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A Canadian flag flies on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
A Canadian flag flies on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Donald Savoie

Frugality once defined the civil service. It needs to be rediscovered Add to ...

Should the government of Canada provide executive development and management courses to its employees? The answer is yes, as all large organizations should. Should the government of Canada have an in-house capacity? The answer is less obvious, but some in-house capacity is desirable because of the unique policy and management challenges that are found in the public sector.

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Should the government of Canada spend $100-million annually on its own school? That seems excessive. A number of small- to mid-sized universities operate on about the same budget. In addition to offering courses in all major disciplines, universities are also expected to produce original research. The Canada School of the Public Service appears to be only a teaching institution. If it has produced research in recent years, it has not gained much visibility and has had no visible impact on the public administration literature.

Though an in-house capacity is important for certain issues, federal public servants would also benefit from a non-Ottawa and non-public service perspective on some topics. It would encourage senior public servants to view old problems from a different light and connect with non-public servants. It would be interesting to know how much the government spends on training and development over and above what it allocates every year to its School.

That the school appears to have violated proper contracting practices is simply unacceptable. It also speaks to a wider problem: That retired senior public servants, all enjoying generous pensions and other advantages and benefits, are able to enjoy $80,000 plus contracts for half-time work can only hurt further the credibility of the federal public service. That these contracts were awarded without following proper procedures will lead many taxpayers to conclude that the federal public service has lost its compass and its ability to guide its members on values, ethics and integrity.

At my university, a retired professor invited to teach a course to accommodate the department because of a sabbatical leave or other unforeseen developments, is paid $4,000 for the course. Retired professors do not enjoy indexed pensions, continued health care advantages or other benefits. The $4,000 includes both preparation and teaching time. Canadian universities are public sector institutions where the profit motive is absent.

There was a time when public service was a vocation, an opportunity to serve Canadians, and frugality was one of its defining characteristics. The Canadian public service can once again establish credibility with Canadians and enjoy their support if it rediscovers its traditional values.

Countless exercises and several high-profile reports on values and ethics in the federal public service generated in recent years costing millions are also not the answer. These reports do not square with developments at the School and other recent developments at Revenue Canada, Public Works and Government Services, and Immigration, among others.

Canadians have different expectations for the public sector than they have for the private sector. In the private sector, market forces and the bottom line will deal with excessive spending and perks. In the public sector, we expect senior public servants to establish frugal administrative policies and guidelines and to respect them. The Canada School of the Public Service surely should be leading the charge on the practical applications of values and ethics in government and not engage in the practice of “do as I tell you, not as I do.”

Donald J. Savoie is Canada Research Chair in public administration and governance, Université de Moncton

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