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Despite Liberal attestations of fiscal restraint, the hiring spree of the federal civil service continues apace, hitting record heights in fiscal 2023, and on track to equal that performance this year.

Ottawa added 21,290 people to its payroll in the last fiscal year, including hiring within the core civil service and federal agencies. Since fiscal 2015, the last full year of the Harper government, the ranks of civil servants have risen by 100,213, a jump of 39 per cent.

The hiring spree has continued in the current fiscal year; the public service added 3,310 permanent employees in the first quarter, at a slightly faster pace than in the previous full fiscal year. And that is happening even as the Liberals contend they are squeezing the federal budget for dollars to be redeployed to key program priorities.

Those numbers are breathtaking, and made all the more gasp-inducing since they do not include the swollen bill for consultants and other spending on outsourced services. But the accelerating growth in the size of the federal government is not so much a problem as the most obvious symptom of Ottawa’s bureaucratic malaise.

For a start, the hiring spree underscores the omnidirectional nature of government spending under the Liberals. Numbers have increased in the vast majority of government departments, even where there is no obvious policy reason.

It’s one thing for the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change to bulk up by 27 per cent since 2015, given the Liberals’ focus on carbon pricing and green technologies. But what about the Canadian Dairy Commission, which expanded by 30 per cent over the same period? Are there resource-intensive milk-pricing initiatives that the government is keeping under wraps?

The brief period of modest austerity initiated by the Harper Conservatives came to a conspicuous end once the Liberals took office. By the end of fiscal 2019, the Liberals had more than reversed the Tories’ cuts. And then they kept on hiring. That rather undercuts the claim from the government’s supporters that the Trudeau Liberals have simply undone the misguided cutbacks of the Harper Conservatives.

The government points out that the size of the federal civil service has risen along with a growing population, but that defence also falls flat.

In fiscal 2023, Canada’s population grew by 2.4 per cent. The number of civil servants jumped by 6.3 per cent, growing nearly three times as fast. More fundamentally, the metric doesn’t make much sense.

In any case, Ottawa doesn’t do much in the way of direct program delivery that would justify the scale of hiring. Does the Department of Finance (up 22 per cent since 2015) need to expand in line with population growth?

Unbound by any real fiscal constraints, the Trudeau government has simply opened the taps on hiring. Finding efficiencies and squeezing the most value possible out of a taxpayer dollar? So old school.

Instead, any problem in government is a reason to further accelerate hiring. One need look no further than the service debacle with passports in 2022. Employment and Social Development Canada had already increased its staffing substantially, but the political heat from mounting passport waits resulted in a new wave of hires.

That might have been justified in the moment, to address unacceptably long wait times. But there has been no indication of any effort by the department to smooth out its processes so it can shed those added positions. Instead, ESDC grew, adding 3,374 in fiscal 2023 (for its entire operation).

Passport wait times have since snapped back to within service standards. But doing about the same job with far more resources is a quick route to a pink slip in the private sector. It should not be acceptable in the public service.

Lastly, the federal government’s hiring spree has coincided with increasing centralization in Ottawa. Close to half of the federal civil service works in the National Capital Region of Ottawa-Gatineau. Donald Savoie, Canada Research Chair in public administration and governance at the University of Moncton, told the Globe that in the 1970s, less than 30 per cent of the federal bureaucracy worked in the NCR.

Unfocused spending, a lack of respect for taxpayer dollars, an absence of basic management rigour, and empire-building: those are the problems plaguing the Liberal government. Those soaring payrolls are just the inevitable result.

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