Whether through attrition, buyouts or layoffs, the federal public service is about to go through a period of painful downsizing. Three people who used to be in charge of that public service are warning the Conservatives not to repeat the mistakes of their Liberal predecessors.
“What will happen to the hiring of new blood into the public service?” Mel Cappe asked Wednesday. Mr. Cappe was Clerk of the Privy Council, the head of the public service, from 1999 to 2002.
In the mid-1990s, when Ottawa last imposed cuts, the Liberal government of the day enacted a hiring freeze in an effort to find spots for those who were losing their existing jobs. “Over the years we paid a huge price for that by not having new ideas and new talents in the Service,” Mr. Cappe believes.
He recalled scientists at Environment Canada imploring him to make cuts elsewhere in the department so that funds could be freed up to hire the next generation of scientists, which he did.
A great danger when downsizing, whether in the public or private sector, is that the last one hired is often the first one fired. This can lead to a sclerotic organization filled with old thinking that is out of touch with what is happening on the street.
“One of the ways institutions renew themselves is through the constant influx of new blood,” said Alex Himelfarb. He was Clerk of the Privy Council from 2002 to 2006. Because of the 1990s hiring freeze, “the public service went through a period of ‘stable-state stagnation.’ I think a lot of institutions did.”
A major challenge for this government will be finding ways to ease out members of the old guard who are no longer performing at their peak, while finding money to bring in new recruits.
That challenge is compounded by the culture within the federal government, which concentrates ever-more power in ever-fewer hands. Critics accuse the Conservatives of trying to run the entire government out of the Prime Minister’s Office, leaving the bureaucracy adrift and intimidated.
But this is not unique to Ottawa. In capitals across the developed world, the proliferation of media and the presence of access-to-information laws encourage centralized authority.
At the same time a new generation of workers is arriving on the scene who show little patience for strict hierarchies. Raised on the Internet, at home with social media, impatient with 8:30 to 4:30 Monday to Friday at a desk, they are already suspicious of a public service dominated by silos and flow charts.
Getting the best of them to commit to a career – or at least a few years – in the public service is hard enough, even when there’s money, which there won’t be.
Nonetheless, a way must be found. Renewing the public service even as it thins “means continuing to recruit top students from our universities and offering them challenging careers,” maintains Kevin Lynch, who was Clerk from 2006 to 2009.
It also means “tapping into the creativity of public servants” as the government looks to deliver better services for less money, he said.
“Public servants want to make a difference,” Mr. Lynch believes. “And being seen to be able to make such a difference is what attracts creative leaders to the public service.”
The Conservatives are going to have to go against their DNA by giving those who work for them the freedom to do their job better, even if it means the centre isn’t always so tightly in control. Otherwise, less will simply become worse.