Going to war with the public service is not a path to political success, according to a new survey of Canadian attitudes about federal government workers.
Respondents overwhelmingly prefer co-operation over conflict when it comes to politicians and public servants.
Tensions are running high between federal Conservatives and the public service as federal workers across the country face spending cuts and layoffs. When asked to choose which side contributes more to the country’s best interests, a Nanos Research survey shows public servants win by a narrow margin. However, a greater number favoured neither.
“The reputation of public servants is not great at this particular point in time,” pollster Nik Nanos said. “There’s no moral high ground for anyone.”
The survey indicates the general cynicism of the public, which is being fed a steady diet of labour strife and verbal jabs between government workers and politicians.
At the federal level, Conservatives have picked battles with public servants in watchdog roles, such as Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page and Elections Canada. But in their efforts to justify the need to cut 19,200 public service jobs, the government has avoided deriding public servants generally.
Some public-service unions have adopted increasingly provocative tactics to protest against spending cuts. The Public Service Alliance of Canada, the largest union of federal workers, distributes buttons to members that say “Stephen Harper hates me,” which some employees have worn to the office.
With these stories playing out in the background, Nanos Research asked 1,000 Canadians aged 18 and over for their thoughts on the civil service.
The online survey, which was conducted Oct. 13 and 14, found Canadians just want both sides to get along.
Fully 70.4 per cent of respondents sided with the statement that “a collaborative working relationship between elected officials and civil servants creates good public policy.” Only 8.6 per cent chose the other option, which was that “tension between elected officials and civil servants creates good public policy.” The remaining 21 per cent said they were unsure.
The federal government is the biggest employer in Canada and provides a wide range of jobs. However, the survey was focused on civil servants who work in government “and their role in the public policy process,” which Mr. Nanos said survey participants likely would have assumed to mean more senior officials rather than front-line workers.
Canadians generally have a favourable, but not glowing, view of public servants. On a scale of one to 10 in terms of how respondents rate their impression of civil servants’ role in developing public policy, the average answer was 6.81.
When asked which of the following work for the immediate best interests of the country, 13.1 per cent said elected officials, 14 per cent said civil servants, 28.2 per cent said both, 23.4 per cent said neither and 21.3 per cent said they were unsure.
Support for civil servants increased when the question asked about who works for the long-term best interests of the country. To that question, 13 per cent said elected officials, 18.2 per cent said civil servants, 26.3 per cent said both, 21.6 per cent said neither and 20.9 per cent said they were unsure.
Mr. Nanos said the government appears to know there are political limits to picking fights with bureaucrats and has tailored its message accordingly.
“I think the government, by focusing on what they believe as ‘right-sizing’ the civil service to a new mandate in the future, feel that that’s a little more politically defensible than what I’ll [call] a slash-and-burn narrative,” he said.