It seems that everyone is down on the public sector nowadays: it’s too slow, too expensive, and unable to respond to new challenges. So it’s encouraging to see public administration programs in universities across Canada filled with bright young people committed to a future serving citizens. As we start 2015, we asked some of them what they see as the biggest challenge facing the public service in the coming year.
The dangers of a tired mantra
With a federal election just around the corner, the Canadian public will soon be bombarded with another round of political promises and easily digestible sound-bites. As each party unveils its shiny new platform, the discussion will inevitably turn to how these promises will be kept and financed. Here lies the biggest issue that will face the public service in 2015: the “do more with less” mantra will once again rear its head. Although this issue is by no means new to the public service, and not unique to the federal level, the election will likely push it back into the limelight.
The unfortunate reality is that on the surface, the “do more with less” logic sounds reasonable to Canadians, particularly in the current economic climate. This makes it even easier for politicians to take potshots at an anonymous public service that cannot defend itself publicly. What gets glossed over in the conversation is the sustainability of this strategy in the long-term. Doing more with less may work in the interim, but eventually the skeleton crews and budgets that help to deliver programs and services will erode the public service from within.
With greater workloads and less support, public servants will burn out more quickly or strain their mental health, the effects of which could severely decrease productivity, increase the number of sick days taken, and increase government dependency on contracting externally to compensate for reductions. These are all factors which could offset any of the savings produced by making these cuts in the first place.
The “do more with less” mantra is more dangerous each time it takes center stage, as more promises are made to make previous cuts even deeper. In 2015, public servants will have to find innovative ways to contribute to the public discussion on the merits and drawbacks of this strategy.
— Andrew Bucci is a second-year Master of Public Administration student at Dalhousie University
Balancing budget with citizen expectations
It is a testament to our public sector that Canadians have high expectations for the role that government plays in their lives. Canada has seen consistent public sector improvements, whether in healthcare, education, training, or social supports, to name just a few. These have provided Canadians with tangible benefits and services that affect them daily.
At the same time, public sector organizations are adapting to slower rates of revenue growth. We have pioneered new practices, more efficient service delivery models, and innovative funding arrangements in order to ensure that Canadians are getting good value for their tax dollars.
However, consistently meeting citizen expectations keeps setting the bar higher. Whether it is more funding for childcare or long-term care homes, greater coverage for pharmaceuticals, smaller class sizes, or more transit infrastructure, Canadians want better services while keeping tax levels stable. Meeting these increased citizen expectations is essential in keeping the public sector valued by and relevant to Canadians – a challenge that will only be compounded with the fiscal restraint and slower economic growth that will be experienced in 2015.
— David Holysh is in his final year of the Master of Public Policy program at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance
Pushing evidence-based performance
The biggest challenge facing public service organizations in 2015 will be ensuring a commitment to evidence-based performance improvement. As of April 1, 2014 federal departments and agencies are expected to have performance agreements implemented as part of government’s efforts to provide ongoing feedback and evaluation of individual employee performance each fiscal year. Yet departments still lack specific mechanisms that would allow them to link overall departmental performance evaluation results and evidence to service improvements and innovation. Departmental performance reports are tailored such that it is extremely difficult for the organization in question to fail to meet the objectives set out in the similarly self-authored Report on Plans and Priorities.
Other types of performance audits occur on an ad-hoc basis and typically examine specific areas where issues are already suspected/known to exist. For example, Auditor General reports tell organizations what they did wrong, but do not give substantial direction on possible actions for improvement, nor is this their role.
However, the issue remains: how will departments effectively link science-based performance evidence to reporting and improvement efforts in order to determine what works? Organizations must be able to determine what limits on service improvement exist outside of the framework of budget-related reporting requirements.
— Naaman Sugrue is a fourth-year Public Administration and Political Science student at the University of Ottawa
Pay equity: Two steps forward, one step back
A major challenge facing the federal government in the coming year is the growing inequality between men and women in the public sector workforce. The “wage gap” in the public service, defined as the difference between the average salary of men and women, shrunk from 13.6% in 2002 to 9.1% in 2012. However, recent legislation threatens to reverse much of this progress. Emphasis has been placed on using the term “equitable compensation” rather than “pay equity.”
These two terms are not interchangeable. Pay equity, unlike equitable compensation, is an internationally defined concept associated with legally defined protections, whereas equitable compensation lacks the same legal capacity. Among other meanings, this word implies that market forces must be considered when determining the value of a job. As the market tends to undervalue female-dominated jobs, the relevant criteria that should be used to determine wages are the individual’s level of ability and skill.
Current restrictions prevent women from addressing the pay differential in two ways. First, only public sector employees who work in sectors in which 70 percent are women are eligible to seek “equitable compensation,” leaving many women unable to address potential inequalities in their pay. Second, methods of appeal are exceptionally critical for women who find themselves in these situations. However, legislation forbids unions to provide any assistance to women seeking to make pay equity complaints. In effect, these women are alone.
Without addressing these barriers to fair compensation, this disparity in wages in the public sector will be entrenched with the consequences being felt, not only in 2015, but also in the years to come.
— Carolyn Phillips and Leonard Hewa are Master of Public Administration candidates at the School of Policy Studies, Queen’s University
Where’s the innovation framework?
The biggest challenge facing public service organizations in 2015 is innovation. It goes beyond the specific challenge of how organizations will create avenues for public servants to be innovative in their respective roles, to the most fundamental aspect of fostering innovation – a framework.
In 2015, public service organizations will need to establish a framework to guide the innovation process so that innovation is not merely a fleeting phenomenon, but rather will become engrained within the organizational structure and operations of the public service.
Innovation is the biggest challenge because of a combination of factors: the growing and diverse demands of citizens; decline in public confidence in government; decreased funding; rapid changes in and greater usage of technology; and increasing importance of stakeholder consultation in policy development and program delivery.
Attempts at innovation in public service organizations have focused too much on incorporating private sector strategies and concepts. 2015 is the defining year whereby innovation will have to be generated by public servants within their organizational structures to ensure that the public service can respond and adapt to all changes in its operating environment.
— Christell Simeon is an Master of Public Administration candidate at Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Regina
Why organizational identity matters
Establishing a public organization’s purpose is a political exercise; communicating this purpose is a managerial responsibility. Organizational identity matters. Conceptually, organizational identity is the degree to which individual feelings of belongingness align with a group’s raison d’être. Practically, high levels of identification allow individuals to personally experience a group’s successes and failures.
Fostering organizational identity in the public service is challenging given the nature of institutional arrangements. Elections, cabinet shuffles and emerging policy issues can significantly alter the mandates, missions and values of public sector organizations. Employees’ identification with their place of work is consequently subject to volatility.
Enhancing organizational identity is important in a competitive labour market. Research suggests that heightened feelings of belongingness boost employee motivation and enhance employee goals. Importantly, both motivation and goal setting are determinants of job performance and job satisfaction.
Following the recent wave of local and provincial elections and the upcoming federal election, public sector managers at all levels of government should consider how their organization’s potentially new identity is communicated to and embraced by their staff. The public sector’s ability to attract and maintain talent in order to develop, implement and evaluate policy just might depend on it.
— Erica Lavecchia has extensive work experience in the Ontario Public Service, and is currently completing the Master of Public Policy degree at the University of Toronto
Engaging today’s young professionals
The greatest challenge Canada’s public service will face in 2015 is creating a work environment that will engage young professionals. Today’s generation of employees are among the most diverse, highly educated, and tech savvy workers in the world. They prefer to collaborate in teams, want choice and flexibility in their work arrangements, and to be constantly challenged.
Although progress has been made toward creating a modern workforce, with the introduction of social media in government and increased emphasis on teamwork, there is still considerable room for improvement. The government has an opportunity to develop new strategies to attract the brightest minds to the public service. It should start by establishing an employment model where employees have multiple opportunities to move across departments, which will foster a culture of continuous learning and development.
Another consideration is to create positions in the public service that will enable them to operate with greater autonomy. By providing employees more responsibility for decisions that affect their work, they will gain confidence and be motivated to work smarter and harder. Furthermore, to enable employees to work efficiently and effectively, the public service needs to adopt new technologies more rapidly. As the baby boomer generation soon retires, it is more important than ever to have a public service that young workers will find meaningful and worthwhile.
— Rajsimran Cheema, BHSc., is a Master of Public Administration candidate at the School of Policy Studies, Queen’s University
Can we capitalize on innovation labs?
The biggest challenge facing the Canadian Public Service in 2015 is capitalizing on the promise of Public Sector Innovation Labs. Innovation Labs within the public service have to prove that they can be places where innovation is an everyday occurrence, rather than an occasional preoccupation. Even more so, the public service will have to answer very serious questions regarding the capacity of Labs to excite politicians, establish clear metrics for innovation, and create a network of Labs across government.
Public servants will have to confront their instincts and take their policy and program concerns to Labs, and fully engage in the exciting and scary prospect of innovation. At the same time, Labs will have to combine their skills in group psychology, complexity theory, design thinking, and computer modeling to properly address the needs of the Canadian public.
In all of the discussion on Innovation Labs, the Canadian public must be the frame of reference. Public Sector Innovation Labs, their clients, and public servants more broadly must ask themselves: “How can we as a collective better cater to the needs of Canadians in a fast-paced and information based society?”
Labs are a great start – let’s get innovating.
— Farees Nathoo is a Political Science and Public Administration student at the University of Ottawa
How has service consolidation effected the frontline?
I would argue that the greatest challenge facing public service organizations in 2015 is the continued fiscal constraints that have resulted in a consolidation of a number of frontline services. Not only does this have an effect on staffing, but it has greater impact on the ways that public services are provided to citizens.
One example of this is in continued cuts to frontline staff in Service Canada and Veteran’s Affairs centres. As staff are reduced due to fiscal constraints, Service Canada is working to move citizens to use online tools, while Veteran’s Affairs services are being consolidated to fewer areas. While this may be a fine solution for younger people who are technologically savvy and live in areas where internet access is not a problem, for many who rely on the services that Service Canada and Veteran’s Affairs provides (i.e., CPP/OAS) access to these technological tools is not as simple.
Not only are jobs being lost, but key portions of a vulnerable population are not being effectively served. Finding a way to mitigate issues of access with financial considerations must be a focus in the future.
— Meaghen Boiteau, MA, is a Master of Public Policy candidate at Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Regina
Can we improve online presence?
2015 will likely be the year that determines whether e-government becomes a central feature of Canadian governance. The greatest challenge for the public sector will be to capitalize on the increasing demand for access to government information and services online. With the creation of online programs like NETFILE and Job Bank, the public service will need to decide what other government services can, and should, be offered online. This needs to be done by considering efficiency, cost-minimization, and information security.
With the challenges of e-government comes the debate about how to present information and data online. Investment in a user-friendly and navigable database of information will help to improve transparency within government and help reinforce accountability. This will require the public sector working alongside government officials to determine what information to publish online, and how best to present it.
Emphasizing the development of e-government does not just mean improving the way information and services are delivered online. Integrating departments and employees online will allow the federal and provincial governments to mitigate voter apathy by providing the opportunity to engage with citizens directly. The public sector’s challenge will be to establish best practices for capitalizing national connectivity in order to gain a better understanding of what Canadians want.
I believe the public sector has significant progress to make in terms of online presence, but also that 2015 will provide an opportunity to improve. The challenge will be to establish a strong and effective presence that adapts to ever-changing technologies and public demands.
— Erik Fraser is a first-year Master of Public Administration student at Dalhousie University