The Professional Institute Legacy Foundation is a visible demonstration of our commitment to the next generation of professionals. The Foundation's sole purpose is to support the education of deserving children across Canada.
A Public Service to Vote For: 10 Things Canada’s Next Government Should Do to Restore the Federal Public Service
Canada employs one of the most advanced, professional public services in the world. But in recent years our government has given Canadians little reason to celebrate it. A merit-based, non-partisan public service with a worldwide reputation for independence, integrity and effectiveness has been hit hard in the past decade.
A hyper-partisan style of government, addicted to secrecy and allergic to evidence, has done serious damage to our public service and to the citizens and country it serves. From bench scientists to agents of Parliament, professional public servants have been silenced, ignored, overruled and dismissed.
While federal public servants have met with profound disrespect by their employer, Canadians have been fed a steady diet of mis-styled “back office” cuts that, in fact, are leading to the loss of important public programs and the weakening of key public services.
After billions of dollars in cuts, Canadians can now count on fewer protections for the health and safety of their families and the environment, and many more risks. This is a far-from-proud record for one of the richest democracies in the world and one that must be repaired soon if Canada is to meet the growing and urgent challenges of climate change, social and economic insecurity, and other threats to our health and safety.
Fortunately, the federal election scheduled for October 19 will give Canadians an opportunity to place their hopes for their country, their communities, and their families on the political agenda. So it is fitting that Canada’s largest union of public service professionals should propose how to restore Canada’s public service so that it can support this national renewal.
Here are 10 key changes the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) believes the next federal government must make in order to restore Canada’s federal public service to a state where it can truly serve Canadians and their aspirations.
1. Unmuzzle federal scientists
Few issues have attracted as much public attention or raised as many concerns about our democracy, government transparency and scientific integrity as the muzzling of federal government scientists. And few issues need to be addressed more urgently to reassure Canadians that their government takes their health, safety, and protection of the environment seriously. Not only has the current government severely cut funding for federal scientists, it has also cut scientists’ right to speak about the research they conduct at public expense and, in the process, curtailed or eliminated the public’s right to know about it. With 90% of federal scientists who were recently surveyed stating they do not feel they can speak freely to the media about the work they do and 24% reporting they have been asked to exclude or alter information for non-scientific reasons, prompt action protecting scientists’ right to speak and their freedom from political interference must be a priority of the next government.
2. Target tax cheats, not charities
The integrity of the tax system should never be called into question. Yet that is exactly what has happened due to recent budget cuts that hinder the Canada Revenue Agency’s (CRA) ability to properly investigate and reclaim lost revenue from offshore tax cheats. Meanwhile, recent news stories about the auditing of some charities have suggested a hidden government agenda may exist against charities that do not share the current government’s political views. Statistics Canada data on foreign direct investment indicate over $170 billion is currently stashed in the top 12 global tax havens. For every tax dollar spent on CRA salaries to investigate international tax evasion 46 dollars are returned in tax revenue. Tax fairness, preservation of CRA’s reputation for impartiality, and return on taxpayer investment dictate that the next government should target offshore tax cheats, not public interest charities.
3. "Insource," don’t outsource
Canada’s public service now employs a vast pool of outsourced or contracted-out services at an annual cost to taxpayers of approximately $10 billion, with no signs of it shrinking anytime soon. This “shadow public service” operates outside laws and regulations intended to ensure that Canada’s public servants remain impartial and are employed based on merit and transparency. Many have access to sensitive government information and data systems. Public financial accountability, data security and employment equity should never be sacrificed to the convenience of contracted-out services. The next government must make reducing outsourced services a priority for the federal public service.
4. Save our (public) science
Facts don’t cease to exist because they’re ignored. Defunding, deregulating or scaling back government science research on climate change, food safety, public health and innovation may save Canadian tax dollars in the short term but will end up costing Canadians far more in lost expertise and worsening social, economic and environmental problems in the future. The loss of government scientific expertise due to the government’s massive 2012 budget cuts has already harmed both our national response to urgent health, safety and environmental concerns, and our international reputation as science leaders. Canadians deserve a government that’s prepared to face the facts and confront the challenges of climate change, public health, safety, and more by investing in public science.
5. Respect constitutional rights
The current Conservative government has had an uneasy relationship with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Time and again the government has been called to account, frequently by the Supreme Court, for implementing laws and policies at odds with this touchstone of our democratic society. These decisions have undermined the integrity and effectiveness of the federal public service tasked with implementing new laws and policies. In 2013, the government’s omnibus budget bill (C-4) directly targeted the federal public service itself by rolling back federal labour laws affecting public service health and safety, the right to strike, and individual and human rights. This February, the Supreme Court of Canada overturned provincial legislation similar to Bill C-4 that curtailed the rights of public employees in Saskatchewan. Undaunted, the government’s 2015 omnibus budget bill (C-59) includes provisions that directly violate the constitutionally protected right to meaningful collective bargaining. Under the proposed changes, Treasury Board — the employer of record of federal public servants — is empowered to unilaterally impose terms and conditions on its employees and in so doing override any agreements previously reached through good faith bargaining. It’s time our government share and respect the fundamental Canadian values enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and reverse the affronts to the rule of law Canadians have been subjected to, including repealing the current government’s repressive labour laws.
6. Embrace evidence
Good policy is based on sound evidence. Policies based on incomplete evidence, or that ignore the weight of contrary evidence, in the end serve no one’s interests, least of all those of the public. That’s why Statistics Canada’s mandatory long-form census (in 2006 it had a response rate of 93.5%) was so important in helping to determine both the kind and quantity of public services needed by Canadians, and why its elimination in 2010 was so regretted by researchers and policy experts alike. Canadian income, unemployment, poverty and other vital data have all been affected. Not only has this led to a serious decline in evidence-based policy at the national level but provincial and municipal governments and even businesses have also suffered. A clear priority for the next government must be restoration of the mandatory long-form census.
7. Seek the help of professionals
Evidence and expertise go hand in hand. Until recently, governments routinely sought the expertise of public service professionals (many of whom have decades of experience) before setting policy so that they could be assured policies were based on the best evidence available and were responsive to Canadians’ needs as well as to changes in society, the environment, and the economy. Many of these in-house experts’ opinions are no longer sought or have been sidelined entirely in the drive to make public policies conform to the ideological preferences of the government in power. Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers is only the most recent expert to have suffered this fate. Many others in recent years have also been targeted or pushed aside by this government, including former National Science Advisor Arthur Carty, Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission president Linda Keen, Chief Statistician Munir Sheikh, and Veterans' Ombudsman Pat Stogran, to name only a few. Restoring respect for the non-partisan, public interest expertise of government professionals is a critical first step towards restoring and ensuring informed and effective public policies.
8. Regulate to protect Canadians
Over the course of decades, our country has built and maintained regulatory systems to protect the health and safety of Canadians and their environment while supporting economic growth in an increasingly competitive and globalized world. These systems ensured we had access to safe food, medications and toys, adequate regulations governing financial services and transportation, as well as protection of our environment. This commitment to regulation protected our economy during the Great Recession, when Canada’s robust banking sector stood in stark contrast to the volatility experienced in the United States. Since then, however, the current government has doubled down on efforts to eliminate key regulations, including issuing sweeping cabinet directives in 2008 and 2012. The 2012 omnibus budget bill alone, for example, stripped the number of protected rivers and lakes in Canada from 2.5 million down to just 159. The trend to corporate self-regulation has come at a time of increasing hazards. The consolidation of food systems and the growing practice of shipping oil by rail contributed significantly to the fatal Maple Leaf listeriosis crisis of 2008 and the tragic Lac Mégantic disaster of 2013. Canadians expect more from their government. It’s time to turn the page on the current government’s dismal record of deregulation and reassert the federal government’s role in protecting our health, our safety, our communities and our environment.
9. Improve budget accountability
Budgets should be based on facts, not fiction. Government accountability depends on it. That’s why the Harper government promised to create the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) in the first place. But ever since then the government has routinely stonewalled PBO efforts to get the facts and answer the questions asked by Members of Parliament (MPs). The Parliamentary Budget Officer has repeatedly had to take the government to court to release information it’s withheld. As a result, both MPs and the public service have been kept in the dark about the real costs to Canadians of government expenses – and cuts. It’s time to make the PBO independent of the Prime Minister and ensure that it and Parliament can do the jobs they’re supposed to do.
10. Blow the whistle on bad government
Good government requires the courage to correct the mistakes and fix the injustices of bad government – especially when those mistakes and injustices are its own. But the recent chill imposed on the federal public service by a government determined to control its partisan message, including the decision in 2014 to bring under cabinet control independent quasi-judicial tribunals that determine, among other things, the outcomes of allegations of discrimination and government wrong-doing, threatens to further silence potential whistleblowers. Eighty-eight per cent of federal government scientists alone believe the public would be better served if the federal government strengthened its whistleblower protection for public service employees. It’s time our government did too.
Moving forward, together
Together, Canadians have an opportunity to set a new course, to renew our federal public service, and to rebuild and strengthen public services for our families and for future generations.
Members of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada are committed to maintaining the integrity of the federal public service. We’ve persevered through difficult times and, despite the damage inflicted in recent years, continue to provide programs and services that generations of Canadians have struggled to build and that future generations have every right to expect should be there to support them.
After October 19, 2015, we look forward to working with Canada’s next government – a government committed to restoring a federal public service we can all be proud of.
An earlier version of this report was released on June 15, 2015 as part of National Public Service Week.