A few weeks ago, the federal government quietly released an extraordinary study. With 800 pages, 77 recommendations, and a suitably bureaucratic title that would discourage most readers, the “Expenditure Review of Federal Public Sector Compensation and Comparability” prepares the groundwork for those who are interested in the future role of government and compensation’s key role.
The study is part of an attempt to get a handle on the dramatic growth in government spending that took place after the downsizing in the 1990s. The size of the federal government is essentially the same as it was in 1993, and costs are up 50%. The 55,000 jobs eliminated during program review (mostly clerks and secretaries) have been replaced by security specialists and information technologists. As Canada’s largest employer – more than 350,000 employees earning $25 billion – as well as the underpinning for a prosperous and safe society, the public service matters.
The average public servant salary is now $53k, with 3% earning more than $100k. Wages have increased in the last five years in order to remain competitive in the market place for new employees.
That seems to be meeting the needs of the current workforce. In a 2005 employee survey, 82% reported that the government is a good place to work and 78% were pleased with their careers. Turnover is low.
But the future workforce may have different needs. A new mix of skills will be needed in order to compete internationally. The work force is changing in terms of its age structure and attitudes toward work. As a result, we must be especially attuned to recruitment strategies and future H.R. needs.
The report’s real contribution is the way it highlights the importance of people and, specifically, the role compensation plays in shaping the future work force. Many recommendations are structured to set up systems and processes to develop better databases and build a more profound understanding of how the federal government workforce actually operates. The report is very critical of the current HR system for its shortcomings in not being able to measure the workforce cost of government programs and general expenditures.
The report concludes: “In effect, we are calling for a fundamental rethinking and modernizing of the compensation regime.” The report’s author, Jim Lahey, then Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Board Secretariat, observed that: “Work on this report has underlined how piecemeal our current management regime remains, despite recent efforts to promote greater coherence.” At a minimum, “Gov’t needs data on comparability in order to attract and retain the employees it needs, and assure taxpayers that what it spends is reasonable.”
It is encouraging to see initiatives recently launched to support the study.
1. The new Public Service Modernization Act provides a clearer accountability regime that places the deputy ministers squarely in the centre of human resources (but not necessarily the compensation regime).
2. Kevin Lynch, head of the federal public service, has stated: “There is much that can be done to reduce the complexity of the current HR system in government, to invest in current HR staff and to reach out more effectively to a new generation of public service professionals. More can be done to open the doors of the public service to talented people at middle and senior levels who see an opportunity to make a contribution.”
3. The Public Service Commission has introduced less time-consuming ways to hire while the Canada Public Service Agency is looking at new ways to brand the public service as an employer of choice.
There needs as well to be a greater appreciation of the dynamics of careers in the federal government. What are the drivers behind the dramatic growth? Has the federal mandate expanded? What kinds of people are applying for jobs and who is being hired? Is technology being used effectively? What do career patterns look like? What might they look like in the future? Do jobs now require different skills than those of previous years? What will new employees want from their employer?
Once some of these questions are answered, Lahey suggests bringing parliamentarians into the discussion. Perhaps Parliament could play a useful role in ensuring that this significant expenditure is well designed in order to build a stronger public service and a more accountable government. Readers do not have to be reminded of how crucial it is that a well functioning and honest public service serves as the backbone of a successful nation.
David Zussman holds the Jarislowsky Chair in Public Sector Management in the Faculty of Social Sciences and Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa. He can be reached at email@example.com.
The Jarislowsky Chair website is www3.management.uottawa.ca/jarislowsky
The report is at www.tbs-sct.gc.ca/spsm-rgsp/er-ed/er-ed_e.asp