On March 22, Federal Budget Day, the Harper government authorized the release of three reports that directly touch on the current status of the Canadian public service. The reports provide an interesting perspective of how three different functional areas of the public service perceive the public service’s immediate management priorities in light of the current demographic upheaval within the workforce, fiscal constraints and aging management systems.
The first report is the 18th Annual Report to the Prime Minister from the Clerk of the Privy Council. In this year’s report, Wayne Wouters provides a descriptive overview of his efforts to renew the public service over the past year and then offers a listing of his priorities for 2011: engaging employees, renewing the workforce, and renewing the workplace. Although few details are provided about the overall plan, the Clerk notes that deputy ministers will be accountable for the implementation of these priorities in early 2012.
The Prime Minister’s Advisory Committee on the Public Service also released their 5th report. The committee, comprised of largely private sector executives, had a different take on the public service priorities of the federal government. This year, their preoccupation was on ensuring that the recent Administrative Services Review was implemented, urging the public service to maximize the benefits of the Public Service Modernization Act, rebuild its policy capacity, and reduce the oversight function. In their short report, they also raised a number of fundamental questions by asking the Prime Minister to define his vision of the role of the public service in the coming decades.
Finally, the Public Service Commission (PSC) tabled its third report on Budget Day on the occasion of the imminent retirement of its three Commissioners. This report reflects on their perceptions of the human resources system after working for seven years under the revised Public Service Employment Act (PSEA). The core recommendations concentrate on finding ways to improve the effectiveness of the staffing system and to enhance the quality of the appointment processes in the federal government. In particular, the Commissioners moved into unfamiliar territory by suggesting that it was time to review the way in which Governor-in-Council appointments are made by the prime minister in order to ensure that they are meritorious and not politically influenced.
Interestingly, each report addresses very different areas of public management. Perhaps this is due to the different mandates of the authors, but it also might underline the lack of coherence of management priorities in the federal government. In any case, the reports reveal a wide-ranging set of legitimate management issues that need to be addressed in the short term.
Public service management issues are likely to occupy the next Parliament for a number of reasons.
First, the public flogging of Christiane Ouimet (the former Integrity Commissioner) has raised questions about the appointment process for Agents of Parliament. So confusing is this issue that six Heads of Agencies took the unprecedented action of writing to Parliament and asking for a more explicit appointment process.
Second, the contempt of Parliament allegations leveled at Minister of International Cooperation Bev Oda have prompted many questions about the appropriate role and accountability of ministerial staff in carrying out their duties in the aid of a minister.
Within this political environment, it is clear that issues of a more fundamental nature should be addressed to respond to the long-term needs of the public sector. The fact remains that the public sector, at all three levels of government, will continue to play its traditional role as the major provider of policy advice, oversight and program delivery.
Given that the PSEA is scheduled for review during the next session of Parliament, this might be a good time for the federal government to initiate a wide-ranging public conversation about the public service and its future role. While the enquiry could cover a wide swath of public management issues, as a starting point, looking at the hiring practices of Agents of Parliament and the role of political staff in a parliamentary system of government might resolve a number of outstanding issues and start a dialogue that has already been completed in the U.K. and Australia.
Parliament appears to have an interest in these issues, presumably because it believes that a well functioning public service is crucial to a modern democratic state. With a legislative review on the parliamentary agenda, it would be unfortunate if a newly elected government did not take advantage of the situation by launching its own consultations about the role of the public service in Canada.
David Zussman holds the Jarislowsky Chair in Public Sector Management in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and is a part-time Commissioner of the Public Service Commission (firstname.lastname@example.org).