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Members and supporters of the Public Service Alliance of Canada picket outside the Harry Hays federal building during strike action in Calgary, Alta., on April 20.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

William O’Connell is a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto’s department of political science.

A 13.5-per-cent raise over three years, as requested by civil service unions in current negotiations, might seem outrageous to most Canadians, who think these workers are already are overpaid and underworked – and doing a subpar job.

This is misguided. Civil servants have, in fact, long been underpaid. If you have complaints about the quality of federal services, it might be because the government can’t retain its top talent. If we want a better public service, it is in all of our interests that civil servants be paid more.

Salaries for federal bureaucrats have a high floor, but a low ceiling. Pay and growth prospects for early- and mid-career civil servants are uncompetitive, and those who can jump ship have been doing so for the private sector. This starts with the public’s best and brightest, the very Canadians we need to design and implement policies to tackle climate change, affordability, health care and other urgent national priorities. If you think the government is inefficient now, this is why. Further draining its most sought-after employees will only make things worse.

Some might balk at the idea that civil servants are in it for the money. Is serving the country not worth a slight pay cut? Certainly the government pushed this narrative as the Phoenix pay system disaster left countless employees without their paycheques. But this view is naive. You can’t pay a mortgage in Ottawa with prestige, or buy groceries with self-satisfaction. The compensation for federal jobs needs to be lucrative enough to ensure that the best Canadians are applying. Failing to keep pace with inflation is not the way to achieve that.

This does not only apply to the federal bureaucracy. Backbench MPs are paid $194,600. While this might seem like it is already too much, the constituency work backbenchers do is brutal, thankless and absolutely essential. No one runs for office for the money, but it’s similarly naive to think that their pay should not matter. If we want the top people doing this work – and to not burn out after a single term in office – then we need to make the job of representing Canadian communities in Ottawa worth their while.

Also demanded by Public Service Alliance of Canada is clarity on the continuation of fully remote work. This is a no-brainer policy. Tech and financial giants, such as Apple and Royal Bank of Canada, are learning the hard way that forcing a return to the prepandemic status quo is a surefire way to lose your talent. It may be easy to imagine “lazy and overpaid” public servants doing even less work at home, but like their private sector counterparts, the most talented public workers want flexibility, and they will leave if they don’t get it. Again, when they do, it is Canadians who will suffer. More than other management trends – which the public sector is always late to – this is an area where the government cannot afford to be a dinosaur.

Fully remote work would have the added benefit of expanding the pool for these lucrative public service jobs to Canadians outside of the Laurentian corridor. There is plenty of talent in Western and Atlantic Canada and allowing these workers to compete for federal jobs without leaving their home provinces would go a long way toward reducing their alienation from Ottawa. A more representative government is never a bad thing.

Canadians loathe spending money on our civil servants, be they bureaucrats or politicians. But the alternative – the flight of our best talent from the public sector – is worse. Competitive salaries and flexible remote arrangements are necessary for these jobs to compete. If Canadians want quality services, we have to pay for them. And that starts with the people doing the work.

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