Canada’s Public Service Employee Survey: using advanced data analytics to focus workplace culture change

Good to have more people like Philip Lillies looking at the Survey and probing the meaning of the findings, whether by organization or group, along with combining findings with the Staffing and Non-Partisanship Survey (SNPS). More complex analysis than I can do!:

Since 2005, summaries of overall Public Service Employee Survey (PSES) results have been posted on the Government of Canada open portal. The summaries of overall results have facilitated the analysis of shortcomings in the culture of the workplace by human resource personnel, internal auditors, and researchers. Notably, two researchers, Andrew Griffith and Jake Cole have recently published in The Hill Times analyses that have complemented the summaries of overall results posted on the Government of Canada portal.

However, summaries of overall results have a glaring deficiency: they may indicate that corrective action is necessary, but they provide insufficient guidance as to what action might be most effective or which employee groups are most in need of this action. Comparison of variations across departments and across employee groups can make up for this insufficiency. These comparisons can be used to derive associations between responses; these associations often indicate the potential causes and consequences of the variations across groups. And causes and consequences are an important guide to action.

In 2020, I retired from my position as a senior internal auditor in the public service. During my first year of retirement, I have endeavoured to make up for shortcomings in the usual analysis tools by writing a Python program that had the capacity to use response variations to find associations between responses. It then attributed these associations to causes and consequences for particular departments and employee groups. In what follows, I build on the work of Griffith and Cole by presenting some examples of what I have found using my Python program.

Measuring and improving happiness

Cole states that the pandemic has been good for public service employees. According to him, “Whatever the reason, they are a happier bunch.” There are no questions about happiness in the PSES, but many experts, including Cole suggest that employee engagement is a good indicator of happiness. Under the theme of “engagement,” the PSES has seven questions. Across the entire public service, there are, nonetheless, variations in the level of engagement. By focusing corrective action on those groups that show the lowest scores to engagement questions and to associated questions, we can improve the efficiency of the corrective action.

So, from among these seven engagement-themed questions, here are the four that show the most variation across the public service:

  • Q11: Feeling valued at work.
  • Q50: Recommendation that my department is a great place to work.
  • Q51: Satisfied with my department or agency.
  • Q52: Prefer my workplace over others in the federal public service.

But to take focused corrective action we need to know which employees in which departments are suffering from lack of engagement. It turns out that there are eight departments that show below average scores in responses to these four questions. Questions associated with these four questions will be the questions from which we can derive causes and consequences and those groups with below average responses to these four questions will be the groups to which corrective action needs to be applied.

To take a concrete example, it turns out that border services employees are one of the most disengaged groups within the Canadian Border Services Agency and the potential causes of their disengagement can be found in the below-average scores of their responses to career-related questions, such as:

  • Q41: my department or agency does a good job of supporting employee career development.

Corrective action can be applied accordingly.

Combining results from two surveys

Another important government survey is the Staffing and Non-Partisanship Survey (SNPS), which is also directed at employees, and publishes its results on the government’s open portal in a separate cycle to the PSES. Using Python to combine results from the two surveys is both trivial and insightful.

Table 1 lists the ethical questions that show a high variation in response scores when the SNPS is combined with the PSES. Associated with all of these questions from the PSES, except one, are two questions from the SNPS:

QALL_05D: The process of selecting a person for a position is done fairly.
QALL_05B: I believe that we hire people who can do the job.

Not only does the association of these questions with so many of the PSES ethical questions highlight the importance of the work of the Public Service Commission, which is responsible for staffing practices, but one would also be inclined to draw the conclusion that these SNPS questions are two important ethical questions that should be included in the PSES rather than the SNPS.

Table 1: Questions from the PSES with High Variation when SNPS is combined with PSES

Ethical workplace
Q19: Satisfactory resolution of interpersonal issues.
Q38: Know where to go for help on ethical issues.
Q39: Promotion of values and ethics.
Q40: No fear of reprisal.
Leadership: senior management
Q31: Leadership by ethical example.
Q32: Confidence in senior management.
Q33: Effectiveness and timeliness of decisions.
Q34: Effectiveness of essential information flows.
Q60: Satisfactory harassment resolution.
Q61: Satisfactory harassment prevention program.
Q63-B: Discrimination from individuals with authority over me.
Q67: Satisfactory discrimination resolution.
Q68: Satisfactory discrimination prevention program.

Empowerment of Black employees

Griffith, in his November 2019 article, reaches the conclusion that Black employees are among the least empowered. His conclusion is based on the overall scores of Black employee responses to organizational culture indicators in the PSES 2019 survey. Interestingly, my Python program indicates that there are nine departments that show not only below average scores in responses to these empowerment questions, but also below average scores in their responses to questions associated with these questions. What is surprising is that among these nine departments are the Public Service Commission of Canada, the Military Police Complaints Commission of Canada, the Courts Administration Service, Canadian Human Rights Commission, the Public Prosecution Service of Canada, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. These are ethically oriented regulatory and research bodies that should be the first to understand the mechanisms and implications of discrimination; hence, should already be taking the necessary corrective actions. Perhaps, these results indicate that understanding is only a first step in overcoming discrimination, in which case discovering what corrective actions are required to go beyond understanding points to the need for further investigation.


I can only agree with Cole that the PSES provides a rich source of information that, if properly assessed and acted on, could result in positive changes for the employees and subsequently for the Canadians they are there to serve. However, assessment cannot be limited to discussion and comparison of overall results. As I hope the examples provided show, this rich source of information can only be fully exploited by making use of computerized data analytics techniques that highlight associations between responses and pinpoint employee groups where follow-up is needed. Nonetheless, associations should not be confused with definitive results; rather they should be taken as guidance for further assessment and investigation. Speaking from my own professional experience, I would say that the need for this informed cultural analysis provides an exciting opportunity for the next generation of internal auditors if they can rise to the challenge.

Source: Canada’s Public Service Employee Survey: using advanced data analytics to focus workplace culture change

Federal immigration department employees reporting racist workplace behaviour, says survey

Looked at the IRCC 2020 Public Service Employee Survey results to help understand the context.

  • Q55 Harassment: With respect to having been a victim of harassment, IRCC is marginally better than PS average: 9 vs 11 percent, down from 11 vs 15 percent in 2018. With respect to types of harassment, IRCC generally tracks either close to the government-wide numbers or lower levels. In terms of resolution of harassment issues, IRCC also tracks government-wide numbers.
  • Q62 Discrimination: With respect to having been a victim of discrimination, IRCC numbers are the same as government-wide numbers: 7 percent, no change from 2018 IRCC numbers while the government-wide number was 8 percent. However, IRCC had a significantly higher percentage of race-based discrimination, 40 to 28 percent, a significant increase from 2018 27 percent, which may have prompted the focus group study. IRCC also had higher numbers with respect to discrimination based on national/ethnic origin, colour, but not with respect to religion. In terms of resolution of discrimination issues, IRCC also tracks government-wide numbers.
  • Q69 Victim satisfaction with resolution of discrimination complaints: No major difference but overall satisfaction (very strong, strong) is low at 8 percent.

IRCC, of course, will have this data disaggregated by visible minority group, likely highlighting some of the issues mentioned in the focus groups, which is informing its policies and practices. Expect to have my analysis of the overall government harassment and discrimination responses in a few weeks once survey demographic data up on open data:

A report examining workplace racism at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) describes repeated instances of employees and supervisors using offensive terms with their racialized colleagues.

The 20-page document, compiled by the public opinion research company Pollara Strategic Insights, was presented to IRCC in June and recently posted online.

The report is based on ten two-hour focus groups with 54 IRCC employees Pollara conducted for the department in March.

Multiple employees told Pollara they’d heard racist language used in the workplace. The report describes what it calls multiple reports of racist “microagressions” in the IRCC workplace, including:

  • Staff members describing a department section known for having a lot of racialized employees as “the ghetto.”
  • Staff members asking to touch a racialized employee’s hair, or mocking the hairstyles of racialized employees.
  • A manager calling Indigenous people lazy, or calling colonialism “good.”
  • “Widespread” references in the workplace to certain African nations as “the dirty 30.”

“You just feel like, now that I’m speaking out, am I also going to be looked like as one of those angry Black women for speaking up?” the report quotes one employee as saying.

Racialized employees also told Pollara they’ve been passed over for international assignments and “professional development opportunities.” The report says one manager claimed that their evaluation of a racialized employee was overridden “by someone above them to promote a non-racialized employee instead.”

Racialized IRCC staffers told Pollara that they’re marginalized in the workplace — kept in “precarious temporary contract positions disproportionately and for a long time” which prevent them from “advocating for their own rights” to promotion or from speaking out against racist incidents.

Pollara also said participants in the focus groups warned that racism in the workplace “can and probably must impact case processing.” They cited “discriminatory rules for processing immigration applications for some countries or regions,” including additional financial document requirements for applicants from Nigeria.

Source: Federal immigration department employees reporting racist workplace behaviour, says survey

PSES 2020 IRCC Link

Public servants say they work better from home, despite stress: survey

Interesting (on my to do list, look at the survey’s disaggregated data):

During the pandemic, employees of local, provincial, and federal governments from coast to coast to coast have provided essential services while working from home.

And it would appear that federal employees are happier now about their workplace than they were before the pandemic, according to the 2020 Public Service Employee Survey released by the Treasury Board Secretariat last week.

While we don’t know the full story of the “big pivot” over a single weekend in March 2020 — when public servants started working from home — we do know many have been working over weekends and statutory holidays and forgoing annual leave.

This isn’t sustainable over the long term. If not attended to, such behaviour could result in a crash or organizational failure.

Stress has increased since 2019. A third of employees said they felt emotionally drained after their workday, up from 29 per cent in 2019. Just over a quarter said their workload was heavier, up slightly from 24 per cent in 2019.

However, new questions in the 2020 survey about work-life balance during the pandemic revealed some silver linings:

  • 39 per cent of employees had requested flexible work hours since the start of the pandemic; and
  • 83 per cent said their immediate supervisor allowed them.

Employees said the quality of their work improved, too. For example:

  • only 23 per cent of employees said their work quality suffered because their department or agency lacked stability, which was down from 30 per cent in 2019; and
  • just 24 per cent of employees said their work suffered because of high staff turnover, down from 32 per cent in 2019.

Employees’ perceptions of change management also improved in 2020, with 59 per cent saying change was managed well in their department or agency, compared to 50 per cent in 2019.

They also reported better feedback from their supervisors in 2020, compared to 2019:

  • 69 per cent said they received meaningful recognition for work well done, up from 65 per cent in 2019; and
  • 77 per cent said they got useful feedback from their immediate supervisor about their job performance, up from 74 per cent in 2019.

Overall job satisfaction improved in 2020, too:

  • 83 per cent of employees said they liked their job, up from 81 per cent in 2019;
  • 78 per cent reported getting a sense of satisfaction from their work, up from 76 per cent in 2019;
  • 75 per cent said they were satisfied with their department or agency, up from 71 per cent in 2019;
  • 75 per cent said they would recommend their department or agency as a great place to work, up from 70 per cent in 2019; and
  • 71 per cent of employees said they felt valued at work, up from 68 per cent in 2019.

Respondents also felt their workplace was “psychologically” healthier. For example:

  • 68 per cent said their workplace was psychologically healthy, up from 61 per cent in 2019; and
  • 81 per cent said their department or agency was doing a good job of raising awareness of mental health in the workplace, up from 73 per cent in 2019.

In response to a new question in 2020, 69 per cent of employees said they’d feel comfortable sharing concerns about their mental health with their immediate supervisor.

The survey included new questions about working during the pandemic:

  • 70 per cent said senior managers were taking adequate steps to support their mental health during the pandemic;
  • 84 per cent felt their department or agency was effectively communicating the mental-health services and resources available to them; and
  • 81 per cent said they were satisfied with the measures their department or agency was taking to protect their physical health and safety during the pandemic.

Employees were also asked about the information they received from their department or agency about the pandemic:

  • 78 per cent said it was clear and easy to understand;
  • 81 per cent said it was consistent with the information they got from their immediate supervisor; and
  • 92 per cent said the information was available in both official languages.

And finally, instances of harassment also fell. In 2020, 11 per cent of employees said they’d been harassed on the job in the previous 12 months, down from 14 per cent in 2019. In addition, 71 per cent said their department or agency worked hard to create a workplace that prevents harassment, up from 69 per cent in 2019.

So while the pandemic isn’t over, public servants remain engaged. It would appear that working from home and away from the office has improved their view of the workplace and of their senior managers.

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

Source: Public servants say they work better from home, despite stress: survey