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The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada > News & Events > Communications Magazine > Vol. 36, No. 3, Summer 2010 > Do Separate Agencies Provide Better Working Conditions than the Treasury Board?
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Do Separate Agencies Provide Better Working Conditions than the Treasury Board?

During the last two decades, the federal public service has experienced the move toward an increased operational and structural decentralization. Popular examples of operational decentralization include the shift toward self-regulation in various areas such as food safety inspection and airline industry.

On the structural level, the federal government’s decentralization shift has lead to the creation of more separate agencies such as the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA), the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and, more recently, the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency. In addition to their operational autonomy, most federal separate agencies have developed their own people-management systems mainly inspired from the private sector. Many of the traditional human resource practices adopted by the Treasury Board Secretariat (TB) have been substituted by a set of new people-management policies such as performance pay, casual employment, and the recent shift to defined contribution pension plans.

This article summarizes the findings of a research project initiated by the PIPSC Research Section. The purpose of this study was to shed light on the new corporate model in the federal public service widely adopted by most separate agencies. Using a sample of 162 work units belonging to either the TB or separate agencies, we compared employees’ perceptions of various workplace issues such as trust in leadership, top-down information sharing, ethics at work (harassment and discrimination), and employees’ satisfaction with training opportunities, career progress, and workload. Data was collected from the 2008 Public Service Employee Survey (PSES) results.

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Leadership and information sharing

Results show that employees working for separate agencies tend to have more positive perceptions of their leadership than TB employees. In addition, employees working for separate agencies had a significantly higher satisfaction with top-down information sharing than their colleagues working for TB. Such findings may be explained by a reduced number of hierarchical levels in most federal separate agencies. The proximity between the employees and their senior managers facilitates the flow of information and favors the emergence of a trust relationship between different hierarchical levels.

Harassment and discrimination

Our comparative analysis failed to detect any significant difference between TB and federal separate agencies with regard to employees’ perception of discrimination at work. In fact, both TB and separate agencies work units had almost the same proportion (15%) of employees who declared being victim of discrimination at work during the 2005-2008 period.

However, results showed that a significant difference exists between TB and separate agencies with regard to employees’ perceptions of harassment at work. Our study revealed that employees working for TB were more likely to be victims of harassment than their colleagues working for separate agencies. The proportion of employees who think that they were victims of harassment between 2005 and 2008 was 17.8% in TB organizations, compared to only 14.2% in separate agencies. The lower number of harassment cases in separate agencies may be explained by their small size as well as their limited number of hierarchical layers compared to TB organizations.

Employees’ satisfaction with workload, training opportunities and career progress

With regard to employees’ satisfaction with their workload, our study results showed a significant difference between TB and separate agencies. Employees working for separate federal agencies were more likely to assume a heavier workload than their TB counterparts. In addition, results revealed that TB employees have a significantly higher satisfaction with the training opportunities offered by their employer.

These findings are obviously consistent with the workload differences between the two workplace environments. Trapped by a heavier workload, employees working for separate agencies seem to have less time for training and professional development than their TB counterparts.

Our comparative analysis also revealed a significant difference in terms of employees’ satisfaction with career progress. Employees working for separate agencies were significantly less satisfied with their career progress than TB employees. Such a finding can be easily explained by the higher number of promotion opportunities offered to TB employees in the core public administration, compared to separate agencies. The last three annual reports of the Public Service Commission confirmed the anecdotal evidence of an increased internal mobility in the federal public administration.

Conclusions

The results of this study show that the adoption of the new corporate model by most federal separate agencies has lead to mixed results from an employee perspective. In fact, despite its several benefits such as better flow of information, higher trust in senior managers, and lower number of harassment cases at work, the corporate model in the federal public service raises some serious questions regarding its true contribution to workers’ economic and social well-being. The recent structural decentralization of the federal government through the creation of more separate agencies has lead to an increased deterioration of employees’ working conditions. Increased workload, limited training opportunities, casual employment, and the absence of career progress opportunities are just a few examples of what employees may experience from the recent shift toward a corporate model in the federal public service.

Contributor: Tawfik Said Compensation and Policy Analyst