view of Ottawa and River

While we all agree on the serious problems that exist, no government – Conservative or Liberal – has ever done much to address them.

by Amanda Clarke
Originally published by Policy Options magazine, June 12, 2023
also published in the Ottawa Citizen, June 20, 2023

In Canada, we are exceptionally good at identifying what is wrong with the organization and management of the federal public service. You might say it’s a national tradition, celebrated by academics, public administrators and political leaders of all stripes with a remarkably high degree of agreement. Unfortunately, while we all agree on the serious problems at play, no government – Conservative or Liberal – has done much to address them.

What are these serious problems? Since at least the 1960s, clerks of the Privy Council, auditors general, public administration researchers and government-led reform initiatives have criticized the federal public service for its dizzying and ineffective array of internal rules and processes, information-hoarding, limited collaboration and weak public engagement. Executives are regularly accused of suffering from extreme and misplaced risk aversion, coupled with a crippling fear of external scrutiny. Onerous reporting requirements and dense hierarchical chains of approval have proliferated in a culture that prioritizes accountability for process, as opposed to accountability for outcomes. This stifles creativity and renders it nearly impossible to keep pace with the needs of working-level public servants and public service users alike.

Some predicted that the pressures stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic would drive governments to rapidly adopt innovative ways of working, leading to long-overdue public sector modernization. However, even one year into COVID-19, it became clear that the chronic managerial challenges endured – and in some cases deepened – in the face of pandemic pressures. The federal government’s haste to have its workforce return to the office is a case in point. It is hard to see how this decision reflects anything but a pre-emptive defence to Opposition criticism, combined with a mistrust of federal employees’ capacity to work efficiently at their homes. At the very least, we haven’t yet received any explanation that suggests this policy was driven by strong evidence about how best to nurture an innovative and productive organization.

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