The war on the civil service

Pensions and layoffs are just one front in a long-brewing battle

The war on the civil service

Ever since Stephen Harper anointed Stockwell Day as his cost-cutter-in-chief last week, the Prime Minister’s Office has been going out of its way to highlight the significance of shifting Day to head the Treasury Board in an otherwise ho-hum cabinet shuffle. Said to be among Harper’s favourite ministers, Day is now cast as the PM’s Dr. No—the man to stare down resistance to new austerity measures. As part of Ralph Klein’s cabinet in Alberta back in the nineties, Day pinned a loonie to his lapel (evoking Ayn Rand, who once pinned a gold dollar sign to hers) and oversaw thousands of public-sector layoffs. In Ottawa, a beleaguered public service is paying attention.

Within a week of Day’s swearing-in, 18 federal government unions gathered in Ottawa for a two-day meeting to map out a strategy against the anticipated assault. They expect the Tories’ first target will be the bureaucracy’s famously generous pensions—what Finance Minister Jim Flaherty calls their “handsome arrangements.” Flaherty has ruled out many other options for deflating a bloated deficit. He’s said the Conservatives will never raise taxes or cut transfers to the provinces to balance the books. Instead, they’ll rely on economic growth and if it’s not enough, they’ll cut “other programs.” Up against one of the largest deficits in the country’s history, civil-sector union leaders are girding for a fight.

The public-sector payroll is only the latest front in a war brewing behind the scenes between Tories and bureaucrats. Some observers point to the government’s attack on Richard Colvin, the diplomat who raised concerns about treatment of Afghan detainees, as the clearest sign of friction. In the wake of the Colvin affair, reports of extreme measures to rein in bureaucrats have come to light. Senior civil servants tell of having their pens taken away to block them from note-taking, and of meetings proceeding routinely with no written record. According to Liberal Sen. Roméo Dallaire, more famous for his peacekeeping service as a general in Rwanda, a “draconian” current of partisanship now runs through Ottawa, quite unlike anything he has seen in his many years in the capital. Dallaire told Maclean’s the “brutal” atmosphere runs counter to the public-sector ethic of transparency and objectivity.

The government’s line is, there’s no problem. “Under this government we pride ourselves on the fact the public service does a good job and does so in a non-partisan way,” says Dimitri Soudas, a spokesman for the PM. But the discontent bubbled up to the surface last summer, when Ottawa’s Embassy magazine revealed a controversy within the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade over language guidelines handed down to civil servants. The new rules were met with push-back from senior Foreign Affairs officials and leaks to the media. Among other changes, the word “humanitarian” was excised from the term “international humanitarian law”—“as though scratching out the term somehow makes it go away,” former ambassador and erstwhile Mulroney speech writer Paul Heinbecker told Maclean’s. “Gender equality” is now “equality of men and women,” while “child soldier” has become the more anodyne, and vague, “children in armed conflict.” (This, says Dallaire, who started the Child Soldiers Initiative, devoted to ending the practice of using children for war, was expressly designed to release Omar Khadr, Canada’s most famous child soldier, from protocols.)

But it is entirely within a government’s purview to make such changes, as Lawrence Cannon told Embassy last year. Some of the changes, Cannon said, were simple semantics; others were a matter of Canada’s foreign policy direction. And if bureaucrats don’t like it, he added, they’re free to leave.

The underlying fear of many mandarins is that they will be pushed into partisan behaviour. But on this score, Donald Savoie, a professor of public administration at the University of Moncton, says the Harper government is no worse than any that came before it. Governments, both Liberal and Tory, have been guilty of that through Canadian history. The only difference is that Harper was elected after musing publicly about how a Liberal civil service and Liberal-appointed judiciary might restrain Conservative tendencies. Apparently they haven’t. Last week, a trio of recently fired watchdogs—Paul Kennedy, Peter Tinsley, and Linda Keen—the clearest evidence of a chill in government relations, visited a prorogued Parliament to complain that the Tories are “at war” with the government’s independent tribunals.

There is another issue: the line between partisan interests and government funds. Some suggest that respect for that boundary—evident in the early years of the Tory minority—eroded with the exit of Harper’s first chief of staff, Ian Brodie, in the spring of 2008. That fall, the launching of a $34-million government advertising campaign, paid for by taxpayers, irked the civil service enough to prompt another round of media leaks, this time from sources within the Privy Council Office, previously famous for its discretion.

Half of the country’s civil servants report facing “undue political interference,” according to a new survey by the Centre for the Study of Democracy (CSD) at Queen’s University. And that’s just one of a series of complaints from the civil service. Report co-author Tom Axworthy, who spent years in the civil service starting in the 1960s, says that over past 15 years, the sector has fallen victim to “musical chairs” management. No one stays at their jobs long enough to learn their files; there isn’t any institutional memory or anyone to mentor or train new recruits who flounder under serial bosses.

Depression among civil servants is at a ‘crisis’ point, as is a brain drain As of the fall, fully half of the 22 core deputy ministers in Canada had been at their jobs for less than two years. Nine had been there less than a year—a “chaotic, pick-up-the-file-and-run, everybody-on-the-march” way of running things, says Axworthy. Compare that with the Harvard Business School’s list of “Top 100 CEOs,” says public policy commentator David Eaves: of the top 10, seven had been at the job for 10 years. The others had put in at least eight. “Nobody just showed up, and did a two-year stint as CEO.” Deputy ministers aren’t exactly CEOs who run the show; still, years on the job count.

And a good relationship between politicians and senior public service, says Axworthy, “is the nub of the enterprise. If you’re a minister you want confidence that the man you’re talking to knows everything there is to know about agriculture.” At one time, he says, “ministers had a huge amount of trust in their deputies, cause their deputies knew those files cold.”

That atmosphere of trust, he adds, has disappeared. And Eaves says it’s not clear ministers actually dislike having deputy ministers who don’t know their files. “This shifts the relative power balance in those conversations, meaning they can’t get pushed around by strong deputy ministers,” he says. Axworthy says he “can’t conceive” how the civil service can implement big, serious projects under the present system: “You start it, and you leave, and someone else takes it over. In the course of a year and a half, you have six, seven, eight project managers; by the time it is approved, the project is out of date,” he explains. “It’s managed to fail.”

Not all observers agree. Sure, the system is under a lot of stress, says David Zussman, an expert in public sector management at the University of Ottawa. “That said, the Harper government, particularly under Kevin Lynch, has made special effort to keep people at their jobs as long as they could.”

One-third of public servants nonetheless reported working for three different bosses in three years, according to the CSD study. And the relentless churn takes a toll on workers. Depression among public servants is the country’s “biggest public health crisis,” says Bill Wilkerson, founder of the non-profit Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Mental Health. Seventy-five per cent of federal executives report burnout, and mental health claims account for 45 per cent of all disability claims.

Of course, what civil servants see as evidence of their tortured state is seen by many outside government—staring down layoffs and delayed retirement—as evidence of a sector cruelly out of touch with economic and workplace realities. Rarely, in fact, has the disconnect between the public and private sector, which has borne the brunt of the current downturn, been felt so keenly.

But if Canadians don’t care that civil servants are unhappy, maybe we should because of another crisis in the bureaucracy: the brain drain. Although their numbers have soared—by more than 40 per cent over the previous 12 years—the public sector is “certainly not” getting a fair share of Canada’s best and brightest, says Peter Aucoin, professor emeritus at Dalhousie University. The “bright lights” who do land tend to jump ship after a brief stay, says an insider. In one competitive hiring initiative designed to lure exceptional graduate students, he says, the bulk of students in a cohort year left the sector after 18 months. After three years, none remained. Many question if the others, who “came for the parental leave, and stayed for the pensions,” as it goes, have the mettle to innovate and take much-needed risks to modernize the sector.

Public-sector union bosses bracing for a showdown in Ottawa are likely aware the enemy extends beyond the Hill. Around the world, snarls of hostility are beginning to be levelled against fatted states. But they’re not likely to go gently, and Heinbecker, for one, thinks civil servants have got ammo better than even the threat of strike. “If the Harper government thinks they had leaks before, and now they’re going to start playing with pensions—well, they ain’t seen nothing yet.”

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