The 2012 budget has come and gone but the huge challenge of implementing its key human resource and programming elements are now underway.

While it is difficult to fully gauge the likely impact of the extensive cuts that were contained in the budget speech and in the implementation bill (C-38), the reality is that the public service of Canada will likely be downsized by much more than the 19,200 jobs that were initially identified as part of the cost-saving exercise. This is because, once the program and operational cuts are fully scoped out by the human resource experts, they will likely find that there are more jobs associated with the program cuts than were originally anticipated.

Regardless of the size of the final personnel cuts, the scale of the exercise is massive given the need to inform all the potentially affected employees, to assess the qualifications for those who are deemed affected, and to inform those whose jobs are being eliminated. The key is to ensure that those remaining can be trained and motivated to deliver high-quality services to the Canadian public. The success of this understanding will depend heavily on how well managers can deal with these employees.

There are primarily three key acts that guide the work of managers in the federal public service: the Public Service Employment Act, the Public Service Labour Relations Act and the Financial Administration Act. They were significantly revised in the early 2000s as part the Chrétien government’s effort to modernize the public service with the passage of the Public Service Modernization Act (PSMA) in 2003.

In 2011, a Review Team led by Susan Cartwright submitted an evaluation report to the President of the Treasury Board that zeroed in on the impact of the PSMA on people management in the federal public service. In her report, she described the PSMA as “the single biggest change to public service human resources management in more than 35 years.”

The 170-page report provides a clearly stated, coherent and comprehensive overview of the state of human resources management in the public service. It portrays the PSMA after five years in operation as having accomplished many important goals to modernize staffing, improve learning opportunities, and transfer the responsibility for people management to the deputy minister community.  

Overall, it concluded that the implementation of the PSMA had gone relatively well. However, it also pointed out some serious problem areas that remain. In particular, Cartwright targeted the lack of a clearly stated vision of the public service, too much uncertainty about the roles and responsibilities of the key players in the HR regime, and the need to improve manager’s attitudes towards the importance of managing people.

Moreover, the review team also noted that “there is a sense of powerlessness” among managers in large part because too little time was spent on a sustained implementation plan. This follows a traditional approach for well-intentioned federal governments to declare a new policy as being successfully implemented the day after the policy is announced. In fact, the Review Team “encountered almost no one who was unequivocally positive about people management in the public service.”

The negative views about people management are because the needed cultural change among managers has not taken place and “there has been a lack of sustained attention to change in part due to a misplaced confidence that the momentum would continue.” In the view of the review team, without a renewed commitment among the leadership cadre, the full potential of the public service will not be realized.

To further underscore the challenges ahead, the team also highlighted that “the combination of accountability and oversight also contributes to risk aversion. The much-heralded flexibility in the legislation is not well articulated and as a consequence, there is reluctance to embrace it, and little evidence of innovation and experimentation on the one hand or sensible standardization on the other.”

The review team report provides the context for the enormous challenges facing the federal public service as it grapples with Budget 2012. The PSMA was designed to liberate the public service from unwieldy and outdated legislation and to encourage the public service to be innovative and creative in fulfilling its mandate to serve the Canadian public. The PSMA provided the tools but at this point they have not been adequately implemented. As a consequence, the layoffs and reorganizations that were announced in the budget will be much harder for managers to implement than the government expects.  

David Zussman holds the Jarislowsky Chair in Public Sector Management and is the director of the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa (