Public Values

Canada's federal public servants under intense political pressure

Many feel demoralized due to parachute hirings, service privatization and meddling.

Michele Demersby Ish Theilheimer

OTTAWA, October 6, 2008 — People who work for Canada's federal government say they have never felt more politically pressured. A barrage of new directives, staff changes and punitive practices are interfering with job performance.

Employees say they have been subject to muzzling and allegations of disloyalty over their personal political allegiances. The bureaucracy is rife with stories of unqualified people catapulted into top management positions, presumably because of political connections, and presumably to carry out political directives.

"We're feeling political pressure like never before," says Bob Kingston, President of the Agriculture Union. A career food inspector with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), he has been in the news over the listeriosis outbreak and its links to federal regulatory changes that let the food industry police itself.

Kingston says civil servants are feeling pressure "both in terms of being told to be quiet and in asked to do things. For instance, every single CFIA employee received messages saying 'don't talk to the media.' With a climate of firing everybody who talks," such as CFIA scientist Luc Pomerleau, who publicly leaked news of the government's plans to turn inspection over to the companies and get rid of staff, "people are more scared to talk publicly than ever."

Politically-driven directives have become common in Canada's civil service, says Kingston, but he was particularly astonished when, last May, CFIA staff were ordered to replace the phrase "Government of Canada" with "Conservative Government."

"I've never seen anything like it," says Kingston. "We thought it was a joke. I find it unbelievable that a manager would force staff to do this."

There are widespread rumblings in the civil service of political hires in top managerial positions. "I am hearing a lot of it, but it's hard to prove," says Kingston." At CFIA, all kinds of managers are parachuting in from all kinds of places, and no one understands how they got their job."

Michèle Demers, President of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada says that, while she cannot name names, "A lot of valuable women in high-level positions have disappeared off the radar screen. Some were brought to the edge by bureaucratic stupid requirements, and others have simply been told 'Thank you very much for your services. After 30 years, we're going to be moving on without you.'" The most prominent of these women is Linda Keen, who was fired as head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission for insisting last December that AECL's Chalk River reactor be shut down until safety requirements were met.

Another prominent Conservative firing was that of Adrian Measner, president of the Canadian Wheat Board. After that, "Harper appointed five people to its board of directors who hate the Wheat Board," says Bob Kingston.

Many civil servants complain of low morale. "The policy development process has ground to a halt because of the necessity to run everything up to much higher levels of the department than in the past," said one federal policy adviser, speaking anonymously. "You see a lack of trust. Even when you are following long-established policy directions, there's a real reluctance to allow people to go ahead, implement things, and do their jobs."

Another senior manager complains that new ideas and in his department have been stifled. "It's got to the point where I recommend people not consider a career in the civil service," he told PublicValues.ca. He encourages young graduates "to work in the NGOs, in academia or in the private sector if you really want to do anything innovative in your work." He says he and other career professionals with the public service find the atmosphere "incredibly demoralizing."

"The attitude has been 'This is what we'd like to see take place, and here's what we'd like you to tell us.' You're not encouraged to be creative. You're encouraged to do specific policies that come down from the minister's office. When you do put ideas forward, they don't get past the ADM or minister's staff level. All kinds of impediments are being put in place."

Michèle Demers has experienced impediments first-hand. Last fall she attended a national management-union conference in Quebec City where Robert Leahy, a former top bureaucrat at Treasury Board, was to introduce a widely-awaited review of the public service. Leahy was told at the last minute he could not speak. "It caught everybody off-guard," Demers says. "It was just plain ridiculous, sick paranoia." The event had been planned a year in advance.

Another demoralizing factor, says Demers, is when public servants see their work contracted out to the private sector, as has been the case for federal laboratories, or downloaded to manufacturers, as with product and food safety.

An area of contracting out that has received little public attention, she says, is information technology. Several federal departments now routinely put personal information and other confidential data into the hands of private contractors, such as IBM.

"Where is our information going?" asks Demers. "What assurance do we have it will be secure?"

Currently, only a few departments are contracting out data work, but the practice is spreading, she says. "This demoralizes our IT community. They feel uncertainty about their future in the public service."

Ish Theilheimer is editor-in-chief of Publicvalues.ca.

Links and sources
  Related article: Food inspectors balked at orders to rebrand Government of Canada, Public Values, October 7, 2008

Posted: October 06, 2008

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