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Office buildings are seen in the downtown core of Ottawa, Ont., on June 7, 2022.Spencer Colby/The Globe and Mail

The federal public service reached a record size last year as the amount of jobs filled through non-advertised posts soared to nearly three times the level prior to the election of the Liberal government in 2015.

In addition, more public servants switched jobs, resigned or were investigated than at any time during the Trudeau government’s mandate, new statistics from the Public Service Commission of Canada show.

The commission’s annual report, tabled last month in Parliament, says the size of the federal public service reached 274,219 employees at the end of the most recent fiscal year on March 31, 2023, as defined by the Public Service Employment Act. That was up 6.5 per cent year over year and 40.4 per cent higher than the end of the 2014-15 fiscal year.

That’s consistent with figures published by the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat last year showing that total public-service employment, including departments and agencies not included in the PSC count, increased over the same period by 39 per cent, to 357,247 people, also a record.

According to the commission, the government hired 71,200 external employees during the 2022-23 fiscal year, nearly 10 per cent more than during the previous year. A PSC staffing data website shows that 59.3 per cent of external hires and internal promotions that year were done through non-advertised processes.

That share of total hiring and promotion activities done without advertised postings has climbed every year since 2014-15 when it was just 21.7 per cent.

The growing size of the public service has been accompanied by higher spending, notably a 30.9-per-cent jump in personnel expenditures in 2021-22 from two years earlier, the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer said in a 2023 report. Government-wide spending on professional and special services also grew by 14.7 per cent per year on average over the two years, reaching $17.5-billion in 2021-22, the PBO found.

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That pace was more than three-times faster than historical trends and brought the government under scrutiny over questions about its reliance on outside consulting firms and allegations of misconduct involving an outsourced information technology project at Canada Border Services Agency, which is being investigated by the RCMP.

The government pledged last year to reduce the use of outside consultants, part of an effort by Treasury Board President Anita Anand to deliver $15.4-billion in spending cuts over five years.

“The obvious question from a citizen taxpayer point of view is, ‘We have 40 per cent more people in government, am I getting 40 per cent faster service?’ I don’t think most people feel that value for money,” said Aaron Wudrick, director of domestic policy with the independent non-partisan Macdonald-Laurier Institute think tank in Ottawa.

“It seems to me you either want to retain that expertise outside or inside government and yet they seem to be spending more in both areas.”

He added: “There are obviously choices this government has to make” with higher interest rates and after years of deficits. “They’ve started to make some signals they will have a bit of fiscal retrenchment. We haven’t seen that play out in terms of hard numbers. I think the budget will be a big signal as to whether they’ll actually change direction or continue on this path.”

Donald Savoie, Canada Research Chair in public administration and governance at the University of Moncton, said he was troubled by the fact that overall employment in the National Capital Region of Ottawa-Gatineau has continued to creep up as a share of total PSC-tracked employment, to 47.6 per cent. It was less than 30 per cent four decades ago, and is closer to 20 per cent now in the capital regions of other countries, including the United States, Britain, France and Australia.

“I think that’s something Canadians should be concerned about because the points of service and program delivery happen at the community, regional and provincial level,” he said. With the dwindled share of federal employment outside Ottawa “it’s not a surprise the quality of service delivery will go down.”

Nearly 37 per cent of federal public servants were either promoted, appointed to acting positions or moved to other positions in the past fiscal year, the highest level since 2013-14, PSC data show. There were 5,089 resignations from the public service in the most-recent fiscal year, up by 24 per cent from the previous year, which in turn was 36.7 per cent higher than during 2020-21.

By contrast, there were 2,050 resignations in 2014-15. Retirements in the past two years also reached multiyear highs during a period referred to as The Great Resignation, in which many people quit their jobs after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, the number of investigations launched by the commission into staffing irregularities and allegations of improper political activities by public servants more than tripled last year to 109 from 34 the prior year.

Most of the increase was related to alleged errors, omissions or improper conduct in an external-appointment process, which increased to 66 from eight the year before. There were 14 investigations launched into alleged fraud, up by 40 per cent, and 29 for improper political activities, up 81 per cent. Also during the 2022-23 fiscal year, the commission completed 173 investigations, 188 per cent more than 2021-22.

For the fifth straight year, total applications for public-service jobs topped 1 million, although the number of applications through the Federal Student Work Experience Program dropped by 33.9 per cent to 88,865.

Despite the scarcer applicant pool, the government hired 17.4-per-cent more people through the student program, or 8,919 people, compared with the previous year, with the number of hires self-declaring as disabled, Indigenous or members of a visible minority increasing by 36 per cent, 10.7 per cent and 22.2 per cent, respectively.

The strong interest in government employment shows it “has always offered a different value proposition in terms of work-life balance and job security and a pension,” Mr. Wudrick said.

“The pandemic and the ability to work remotely has created a huge surge in demand for public-sector work. I think that is a good thing, we want it to be highly competitive to work in the public sector,” he said. “But that only holds if the government doesn’t continue to just create jobs and inflate the size of the public sector for its own sake.”

By contrast, just 241 medically released veterans were appointed to public-service roles in 2022-23 under a preferential hiring act enacted in mid-2015, down 27 per cent year over year. It was the fifth-straight year of declines; in 2017-18, 545 veterans were hired through the initiative.

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