Celebrating Public Service


Public servants celebrating the enrolment of 5 million citizens in the Ontario Hospital Insurance Plan (1959, Archives of Ontario)

Notes for talk at Public Policy Forum Dinner, April 11, 2013

I am delighted to be here with family, friends and colleagues this evening – an evening that can only be understood as a celebration of Canada’s public service. Such celebrations are pretty rare these days though the public service is an institution that deserves celebrating, and may need it now more than ever.

My hunch is that I can speak for all the former clerks here this evening that for us public service was deeply satisfying, a privilege, a source of pride, an opportunity to make a difference. Public service was more often than not fulfilling, and, believe it or not, even fun.

I wonder what proportion of public servants would say this today.

Things were much easier for us. Public service was more valued. Public servants were treated with respect. Politicians sometimes got angry at our advice but they kept asking. The media often ignored us – we liked that – but they sometimes reminded Canadians that we existed and that we mattered. When I left academics to join the federal public service, I didn’t have to explain my decision. My friends and colleagues didn’t think it was strange. They thought joining the public service was worthy, maybe important, at the very least, respectable.

Things do seem different today. The public service is no less important but it sure seems more than ever under attack and from every side. Less valued. Less trusted. More under the gun. It must be less fun.

I know I have to be careful here. I’m aware that as the distance increases from my time in public service, I become increasingly vulnerable to the seductions of nostalgia. When I was in public service nothing annoyed me more than former public servants telling us how bad things had become. How much better things were when they were in charge. Oblivious to the present, to the challenges we faced, they often urged us to find solutions in the past – a past of their own invention. The historian Charley Maier once described nostalgia as history without guilt, where we exaggerate the good and filter out the bad, history as we wish it had been. The public service doesn’t need more nostalgia.

It certainly doesn’t need more critics. Almost every day another article tells us that our public service is broken. Public service has to act more like a business, say some. Public service is trying too hard to be like a business, say others. Public service is too risk averse and must be more innovative say some. Public service makes too many mistakes say others so we need more oversight, more control, less risk.

The advice is often contradictory; the tone is increasingly derisive. In the media and popular discourse, the words “public service” have been replaced by the phrase “bloated bureaucracy”. It seems one cannot utter the word “bureaucracy” if it isn’t preceded by the word “bloated”. Public service is described increasingly as overhead, a drain on the economy rather than a competitive advantage. This derisiveness is wrong. It is dangerous for Canada. I do not intend to join that chorus.

Everyone in this room knows that the public service is vitally important. It is, we know, the police, the soldiers, the firefighters, the healthcare providers and the teachers. it is also the folk who negotiate our international deals, write and enforce our laws and regulations, help us when we are in trouble overseas, keep our food and drugs and kids’ toys safe, maintain our parks and wilderness areas, help our artists and make sure that Canadians have access to Canadian perspectives. It is the people who deliver our benefits and help those in need, and yes, collect our taxes – to the extent they can.

The public service is also a key source of policy advice, different from those who are focused on re-election or who are committed to the prevailing ideology. Public servants try at least to suspend their biases, to offer advice based on evidence and direct experience. After all they live and work in every part of Canada and the world, delivering our policies and programs. It would be strange not to want the benefits of that experience.

Simply, the public service continues to be critically important to our quality of life, to our economic performance and to our international standing. We have to stop treating this vital institution as overhead.

Let me give you an example. The Fraser Institute recently published a report suggesting that public servants were being paid more than their private sector counterparts. This report came out at the same time as the annual publication of the “sunshine list” of Ontario public servants earning more than one hundred thousand dollars. This is all well and good. Compensation must be just and fair. These are fair questions and the more transparency the better.

Just the same, the Ottawa Citizen’s Glen McGregor, in one of his excellent blog posts, reversed the tables and published the Fraser sunshine list. McGregor reported on the considerable, though no doubt well-earned, salaries of the Fraser Institute researchers and executive, reminding us as well that taxpayers also subsidize this organization and therefore these considerable salaries. The Institute responded, appropriately, that they are competing for talent in a global market, and to get excellence they have to pay for it. No dispute there. Would that they had added a similar note in their report on public service pay. The failure even to consider what it takes to attract and retain excellence in the public service is illustrative of a larger problem: the devaluing of public service, looking only at what it costs, not what it gives.

Of course the public service, at every level, must change with changing times. All large organizations in every sector are working out how to make the transition from the old bureaucratic models, closed systems where authority came with position, and information was tightly controlled, to more open network models, where authority is earned and information shared.

The public service faces particular challenges. Today’s public issues are more complex, often with no historical precedent, and with multiple poles of conflict. And trust in government – and therefore public service – is arguably at an all time low. You cannot build a resilient, lean, open organization on a foundation of distrust. Distrust is every bit as damaging as blind deference. Distrust leads to ever more layers of costly and stifling control and to a culture of fear.

On top of tougher issues and declining trust, every public service is also dealing with endless incremental cutting – relentless, often nickel and dime cutting, with no end in sight, that feeds insecurity, makes excellence in delivery more difficult, and pushes public servants to focus internally when they need to be looking outward and to the long-term.

In short, I expect it’s a lot harder to serve these days, and a lot harder to have fun doing so.

Of course it is right and proper to ask what should be the role of government, how big should government be, and how do we get the best results at the lowest cost. Indeed there are no doubt savings to be had in transforming the public service and cutting the costly layers of control that reduce efficiency and stifle innovation.

But we should free ourselves from the mythology that government has in recent times become over-large and unaffordable. In fact the growth of public service has not been keeping pace with the growth in population. Public servants are a declining portion of the workforce and government spending is becoming a much smaller part of our economy. The cost of direct federal government spending as a percentage of GDP keeps hitting new lows, so too federal revenues. Public servants are pretty frugal. And as economists such as Hugh Mackenzie have documented, the public services we get for our taxes are one of the last great bargains.

Yes, the public service must change. Yes, it must help close the distance between government and citizen. It must be more creative. It must be more open. The public service has risen to the challenge of reinventing itself more than once in our history and, of course, will do so again. But that can happen only when we all recognize its value, only when we all stop treating it as overhead but rather as a key competitive advantage, key to our past success and key to our future. Only when we stop treating every mistake as an opportunity to berate the institution and public servants. Mistakes are inevitable especially as public service transforms itself. Accountability must not be reduced to naming and blaming. A creative organization will take reasoned risks and learn from good-faith mistakes.

We need to revalue the public service and those who work within it. Somebody has to stand up for the public service, its contribution, its importance, its value. Public servants cannot do this themselves. Even former public servants are suspect. The people in this room, however, leaders from every other sector of Canadian society, can do this. Can speak out. Can stand up for public service.

It is in all of our interests.

Thank you for this evening of celebration.

76 Responses to “Celebrating Public Service”
  1. Graham Stewart says:

    Parliament can recess for months at a time while the country goes on without any obvious negative effects. One could not say the same, however, for the Public Service. Yet it is the politicians who too often feed into and repeat the derogatory perception of the service that they created and depend on every day. It is one thing for a pundit to say outrageous things but when the politicians do it, they abuse their position and do a great disservice to the public while creating an increasingly toxic workplace environment. That can only stand in the way of the sort of thoughtful public sector reform that is needed.

    • himelfarb says:

      Always great to hear from you Graham. Advice needs an audience willing to engage – that’s for sure. Thoreau once said something like it takes two to tell the truth = one to say but equally one to hear it – while no one has a monopoly on truth – decisions are best when informed by the best evidence and the best, even if sometimes unwelcome, advice reflecting the evidence and diverse experience.

  2. Nicole McDougall says:

    Bravo!!! Wonderful speech…thank you so much for cheering and remembering all those that are dedicated to serve our country. I am proud to be a Public Servant.

  3. Beijing York says:

    Excellent speech, Alex! I still have my National Public Service Week cloth bag; the slogan reads “Proudly Serving Canadians” in purple ink over a golden maple leaf (no partisan colours) and lists its principles: Leadership, Action, Renewal, Energy, Learning, Expertise, Values and Excellence. That certainly was another age.

    One uptick of late, more and more Canadians are finally realizing that the federal public service includes scientists, archivists and librarians, technicians, statisticians and inspectors – valued professionals who are either being laid off, retired or muzzled. The recent cuts run so deep that the services lost are meat and potatoe items easily understood like meat inspection, arctic melt monitoring, fisheries habitat protection, search and rescue, transportation safety, etc. Unfortunately, trying to restore what is dust binned is an unpalatable challenge for future governments. To quote Joni Mitchell:

    Don’t it always seem to go
    That you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone
    They paved paradise and put up a parking lot

    • himelfarb says:

      Love Joni (and BY) but remain an optimist. A government that wants to take on the big challenges will HAVE to renew and reenergize the public service. Thanks BY.

    • himelfarb says:

      But you are right that it would take real political courage to begin to fix this and in the meantime Canadians will pay the price and the most vulnerable have already been paying a heavy price.

  4. Lorne says:

    It is always a pleasure to read your posts and to hear you speak, Alex. I am sending my son, who is now a public servant in Alberta, a link to your post. In a country where public service in recent years has been persistently denigrated and defamed, it is important that people learn the facts in a positive context.

  5. Lorna Marsden says:

    Alex, I had the pleasure of hearing your speech and thought it struck just the right note. But what an assignment! Five former Clerks and what could one possibly say? That was above and beyond the call of post-Clerk duty!

  6. Ian says:

    A nice genteel speech delivered to a (presumably) nice genteel crowd. Lots of motherhood statements. I hope it was written in code.

    I think what is going on in Canada is that our society as a whole is being devalued. Attacks on benefits, health care, First Nations, women and labour, to name just few of the groups being attacked. And as goes Canadian society, so goes the public service. – both are seamlessly entangled. You can call these attacks neo-conversatism, neo-liberalism, Randism, Thatcherism or whatever you want. It is all the same in the end – a cruel, mean-spirited and, ultimately, anti-social ideology.

    I don’t think the current leaders in any sphere within society can find solutions to these issues. The leaders are either aiding the implementation of this draconian ideology or trying to fight the insanity. In both cases, they are failing. I believe that the meaningful solutions to our societal problems will have to come from the people.

    • himelfarb says:

      Hi Ian. I agree that the problems I raised in this admittedly “genteel” speech can be traced to the rise of market individualism and the withering of the common good, and yes, real change will start outside conventional political institutions. I do care in the interim about the state of the public service which still matters profoundly.

      • Ian says:

        Hey Alex. I think that even in the interim, the public service is lost. The extremist globalist economic forces fighting against the Canadian confederation, Canadian citizens and the public service will overwhelm all defenses. After all, the Canadian government is actively collaborating with the globalist forces, so victory against them now seems improbable.

        At this stage in the war, I think a strategic retreat is necessary. It is time to regroup, develop alliances between ordinary Canadians, First Nations and other disenfranchised groups before we begin the battle against our own government. I hope the battle is non-violent.

        After we win the battles and the war, we can restructure Canadian society and the public service properly. And we can have a bronze sculpture struck in our honour.

  7. Mark Hammer says:

    Thanks for that, Alex. I doubt I shall see it linked to or reposted anywhere during National Public Service Week, except perhaps on union websites.

    And that is, perhaps, symptomatic of something deeper, and more deeply troubling: it doesn’t seem to be the job of anyone in Parliament, the PCO, or TBS, to defend public servants anymore. That role has been outsourced to the unions. Not that unions shouldn’t have that role, but there is a painful empty feeling when few of the folks one is supposed to be loyally serving are willing to stand up and say “These are my people, and they deserve our respect.”

    While at one level, I can see how the tying of budget reductions to EX at-risk (“performance”) pay was treated as a necessary tool for eliciting action, at the same time, you can’t help but wonder at the manner in which it allows an adversarial relationship between leaders and the public servants who work for them, to seep in, both in trickle-down AND trickle-up fashion. And when we stop paying attention to things that might potentially impair a productive relationship between public servants, and the government and nation they serve, we’re headed for trouble.

    I recall well, a talk by John Raulston Saul, I attended a decade back (while Madame Clarkson was GG), in which he expressed his contempt for the use of the term “client” in public service. He argued (quite convincingly) that the notion of public servants serving “clients”, and all of that New PUblic Management-speak that accompanied it, eroded the role of citizens helping and serving fellow citizens. In a sense, it damaged the notion of collectivity, replacing it with a dispassionate business transaction.

    And when citizens do not feel like they are being served by fellow citizens, you can’t help but wonder how seriously they will take their citizenship.

    • himelfarb says:

      Very well said but very troubling indeed. Time for politicians, business leaders, journalists to add their voices in support of the honour of public service.

  8. Thanks so much for this, Alex. Desperately needed validation in these times of ongoing attacks on public servants. This article has already been circulated quite widely within my little nook in government, and I will share it further. It deeply resonates with my own feelings about the value of the work that we do every day to serve our fellow citizens.

    • himelfarb says:

      Thank you George – I am glad that it has validated your commitment to service and the value of your work – that means a lot to me.

    • Ian says:

      I admire the public servants who are working through this difficult time, serving Canadians. My father told me, before he died, that the most satisfying flying he ever did was medical evacuations from the north. He said the flying was tricky, but the intangible rewards he received by helping his fellow citizens was immense.

  9. Much of what’s happening to Public Services [and by extension Public Servants] is driven by short-sighted political expedience and myopic business’ refusal to sacrifice part of their profit margins to remain competitive. Politicians promise not to raise taxes, but still insist on pork-barreling in their own constituencies to glean future voter support, that money comes from across-the-board cuts to generalized services. Business ventures point at “un-affordable” benefits/salaries of Public Servants as being unfair competition, but refuse to provide even reasonable healthcare benefits to workers they claim are “a dime a dozen” because it would cut into their profit margin [not bankrupt them, just reduce their profit].

    The concept of the “common good” has given way to the almighty dollar. Rather than raise a few up to decent conditions, the drive is to strive for the lowest common denominator in the quest for ever more profits, without realizing said profits come from consumers that have money to spend and benefits that protect that money from unforeseen illnesses. Once the CFIB and their ilk achieve what they think they want, they’ll find their profits gone instead of slightly reduced, but it will be too late.

    I would much prefer that politicians promise to better manage the taxes they take in and if necessary for the greater good, raise them, than the current hack-and-slash. Visionary Governments put aside money for long-term infrastructure maintenance and emergency preparedness, foolhardy Governments stop that funding and dip into those funds for other “priorities” that will get them re-elected.

    I have never been more afraid for Canada as when Mr. Harper announced [proudly] that we would not recognize her when he was done… Sadly, he appears to be succeeding.

  10. anonymous says:

    Hold on. The sanity will return.

  11. Ian says:

    Complete album (except for ‘Burn Down the Cornfield’, above. Songs that commit sociology.

  12. Lynn says:

    Hi Alex,
    Our Clerk Wayne Wouters announced today the latest plans to set a vision and create an Action Plan entitled Blueprint 2020. Although details were sparse in terms of objectives, timelines, etc, – I was so encouraged to see and read via Twitter the enthusiasm and energy of so many, many government workers – all eager to participate in an effort to shape the Public Service for the future!
    Hope is in the air!
    I love your blog posts and look forward to reading the comment section also.
    Thanks so much,
    Lynn 😉

    • himelfarb says:

      Thanks Lynn. I am not surprised that so many public servants get excited about shaping the future. There’s a hunger. And thank you for your kind comments.

      • Ian says:

        I think the that only way there will be a positive outcome for the Canadian people and the public service is when the Reformers are voted out of office and Wayne is cashiered. ‘Blueprint 2020’ is a kind of joke.

      • Ian says:

        I do not know the specifics of the blueprint plan that Lynn refers to, but I do doubt that any legislation, policy or plan created by the Harperites, or their senior collaborators, will have the genuine well being of ordinary Canadians in mind.

      • Mark Hammer says:

        For those of us who have lived through PS 2000, La Relève, the “war for talent”, and all the perpetual “PS Renewal” talk, it starts to feel like one of those stores you see everywhere with a “Going out of business, everything must go!” sign. After the first 8 months, you begin to doubt the veracity of the sign, particularly when they get new stock in.

        You won’t find a stronger supporter of a vital public service than myself, but all of this perpetual renewal/building/blueprint stuff has the subtext that what we currently have is simply not enough….particularly when coupled with Mr. Clement’s recent announcement of utilizing performance reviews to “get rid of poor performers”. When are we ever going to “get there”, and how would we know?

        Some 10 or 11 years ago, I gave a presentation at CCMD on the lack of, benefits of, and need for, “wisdom transfer” within the PS, particularly given the imminent departure of so many long-timers. In the intervening period, there has been little in the way of counter-examples. (Indeed, that paper has been buried deep within the bowels of Library and Archives digital holdings, never to be seen again.). Most federal libraries have been eliminated, and we don’t seem to grasp the difference between research and mere reporting anymore (hermeneutics, shmermeneutics! Get me a briefing note on what New Zealand and the UK are doing!). Those on the management track, eager to look good to those who will promote them, rely on the blind unquestioning enthusiasm of newcomers to help them accomplish that task.

        The “future” is here…NOW. How do you like it, Lynn? Sorry to be so cynical, but as the old school borscht-belt comedians used to say “What am I? Chopped liver?”. I welcome new folks with open arms, and will happily do what I can to make them more capable (and probably get promoted ahead of me), but for me the question/task is NOT building the PS of the future, but taking stock of what we already know and learned from the PS of the past and present, and ADDING to that.

        There will be stupidities and obstacles that will likely never go away, no matter how far off into the future we gaze:
        – the “hurry up and wait” ethos that gives people unreasonable deadlines only to have to wait for something to go through endless layers of approval by people too busy to give it;
        – the fear-of-lapsing that results in short-sighted planning;
        – the pernicious mobility of the high-flyers that saddle others with their brilliant ideas and then move on;
        – the near-feudal relationship between senior management and front-line folks that blocks any useful upward feedback from ever reaching those who make decisions;
        – the what-was-mission-critical-on-Friday-is-old-news-on-Monday that happens whenever there is a change in leadership at any level, be it DG, ADM, DM, cabinet minister, or Government…
        …and so much more.

        The PS is an organization that is subject to a number of perpetual “wicked problems” (to use a Paquet-ism) that won’t go away, no matter how many “new and improved!” stickers we put on it. I, for one, don’t get suckered in by any future-oriented messages. Take stock of what we have, acknowledge what doesn’t work, VALUE what DOES work, make the best use of it and figure out how to avoid the traps. And remember that the regions are not the NCR!

  13. Lynn says:

    Thank you Mark! You are certainly one contributor who I thought of when I stated that I look forward to reading comments almost as much as Alex’ blog posts 😉

    I am struck by the common sense statements in the last two paragraphs of your reply – your skeletal outline is more of a framework than what has been shared with us to date on Blueprint 2020!

    I am swallowing that cynical voice inside of me in responding positively to this latest initiative, as I too fear many of my colleagues are ‘fatigued’ with yet another change or renewal request…

    Perhaps this will be a topic for a future blog post Alex?

    Thanks again,

    • Mark Hammer says:

      Thank you, Lynn. I hope it wasn’t too jaundiced on my part.
      I won’t say the best is behind us, OR that the best is yet to come. I just think we have a pretty damn fine country, with a pretty damn fine public service. It took us this far (same way we got to the moon without smartphones OR the internet), and with a few small warts and blemishes, where we are is worth praising. If other folks want to hop on board and join the team, welcome! I just want to make the best use of what we already have, and don’t want to devalue and demotivate those already committed to the mission by portraying the “future” as some sort of New Jerusalem.

      As for the Clerk, well, it’s a tough gig, and whether any given clerk is “in the mood”, busy with something else, or inspired or not, they are expected to issue some sort of statement prior to National Public Service Week. Mr. Wouters did his job. I won’t fault him for it. I just don’t expect to be inspired by it.

      • Ian says:

        “Lynn: I am swallowing that cynical voice inside of me….”

        I cannot swallow the idea of the rich justifying their existence by exploiting the poor.

        But that’s what it’s all about,

  14. Ian says:

    Hey Mark

    The Reformists got caught up in the scandal of their public greed. Nothing new there. But they have reacted inappropriately. They just deny, when they should be accountable to Canadians.

    However, the public service has (so far) remained a non-partisan organization, and will remain non-partisan through these scandals. The public service, and all Canadian institutions, will survive these scandals. On the other hand, the Reform party, the authors of these scandals, will be destroyed.

    Because, hey man, they went over the line during league play (apology to Smokey for using him as a Reformist metaphor).

    • Mark Hammer says:

      Thanks, Ian. I think every party needs to remember that the institutions they participate in will always outlast the partisan interests of any party or advocacy group, regardless of where they are on the political spectrum. Which, to me, means that you always make decisions that serve to support, dignify, and enrich the institution. Never confuse the public interest with partisan interest.

      And, while I appreciate the thought, bro, you gotta stop, or at least reduce, including Youtube links with your posts. Makes for a LOT of scrolling down to get to the text posts! My mouse finger is cramping up! 🙂

      • Ian says:

        I appreciate the criticism. This is Alex’s blog, and he is free to edit the comments anyway he wants. If he thinks that video posts are invasive, then I’m sure he will delete them. Text is important, but I think image, sound and video are the new way, brother. 🙂

  15. Ian says:

    I am sorry about your youtube fingers. I am sure they will recover themselves in a few days.

  16. Ian says:

    “The server encountered a temporary error and could not complete your request.”

    “Please try again in 30 seconds. That’s all we know”

    Oh, I think they know a lot more than they’re letting on….

  17. Lynn says:

    Hi Alex,

    I am not sure if you read this latest article by Daryl Copeland, but it echoes many of your sentiments for similar observations outside of Canada.


    Have a great day,

  18. Robert Bacal says:

    Thanks for this inspirational talk, and for Mark Hammer, I have linked to it. Truthfully all is not quite so dark as some suggest. Yes, government needs to be revalued, but be grateful we aren’t Americans, where government is far more reviled. And, let’s look to the positive side. Smaller government, from province sized down to municipalities are doing some great work in their arenas, and don’t quite have the same bureaucratic constraints the Feds. have.

    Now if we could only get the federal government to stop announcing their newest plans for revitalizing the public service, every 2 or 3 years, convincing everyone, employees and citizens alike, that there’s far more words than actions going on.

    • himelfarb says:

      Thanks Robert. And yes it’s definitely easier to walk the talk if we walk more and talk less.

    • himelfarb says:

      Thanks Robert. Of course you are right that we can find examples of positive and important public service especially at the local level. but austerity continues to dominate, lack of federal leadership encourages fragmentation, people are disengaging from the political process. I take your point re the recurrent promises of renewal.

  19. That was really well argued and thought out speech/post. I enjoyed it.

    If attitudes towards the public service are negative today I wonder what attitudes will be in 10 years?

    If you look at the OPS as an example, 50% of their labour force is eligible to retire in the next 3-5 years. I assume it’s similar with other public services.

    Be conservative (given govt. pensions) and suppose only 30% of those who are eligible to retire (or aren’t forced out) do so. Further suppose the public service is downsized by 20% in an attempt to get budgets under control. Suppose the public sector labour force only needs to be replenished by 10%? What’s that going to look like? What will be the effect of losing 10% of “your” employees at a time when demands are rising, well, maybe not exponentially, but significantly?

    I have a hard time imagining how we’re walking into anything other than a crisis. Given the way it’s being dealt with it doesn’t seem like a crisis. Perhaps today’s politicians and public service managers know something I don’t about how they’re going to deal with the baby boom.

    Maybe the public service is just grossly over staffed? Maybe they can just poach all kinds of mid-career private sector employees (assuming they’re accountants) at a time when the private sector will be, perhaps not to the same extent, looking to rejuvenate their labour force? Maybe policy will all just be crowd sourced? Maybe the communications function becomes irrelevant because government is completely open. People will find and interpret everything for themselves. Maybe there’s no need for the internal capacity?

    If it is a crisis, as petty as it sounds, I’m going to have 0 sympathy. They’re doing virtually nothing to deal with it as far as I can tell.

    I could be wrong. Again, maybe there’s something they’re doing that I’m not aware of. We shall see.

    • Mark Hammer says:

      At least some of the current “glut” of public servants is in response to popular, and occasionally thoughtful, demand in response to various perceived needs; passport processors, food inspectors, livestock inspectors, airport security, and of course all those folks involved in all that “accountability” stuff (people to write reports, tabulate numbers, read the reports, manage all of the above, etc.). How much all of that will recede is anybody’s guess. Remember, it’s not like anyone had advance distant warning that all those needs would crop up. There will *always* be something that results in a sudden demand for federal attention that translates into FTEs or capital expenditures.

      “Eligible” to retire, and choosing to do so, are two different things, although the best estimates I’ve seen are that people generally retire within +/-2 years of when they said they would, or planned to. I’ll qualify that, however, by noting that those numbers are about 15 years old and precede several economic inflection points of considerable impact/import. My bold prediction is that we’ll see more folks working at least half time out past 67 or 68, if only because the recent cohorts of near-retirees started adult life later and have had fewer peak earning years to save up for a departure from the workforce. The tendency, and ability, to keep working past pensionable age tends to be more true of those involved in “knowledge work” than in work which is physically demanding. And while far from the lion’s share, there is a lot of knowledge work in the federal PS.

      Not widely appreciated out there is that public service recruitment (at least at the federal level) has taken a sharp downward turn. This is partly due to the anti-growth approach adopted, but also because the cuts between 2012 and 2015 have resulted in a considerable pool of folks who have been surplused, and the default strategy managers are now instructed to adopt is to first turn to that talent pool when filling any new positions that become available. There IS still recruitment going on (especially since folks with 20 years’ tenure are not suitably placed in entry-level jobs), but there is a sincere attempt, system wide, to recycle as many of the surplus folks as possible.

      In a number of instances, federal employees have decided to retire early as a result of the cuts. Some fell on their swords, and took a hit for the team, and others just decided they didn’t want to be around when the smoke cleared and the same work had to be done by fewer people. Whatever the specific cause, the number of retirements occurring in response to the announced/anticipated cuts was larger than the typical annual attrition rate.

      What all of this will do to the stated objective and effort over the last decade, of being an “employer of choice” is anybody’s guess. My own guess is that it was not particularly helpful. And I am similarly guessing that recent announcements of an intention for the Government to retain the right to unilaterally determine what “essential services” are, and legally preclude union action, at will, are not helping either.

      • himelfarb says:

        And jamming this in an omnibus budget bill not helping either.

      • My assumption, well-founded or not, is that many public servants will choose to retire, even if some “delay” by a year or two, because of the pressures you referred to and the relative generosity and availability of pensions.

        According to an article I read in Macleans the public v. private sector pension ratio was something on the order of 4 to 1 (80 something% v. 20 something%). My understanding is also that “wages” in the public sector haven’t, notwithstanding any wage freezes, faced the same downward pressure over the last couple of decades as comparable private sector “wages” (knowledge or not).

        Then again, perhaps my belief is a little wishful and self-serving as I’ve spent the last 11 years (2 degrees, 1 post-grad certificate, long term unemployment, contingent employment, temping, interning, volunteering) trying to find a way into the Ontario Public Service.

        I figure if senior managers start retiring, some of the people who have been recycled laterally for years on contract or as FTEs, will start moving within the organization and thus free up space at the bottom of the pyramid. Managerial expedience and risk aversion with unproven (inexperienced) professionals, unions protecting current workers against future workers and the cynicism of the political class will be forced to give (touch wood). No longer will marketing based “internship programs” whose intake can be measured in handfuls and poaches mid-career private sector/BPS employees be sufficient.

        Although, in fairness, on paper it seems like the federal government has done a better job than Ontario. Data from a federal report in 2009 indicate that 50% of managers and 25% of the federal workforce are eligible to retire within the next few years. According to a director I was talking to in the OPS, who was in a position that should know, their number is 50% of the workforce.

        I’d say civil services remain “employers of choice”. Ignoring being routinely thrown under the bus for political reasons, constant demands for more with less, etc. many of the alternatives are even less desirable. I suppose that’s a pessimistic way to look at things.

      • Mark Hammer says:

        Quite honestly, Carlos, I don’t know what to think about the entire retirement thing. The various predictions made rest on sometimes shaky and outdated foundations. I don’t mean to imply that everybody is wrong, but that there is no strong evidence to compel accepting trend/prediction X over Y or Z.

        We do know, from StatsCan data and other sources as well (I wish I could remember the link to the Brookings panel discussion from this past summer where this was all discussed in detail) that “eligible to retire” does not mean withdrawal from the workforce….not by any stretch. If all those folks who went to grad school had paid off their house by 40 and watched the last kids move out of the house at 43, and had 20 good solid peak earning years thereafter, without operating two vehicles, taking a few vacations a year, and expecting to continue that pattern, then arriving at pensionable age would be complete justificaton for full withdrawal from the labour market.

        But that scenario is increasingly atypical. Not implicitly “wrong” or “right”, but atypical. The demand by employers for more education shifts most stages of adulthood and family life over by at least 4-6 years, and the debt load that many enter adulthood with shifts that over by another 5 years. And as so many sources have echoed in recent years, people just aren’t saving.

        So, yes, loads of folks are technically “eligible” to retire. But mentally and financially “prepared” is a whole other thing. One of the interesting points raised in the Brookings panel I noted above was that, even though chronological age at retirement is moving upward, when one considers average life expectancy, and age at entry to the labour market, even WITH those upward trends, people are still spending less of their life working than they used to.

        Of course, what is true on paper, when you look at the numbers, is separate from the reality of human biology (i.e., being able to drag one’s weary bones to work 5 or even 3 days a week at that age). I doubt that anyone is relieved to find out that even if they are going to need to work to 69 to afford full retirement, they *can* expect to live another 20 years. A better deal than retiring at 65 and living another 10, but it may not FEEL that way.

        As for being an “employer of choice”, after the “war for talent” had goine into ceasefire with the collapse of the Canadian telecomm sector, I used to joke that our recruitment slogan should be “We’re the Government. We’re not leaving town.”, and our strategy should be “Wait. They’ll come.”. I can probably still stand by that, for those in their 30’s and up, for whom stability and a dental plan are shining beacons. For younger people, I’m afraid, there may be many emerging disincentives to entering the public sector.

      • Yeah, I guess no one has a crystal ball. I suppose we’ll find out over the next 3, 5, 7, 9 years what happens. If we had an oracle human behaviour would be easier to predict and we’d have lot less collective action problems.

        I suppose we’ll agree to disagree though. I maintain the public sector, and there’s probably some degree of heterogeneity from order to order of government and department/ministry to department/ministry, is setting itself up for big problems (beyond the existing ones) over the next 5-10 years by recycling existing employees with virtually no regard to recruitment. Although, to say “public sector” is probably too broad a statement as, apparently, the TTC is recruiting based on ads I’ve heard while riding the system.

        I understand there are fiscal constraints, but I feel it’s extremely short-sighted (nothing personal) to believe that the current generation of employees will just stick around (for how long???).

        With average life expectancy being approximately 80 how long will the “typical” public sector boomer work? Another 10 years? They’re going to work to 75ish when they, on average, will live to 80ish and can expect 60-70% (I forget exactly) of their *best* 5 years of salary + generous benefits (in the OPS at least).

        Really? They’re going to work to 75 when they retain a significant portion of their salary + generous benefits? They’re going to work to 75 when a good number of them have significant equity built up in their homes whose value has skyrocketed over the last 30 years? Some will. However, many will choose not to and some will be forced out due to performance management issues.

        Even if the scenario is working to 75, having grown up in a generation expecting to retire at 65 with a life expectancy of 80, there’s still major issues. I assume you don’t just flop people in positions. You probably want to spend a number of years training people for the roles you want them to fill. Obviously, that varies based on what role you’re talking about.

        From what I’ve seen, which is admittedly a poor indicator of anything, a good number of boomers are going to retire in the *public* sector. One of the ladies I interned with is retiring this year. She is 63 and worked in admin assistant type roles. I suspect they squeezed her out because she wasn’t working as an “admin assistant” but her duties reflected that of an “admin assistant”. She’ll be fine though. She’s getting 60-70% of her salary, benefits and has she and her husband have paid off their house. I’ve also heard of senior management types being given “early retirement” because of “performance management” issues.

        I would respectfully dispute your claim there’s recruitment (on a sufficient scale) going on (at least in the OPS if not federally or in other provinces).

        I just happened to finish an internship. I took the opportunity, while I had access to the system, to browse another Ministry’s intranet. The OPS’ enterprise wide recruitment program intakes, based on the 2 years of available data, literally 2 handfuls of people per program area, per year.

        Of course not all recruitment goes on at the organizational level, but that is a woefully inadequate number even if you assume organizational efficiency gains and moderate retirement rates over the next 5 years.

        I figure it’ll be a slow bleed over the next 6-7 years rather than a calamitous crash in 2016, but it’s happening and from my admittedly biased perspective, “they’re” (to the extent there’s a rational “they”) fumbling into it blindly.

      • Mark Hammer says:

        At the federal level, there is most assuredly less recruitment going on. It dropped by 50% from 2011 to 2012….as did promotions internally.

        As I understood it (and I may be wrong) the original plan was to simply not backfill positions vacated through retirement; an attrition-based budget reduction strategy. However, when it dawned on decision-makers and number crunchers that the typical annual attrition rate was roughly 3%, and that this would simply not arrive at the desired deficit reduction target in time for the next federal election, the strategy was modified, and the across-the-board cuts were implemented.

        Some departments were in a more favourable position, because they had assets they could sell off or defer purchasing, grants programs they could get stingier about, and other things they could save money on without cutting FTEs. Other departments took more of the hit in terms of people.

        And it was not pretty. At least part of the problem was that some departments approached making cuts like tearing off a bandage, and encouraged managers to do it swiftly, accomplishing all the intended cuts within the first year, and in a short period of time. At an abstract level, this made some sense, but at the shop floor level it was brutal, sloppy, and painful for all. Part of the problem was that managers spend plenty of time thinking about what they need, but precious little time thnking about what they could live without if push came to shove. In short, their priorities were not necessarily well thought-out or articulated in many cases. In some instances, an employee or two would decide to retire a year early, and the reduction target was met. In others, the target to meet was more substantial (e.g., a 40% staff reduction, as in the unit where the Justice Canada lawyer killed himself) and ulikely to be solved by a few voluntary departures. What this meant was that many managers had no shared wisdom about how to accomplish their cuts fairly and non-destructively. If 2 of my staff retired, completing my task, I had nothing to tell you about how to drop from 34 to 25 staff. Nobody had instincts for it, and there wasn’t much wisdom to share.

        Is it smart for any organization to cut itself off from “new blood”? Likely not. But there is an understood ethical obligation to fill any positions that do need to be filled, with qualified folks who have been involuntarily displaced from jobs they did well, in an organization whose practices they know. And yes, there is still recrutiment. Laid-off (“surplussed” in the parlance) staff are happy to try new jobs in other branches, but sticking someone with 20yrs experience/tenure into an entry-level position is unlikely to work out, especially if they end up taking their marching orders from someone with 10 years less tenure and 15 fewer birthdays.

        The optimal balance between workforce stability and “new blood” is a hard one to peg down. I’ve been connected to the federal employee survey since 1999 (one of only two people in the country who can make that claim), and if I was forced at gunpoint to drop it down to two questions, they would be “The quality of my work suffers because of instability in the organization” and “The quality of my work suffers because of constantly changing priorities”. Those two survey items predict an awful lot of other organizational results. So, “fresh blood” has its benefits, but it also has its costs.

        All of that said, I agree with you that no one really knows how the whole thing will play out over time. When program review happened in the 90’s, I doubt that anyone would have given much thought to the challenge that would be faced a decade later when the federal workforce had a disproportionately high share of imminent retirees, and that a chunk of them would be folks in HR, such that the recruiting challenge to backfill all those retirements would be further complicated by having insufficient HR knowledge/support to accomplish it.

      • Lynn says:

        “fumbling into it blindly” – this is the crux of the matter isn’t it!

        The Government of Canada has at their disposal wonderfully skilled and accredited actuaries who can advise on all manner of scenarios. This is in addition to statisticians and demographers employed by Statistics Canada eager to provide sound evidence and research in support of policy development and truly innovative programs.

        However, it seems that this advice and expertise is not wanted nor deemed necessary by our current political masters – they know the best course of action to inform public policy already thank you very much!

        On a happier note, I am looking forward to reading Joe Clark’s new book 😉


      • himelfarb says:

        Yah, and don’t forget “tax is not a four letter word”

      • Lynn: They don’t need no stinking evidence. 😉

        Harper clearly has a set of values. If the evidence supports those values then evidence is good. If the evidence doesn’t support the priorities that flow from those values then the evidence is flawed. If the evidence is flawed then there’s no real point in heeding the evidence in the first place. He knows the evidence frequently doesn’t support him, so, get rid of the evidence.

        All you need to do is look at his criminal justice policies. Crime rates have been falling for a decade and a half you say? The administration of justice (although it’s largely provincial) is bogged down by non-violent “crimes” such as mostly benign marijuana consumption you say? Double down! Yes, some jail infrastructure is aging, but build new super jails. Yes, more and bigger jails is the solution to falling crime rates and a court system with many choke points in spite of falling crime rates.

        The U.S. prison-industrial complex needs a little Keynesian hand. Of course, I know Harper doesn’t support Keynesian economics! He’s just protecting Canadians. Canadians are an untrustworthy bunch. He’s merely protecting us from ourselves.

        We know the U.S. model has proven to be so, so effective. Forget the absurd number of mostly minorities in jail. They have such low property crime rates. We should forget their absurdly high homicide rate relative to comparable jurisdictions. Their homes don’t get broken into much relative to other western countries.

        Oh, I almost forgot the most important point, punishment isn’t really an effective deterrent. A murderer doesn’t go, gee, if I commit this murder, I’ll get a mandatory minimum of 25 years in jail (or whatever term). We know this because, if a murderer thought they were going to be caught prior to committing a murder, eight times out of ten they wouldn’t commit the murder. No, criminals don’t go I’m going to get caught so I’m going to commit this crime! Or, if they think they’re going to get caught they frequently don’t care, as in the case of domestic crimes.

        I’d think he’s mentally challenged if he wasn’t a politician playing for votes. Although, that doesn’t exactly exculpate him because if there’s one thing that can be said for him, it’s that he believes in his policies. Then again, one’s world view is a deeply ingrained (probably heritable) thing, that has a powerful – really determinative – influence over the rational part of the mind.

    • Lynn says:

      Hi Alex,

      Mark Hammer always makes such thoughtful contributions to your blog, his comments should perhaps receive special billing 🙂

      I have made myself a cup of tea after a long work week, and anticipate having to go into the office for a few hours on Sunday. However, I am enjoying my work and feel well placed to be making a contribution to our mandate. That said, it’s hard to separate the noise from the day to day in the federal public service these days. .

      I have asked many of the same questions posed by Carlos Danger. The most likely answers I come up with however are not optimistic – neither for my fellow civil servants, nor the communities we serve.


      • Mark Hammer says:

        That is very kind of you to say, Lynn, and deeply appreciated. Alex is a gracious host, and sets the bar high. That tends to bring out what I hope is the best in me. That, and caring about the subject matter very much.

        I’m just glad it was not the “real Carlos Danger”…complete with photos! That would have moved the bar a little lower, I’ll wager! 🙂

        And as much as it is a sort of burden, quiet Sundays in the office can sometimes be the most productive times.

      • himelfarb says:

        It’s become hard work to maintain my usual (excessive) level of optimism.

    • himelfarb says:

      I fear the priority is to dismantle, not to build, and the view is short term. Thanks for your generous comments and for raising these important concerns.

  20. Lynn says:

    Hi Alex,

    I’m not sure if you saw this one yet from Canada 2020…


    Or this rather cursory response published in the Ottawa Citizen Tuesday…


    And finally, this latest and easiest example demonstrating just how ‘on the money’ Heintzman really is!


    Thanks Alex,

    • himelfarb says:

      Yes, I followed this – thanks

      • Mark Hammer says:

        Some years ago, a close friend, who is a medieval historian at Carleton, told me that when universities first started, it was presumed that all who attended would be teachers. It wasn’t until much later, historically, that the notion of other sequelae of a university education emerged.

        That little tidbit stuck with me, and I began to see its relevance to the rather poor quality of both learning and writing I would find in my undergraduate students. It started to form a coherent picture for me that learning is predicated on presumed/anticipated role. If I see my role as future purveyor of, and ambassador for, my discipline, then I learn differently, and hone different skills, compared to if I view my role as one of simply passing through a program and acquiring a credential. The role of teacher/ambassador requires that I be able to explain my discipline, which, in turn begets a much richer learning, in service of that skill and mission, and certainly more attention to how and what I write.

        Ruth Hubbard and Gilles Paquet are correct in asserting the importance, and dearth, of competence. Where that links up with Ralph Heintzman’s view, is that the competencies one acquires, is selected for, exercises, and hones, are a function of the role one presumes to have. Ralph rightly sees that role as a function of the contract between the bureaucratic and political sides. A change in the nature of the contract, and corresponding roles would/should/could result in a shift in the competencies of senior managers…in theory….if I’m right.

        So they are both, unfortunately, right.

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