Service delivery
May 7, 2012

Professional public service: The Public Service Commission celebrates centenary

The Civil Service Commission was created in September 1908 to eradicate widespread political patronage and to provide the Government of Canada with a professional public service. The adoption of a merit-based staffing system, managed by an independent commission, has shaped the identity of the public service over the last century.

Renamed the Public Service Commission in 1967, the PSC is headed by a president, who serves as its chief executive officer, and two part-time commissioners. The president is appointed under the Great Seal, after approval by resolution of the Senate and House of Commons; the commissioners are appointed by the Governor in Council. Maryse Blouin, Louise Normand and Paul Crookall spoke with current president Maria Barrados.

How do you see the non-partisan, merit-based approach to public service in the 21st century?

One of the lesser known parts of Canada’s history is how we have been able to move away from the system of political patronage that was once a defining feature of our public service.

It is always useful to take stock of the past in order to appreciate fully what we have. The Public Service Commission centenary is a good opportunity to do that.

Before the creation of the Civil Service Commission there was essentially no competition for public service jobs. Examinations were qualifying only, that is, designed to verify that candidates were literate. The “spoils system” of patronage appointments meant that jobs were generally not available to all Canadians. At some point, there was even a patronage committee that took care of appointments to the best-paid positions.

So we have come a long way. It is important to remember that. Today, the public service plays an indispensable role in ensuring peace, order and good government in Canada. For a century now, the PSC has championed the values of merit and impartiality that underpin the professional public service that we have come to take for granted.

For Canadians, this means that regardless of their political views, they can expect fair, objective treatment from public servants. It means that only qualifications count.

It means that however long- or short-lived the government of the day may be, the country will enjoy stability and uninterrupted services since the public service is not replaced following elections.

Our public service is part of Canada’s comparative advantage and a key to competitiveness in the global economy. It is a cornerstone of our democratic government.

With the impending wave of retirements, hasn’t the time come to place the focus on flexible and efficient hiring practices that are responsive to the current reality?

We are indeed facing some important challenges and aging is definitely one of them. But let me remind you that the history of the public service in Canada is filled with instances where we have had to respond to tremendous challenges and adapt our merit-based system. The post-war period comes to mind. This was a time of major transformation for the Government of Canada, with new functions, new specialized skills and serious staff shortages. Collectively we met those challenges without abandoning the key values of the public service.

More recently the Public Service Modernization Act, passed in 2003, began a new era of human resources management in Canada’s public service. A critical component of this legislation is the Public Service Employment Act, which modernizes staffing with a new definition of merit that moves away from “best qualified” to the “right fit” for the organization.

Under the Act, the Public Service Commission retains the authority for staffing but delegates it to deputy heads and, through them, to the lowest possible level of the organization. Deputies are accountable to the PSC for how they exercise this delegated authority. The Commission, in turn, is accountable to Parliament for the overall health of the system.

This provides much flexibility for departments. Deputy heads and managers have a great opportunity to innovate. For example, they can design recruitment campaigns that meet their departmental needs without getting prior approval from the PSC. When selecting qualified candidates, they can also take into consideration asset qualifications that can include current and future operational requirements of their organization.

Putting in place the legislation was the first step in a longer transformation process. The major challenge for the public service will be to take full advantage of the opportunities offered by the Act.

Together we can build a risk-tolerant, innovative HR management regime that is still merit-based, respectful of the staffing values, free from political interference, and able to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

A number of Commonwealth countries have greatly diminished the authority of their respective public service commissions. Why is Canada not following suit?

The longevity of the PSC compared to its counterparts in other Anglo-American democracies is remarkable. Faced with similar pressures for greater managerial flexibility, efficiency and political responsiveness, a number of countries have chosen to reduce the independence of their commissions. Many observers have pointed out that reforms designed to improve efficiency have generally reduced the effectiveness of their commissions.

Throughout its history the PSC has had to be both an agent of change and a voice of caution. But we have always been very consistent in playing a key institutional role of reminding politicians and public servants seeking reform of the importance of some core values, such as merit and impartiality. Staffing such a large and diverse organization as the public service is a delicate balancing act. It must be subject to constraints that, while difficult to reconcile with managerial and short-term political objectives, serve a higher purpose in the democratic governance of the country.

With the 2003 modernization act, the government has chosen a different path from those countries. The legislation has refocused the PSC, it has adapted its policies to the new context, but it has also maintained a strong, independent presence for the Commission.

I think it shows that building on the past, we recognize that Canada has been well served by a non-partisan, professional public service. We recognize that safeguarding merit and impartiality in Canada’s public service is in the long-term interest of the country.

The PSC has recently published a paper on impartiality in the public service. Is this an indication that you are concerned we may be losing ground on that front?

The paper, Public Service Impartiality: Taking Stock, stems from the idea that the centenary of the Commission is a good opportunity for some reflection, on where we come from and also looking ahead.

You know, merit and impartiality can be abstract notions. They relate to values, ethics, ideals, to the appropriate role of the public service in a democracy, and to governance in a democratic society. Making them concrete so that they continue to be implemented in the public service is a balancing act. It involves a variety of actors – individual public servants, senior executives, ministers, and others, each with different objectives and motivations.

When you consider that slightly over 10,000 people joined the public service on an indeterminate (permanent full time) basis in 2007-08 alone, or that approximately 15 percent of the permanent public service population entered as new indeterminate hires betwe

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