little appetite to pay public servants more.

Another complicating factor is that the unions have negotiated rules for pay and benefits over 60 years that are specific to each of more than 80 occupational groups in the public service.

On top of basic salary — and any raises or promotions — public servants are entitled to various allowances, such as for education, living in remote areas, acting in a higher job classification, bilingual bonuses and shift premiums. The pay for part-time or hourly employees is even more complex. Layered on top of that are rules within rules — with arcane language that often has conflicting interpretations.

One solution is harmonizing language so that all definitions are the same, such as for “family” which is key to various types of leave. Or acting pay, which kicks in for some employees after one day of filling in for someone in a higher job classification but which in another contract requires three days of doing that.

For vacation pay, some employees are entitled to four weeks after eight years of service and others get it after five years. With overtime, some employees get double time on Sunday whether they work Saturday or not, while others get double time on Sunday only after working Saturday at time and a half. In short, the rules are many and are all over the map.

The government has a pile of allowances, which employees receive on top of salaries that could, for example, be rolled into base salaries. They include retention allowances, extra pay for employees whose skills are in short supply, and allowances for meals, vehicles, travel, and clothing, such as uniforms, safety boots, and glasses.

SSC officials were unavailable to expand upon the project or its possible scale and scope beyond a brief message.

SSC said in an email that NexGen has now moved into the design and experimentation stage “which will continue to inform and define the way forward.”

“NextGen HR and Pay initiative will produce options and recommendations for a human resources and pay system that meets the complex needs of the (government),” it added.

Source: Ottawa and unions agree to simplify pay rules for public servants

May: Federal paymasters struggle to rise from Phoenix

Ongoing so many years lager:

Thousands of workers are still owed money when they leave or retire from Canada’s public service, and some are still waiting years to get paid. Thousands more move to jobs in other departments and wait months, if not years, for their paperwork to catch up with them.

It’s been six years – and more than $1.4 billion in fixes – since the disastrous Phoenix launch. The government wanted the pay system to be stabilized this year, meaning the backlog of erroneous pay cases would be eliminated permanently. It’s not there yet.

The spotlight on the Phoenix fiasco all but disappeared when the pandemic took the national stage and the number of pay hardship cases fell. The errors that remain aren’t as egregious as they were in the early days when people were getting underpaid or overpaid massively, or not paid at all. However, despite improvements, a backlog of trouble remains.

The Office of the Auditor General found an overall error rate of 47 per cent in the pay of employees it sampled in 2020-21. That’s slightly lower than the 51 per cent error rate the prior year. It also flagged that 41 per cent still had pay errors waiting to be fixed at the end of the year – compared to 31 per cent the year before.

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With $910 million in funding in 2020, Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) put together a three-year plan to get rid of the backlog by December 2022.

The backlog-reduction strategy was built around using technology, boosting the productivity of pay advisers and reducing the volume of cases coming in. The idea is to help pay advisers plow through the flow of transactions every pay cycle and also have enough time to work on the backlog.

The size of the backlog steadily decreased for more than two years, from the peak in January 2018 of 384,000 transactions, to a low of 98,000 in April 2021. The number of people affected dropped. The pay centre also improved its wait times, meeting the service standard of dealing with most pay requests within 20 days at least 80 per cent of the time.

But then it started to backslide.

Phoenix’s processing started to hiccup and sputter for a couple of months before it inched back up throughout the summer and fall of 2021. The active backlog of transactions settled at 141,000 cases by late January 2022.

“When it comes to Phoenix, it is two steps forward, one step back. The backlog of outstanding transactions has reduced since 2016, but whenever a new collective agreement or MOU is signed, it slows down the progress,” said Dany Richard, president of the Association of Canadian Financial Officers.

PSPC officials argued the backslide was nothing more than the normal flux in the volume of work.

They said the number of transactions processed each month varies depending on the complexity of transactions, the pay centre’s capacity, any new collective agreements being implemented, and the normal seasonal spikes in demand, such as hiring summer students.

The size of the public service has also grown 24 per cent since 2015 and there’s been a considerable amount of churn – with people moving in and out of jobs, creating more transactions.

“Although we have made significant progress this past year in reducing the number of transactions in the backlog and queue from 2016-2020, we have seen an increase in new transactions received at the pay centre in 2021, which challenged our ability to reduce the backlog,” said PSPC spokesperson Michèle LaRose in an email.

Some say public servants, many safely working from home, aren’t complaining as loudly about pay errors when so many Canadians lost their jobs during the COVID-19 crisis. Some argue that unions backed off on Phoenix after winning $560 million in damages to compensate workers for pay gaffes. Others say public servants are now so used to pay errors that they have simply become inured to them.

“As the backlog of Phoenix pay issues continues to grow, it seems the government has quietly accepted that Phoenix can’t be fixed, “said Chris Aylward, president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada.”

“We’re nearing the six-year anniversary of the Phoenix fiasco, and thousands of workers are still having pay problems while waiting years for their previous issues to be resolved…Over the past few months, we’re seeing more and more members turn to us for help.”

The auditor general found that 141,100 employees had at least one outstanding “pay action request” last June, down from more than 182,000 in 2018.

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The improvements made to Phoenix came partly through technology, such as automating retroactive payments like backpay for 2018 collective agreements. Processes were streamlined, programs introduced to speed up processing of routine work. This was all aimed at freeing up pay advisers to be deployed on the backlog.

The next focus was the culture change around timeliness and accuracy, which should have happened before Phoenix was launched. Managers, human resource and employees had to learn how to manage pay differently. The old pay system could handle late transactions – largely because pay advisers manually fixed things. But Phoenix runs in real time and can’t digest late or after-the-fact transactions.

That cultural shift from late to on-time transactions is slowly taking hold but problems remain around the timeliness and accuracy of requests for terminations and transfers.

At last count, 30,000 terminations were waiting to be processed, either in the queue or dumped into the backlog after the 45-day service standard is missed. Terminations are issued for anyone who leaves the public service.

About 34 per cent of the cases in backlog are less than a year old, but 12 per cent are more than four years old and the rest are between one and four years old. Employees could be owed vacation pay, overtime, allowances and/or severance pay.

About 10,000 transfers are waiting to catch up with employees in their new departments. Those who move to new jobs with raises or promotions could wait months or years for that extra money to kick in – and then discover they have other pay adjustments such as higher pension premiums.

Overpayments are another headache. Departments are racing to recover salary overpayments to employees in 2016, when Phoenix went live. By law, the government has six years to collect salary overpayments from employees – after which they become unrecoverable and are written off as debt. The government has collected about $2.3 billion so far but has another $552 million to collect.

Sources familiar with Phoenix say the problems dogging the system can be fixed with more pay advisers. PSPC has already quadrupled its pay workforce— to about 2,500 people—since Phoenix was launched.

Source: Federal paymasters struggle to rise from Phoenix

May: The pandemic upended the federal workplace. What comes next?

Good overview of the issues and challenges:

The pandemic blew up the norms and structure of work behaviour in Canada’s public service and now bureaucrats want new rules and a say in how work fits into their lives as the federal government readies for a return to the office.

Everything about working in the public service is up for grabs.

After nearly two years, the pandemic proved public servants can work in many jobs from anywhere. That’s upended the conventional approach to work, including the 37.5-hour work week, endless in-person meetings, a soulless cubicle culture and how to climb the hierarchy. It’s an opportunity for change reformers have dreamed about for 25 years.

“Look, if I could press an undo button and make sure COVID never happened, I would… but it happened, and the silver lining is we have exponentially adopted telework,” said Dany Richard, a union president and co-chair of the National Joint Council, a joint union and management committee. “That allows us now to reassess how the future of work will be.”

With a global talent shortage and an economy favouring workers, public servants couldn’t be in a better position to make demands on their employer about their future work lives.

There are high hopes for a new telework policy being hashed out behind closed doors with unions and senior management. Advocates promise a new mobile workforce that would break the Ottawa-Gatineau monopoly on headquarter jobs. It would improve workforce diversity and work-life balance and reduce real estate and operational costs along with pollution from commuting.

The pandemic also picked up the pace of digital transformation of the public service by three to five years, said Ryan Androsoff, director of digital leadership at the Institute on Governance.

In a blink, public servants went en masse to work at home. After a mad scramble for enough laptops, bandwidth and network access, public servants learned to work in real time, mastering videoconferencing, text and chat software and editing documents collaboratively.

“It would have taken multiple years before departments would have reached the point where 100 per cent of their workforce could work in a distributed and remote way,” Androsoff said.

Public servants aren’t expected to return to offices until the pandemic is declared over, but everyone is braced for a hybrid workplace, a mix of working in office and at home.

Is government ready? Not quite. The Treasury Board’s Office of the Chief Human Resources Officer is putting together a short- and long-term plan for the future of work with a “spotlight on telework” that rolls out as COVID restrictions are lifted and public servants can return to in-office work.

Richard argued working remotely during an emergency like the pandemic worked because everyone is in the same boat. The challenge now is how to “optimize” remote work and make the most of it.

“I think the employer will generally be open to telework,” said Richard, who is president of the Association for Canadian Financial Officers. “I don’t think it’ll be 100 per cent of the time. But as long as an employee commits to, I’d guess, two days a week in the office, the employer will say, ‘Okay let’s try three days at home and two days in the office.’”

Not all federal jobs can be done from home. Ship crews, prison guards, border guards and meat inspectors can’t. Call centres, science laboratories and operations like the Canada Security Establishment need people at the workplace.

Most office workers, however, don’t want to return to the old ways. Surveys found most want to work from home full-time or several days a week. As one senior bureaucrat said, the “pinch point” is whether location of work is an employee’s right or preference. Or is it an “operational requirement” that managers should define?

“We just spent a year and half working from home on a mandatory basis. We had to work from home. Employees see the benefits and want the flexibility to choose where they work,” said Stéphane Aubry, vice-president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC).

As part of that flexibility, Aubry said the union wants jobs classified as remote or telework positions and no longer attached to a city or a building. It argues the government should pick up some of the cost employees bear working at home. It also wants all tasks and activities that have to be done at the office clearly laid out.

“We want a position to be officially classified as a telework job so when there’s a job opening it is put on paper as a telework job,” said Aubry. The government can then look for employees across Canada. It would change the way they do recruitment.”

At the moment, Treasury Board has left it up to departments to decide how their employees will work. The board sets guidelines but deputy ministers are responsible for how their departments run.

Some have already indicated they want workers back in the office some of the time; others are encouraging people to work from home full-time or to decide where they want to be based. Departments like Transport and Public Services and Procurement Canada have been singled out as among the most flexible. Meanwhile, unions are irked the RCMP have ordered some civilian employees back to the office before restrictions have been lifted.

That’s why some are looking for a more consistent policy. One senior bureaucrat said the approach is too “muddied” and sets the stage for expectations and conflicts between departments and unions.

“Instead of having a common approach they’ve left it scattered, which is a problem because deputy ministers are not willing to make a decision that might be precedent-setting and everybody gets stuck,” said the bureaucrat, who we are not identifying because he is not authorized to speak on the subject.

A big challenge with hybrid work is how to treat everyone equitably. The unions are worried about two tiers of employees: those who work in-office and those who don’t. It’s expected those who work in the office, where they are known by management, will have an edge for promotions and special projects.

What if deputy ministers and other senior executives return to the office? Won’t more employees follow suit and come to the office to be seen?

It could create a gender gap for women, who are disproportionately drawn to remote work to better manage parenting or other caregiving needs they juggle.

“I would love to see a situation where if government goes to a hybrid model that they actually say everybody in the organization has to work remotely two or three days a week, so that everybody’s having that same experience,” said Androsoff.

Nearly 42 per cent of public servants work in the National Capital Region. Stories abound of public servants who moved to the countryside or to the east or west coasts to work remotely during lockdown and have no plans to come back. Managers started filling Ottawa jobs with people outside the region and not requiring them to relocate.

There are far more ministers and MPs from outside Ottawa who have long tried to decentralize federal jobs to the regions. The argument for the capital’s disproportionate share of jobs was based on the location of Parliament, ministers and senior management. If the pandemic allowed MPs and Parliament to meet virtually, why wouldn’t they press for more jobs to be done remotely?

Former privy council clerk Michael Wernick says relocating Ottawa jobs is inevitable, adding it could happen in a “very conscious way” or “by stealth.” There are plenty of examples of departments operating outside the capital – Veterans Affairs in Charlottetown, Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency in Moncton, National Energy Board in Calgary or the pay centre in Miramichi.

“The political pressure for geographic decentralization, plus work moving out to people’s homes, means a much less gravitational pull from Ottawa,” said Wernick.

“Maybe it won’t be the big departments and central agencies in the core public service, but there are 300 federal entities. And I think they may start maybe with some of those. Why does a tribunal, for example, have to hold hearings in Ottawa?”

Remote work would attract a more diverse pool of applicants who better represent Canada, including those who don’t live in urban centres, Indigenous people, visible minorities and people with disabilities.

A national recruitment strategy, however, will quickly collide with the public service’s bilingualism requirements.

“It opens doors for people from across the country to be part of the federal government in a way never possible before, but how to do that with existing bilingual policies is going to have to be explored,” said Androsoff.

A new telework policy assumes managers will shift to results-based management and hold people accountable for what they do and not just showing up for work.

But Wernick said the public service must sharpen its competitive edge to keep and attract employees in a global talent shortage. That shortage could worsen with an exodus of public servants, burned out and ready to leave after two years of going full tilt in the pandemic. Others put off retirement during lockdown and will leave rather than go back to the office.

Many argue departments will offer remote work to attract and retain people. That could also spark an internal war for talent as people flee to departments that offer the most flexibility and remote work.

The government’s technology is still years behind the private sector, but the pandemic brought all public servants to a basic level of digital literacy with new skills they want to use. Some argue home network and internet connections are now much better than what employees had at the office.

Canadians also have much bigger expectations of government. They are living more digitally now, banking and shopping online, and expect the same easy and rapid service from the government.

But Androsoff said there’s still a powerful pull from the traditionalists who would rather return to the old ways: nine to five, back to the office, in-person meetings and assigned desks.

“The federal government, by virtue of its size and history, has institutional inertia. In previous waves of reform, that inertia always pushes to go back to the way it was,” said Androsoff.

“I’m hoping for lasting change, but it remains to be seen whether this push is permanent or the pressure to go back to its institutional comfort zone wins the day.”

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