This is National Public Service Week, in case you didn’t know. But federal public servants can be excused if they aren’t feeling the love, not from the Harper government and possibly not from the general public.
The government chose this celebratory week to announce it will try to rein in unused sick days that public servants “bank,” even if not ill. This follows major changes, heralded by Treasury Board President Tony Clement, in the form of new performance management directives designed to weed out subpar performers. “Either poor performers improve and become productive employees or we will let them go,” the minister declared in a speech three weeks ago.
In addition, the government has indicated it will get involved where it feels necessary in negotiations between employees and the CBC, Canada Post and other Crown corporations – a clear indication that the government believes management doesn’t take a tough-enough line in labour negotiations.
In his speech, Mr. Clement said that “our most valued asset is our people” and offered other salves to federal public servants, the vast majority of whom “do a good job and are hard-working.” At the same time, Mr. Clement and his colleagues are eliminating thousands of public-service positions while taking $5-billion out of government operations.
Just what effect these reductions will have on service is largely unclear. With typical bafflegab, the government insists that all this money can be saved through “efficiency,” “refocusing” and other expressions of splendid imprecision. Obviously, service will be affected, especially when programs are eliminated or scaled back. To say otherwise is flim-flammery.
The Parliamentary Budget Office has been trying to gauge the impact of these cuts, without much success. Only a minority of departments have responded to the PBO’s request for detailed information, hardly surprising from a government that’s tight with information at the best of times and hates the PBO for all its direct and implied criticism.
Relations between the Harper government and the public service have been strained from the beginning. In too many instances, evidence-based advice has been trampled by ideology. Upon being elected, the government introduced the Accountability Act, a sweeping series of measures predicated on the proposition that public servants couldn’t be trusted and needed new procedures and bodies to watch over them.
The predictable result was the current profusion of procedures, a reticence to take chances and a keep-your-head-down attitude. To this was added widespread dismay at the belittling of evidence, the muzzling of scientists and the elimination of Statistics Canada’s long-form census. Everywhere, spin disseminated by the Prime Minister’s Office prevented public servants from explaining government policy factually. Public servants were ordered not to speak to the media, and their comments to other groups outside government were carefully vetted. In many cases, public servants felt their expertise undervalued, their loyalty made suspect.
The government is right to focus on certain aspects of collective bargaining agreements, such as banked sick days (properly under assault for teachers in Ontario). Government employment numbers tend to grow like Topsy over time. Trimming them back is no bad thing. Trying to develop and implement genuine performance measures – and apply them – is easier to say than to do.
What has largely been displayed in this downsizing exercise is a reluctance by the government to eliminate programs and a preference to make ongoing ones work with fewer employees. For example, the government has not closed any overseas embassies, but it has taken staff away from many and shifted work (such as visa approvals) among them. Eliminating something entirely causes headlines and opposition; trimming gets employee groups upset but doesn’t generate as much public controversy, especially if packaged as efficiency gains.
Pockets of employee resistance have emerged. Certain Foreign Affairs employees are working to rule because they insist their pay is not commensurate with comparable work elsewhere in government. By and large, however, the government’s policies toward the public service have met little organized resistance. Perhaps the public service doesn’t command the support it needs among the general “public.”