Public Service | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Public Service

The public service, also known as the civil service, is the public BUREAUCRACY comprising, in Canada, departmental organizations that support the political executive in the development, implementation and enforcement of government policies.

Public Service

The public service, also known as the civil service, is the public BUREAUCRACY comprising, in Canada, departmental organizations that support the political executive in the development, implementation and enforcement of government policies. It includes some 75 departments and organizations (and about 200 000 employees) normally established by Acts of Parliament designating the positions of minister, the political head and the senior official or deputy head, and outlining the powers, duties and functions of the organization. Special operating agencies, introduced in the 1990s, are primarily departmental bodies which are structured to operate on business principles. Nondepartmental organizations - CROWN CORPORATIONS, Regulatory Commissions and ADMINISTRATIVE TRIBUNALS - are also part of the public service. They are designed to perform certain functions of government that are deemed to require varying degrees of independence from the political control of ministers and the administrative controls applied to the public service. They are agents of the Crown and report to Parliament through a minister.

By convention, the prime minister selects ministers and assigns to them statutory responsibilities, although their formal appointment is made by the governor general. The Cabinet directs the public service in its application and enforcement of current policies and the development of new ones, and is responsible to the legislature for the administration of it. Cabinet committees and the PRIME MINISTER'S OFFICE provide policy direction.

Cabinet is supported in the co-ordination of government policies and in the direction and management of the public service by central agencies such as the Privy Council Office and the Treasury Board Secretariat, by departments such as finance, justice and external affairs, which have traditionally been major central policy departments. Particular government policies and programs are developed and implemented by a large number of program departments, eg, agriculture, national health and welfare, national defence, human resources development and transport. There is also a small group of departments, such as public works, government services and national revenue, that provide common administrative services for other government departments.

In the past decade, government reform in Canada has included a streamlining of Cabinet and a major restructuring of government departments. As deficit and debt reduction initiatives have become major agenda items for government, there has been a significant downsizing of departments and agencies as well as efforts to privatize many departmental functions and to eliminate some programs. These reforms have been accompanied by the implementation of quality management and performance-oriented measures designed to provide service to citizens at less cost. With the decentralized nature of the federal public service in Canada, combined with the impact and use of information technologies, there are high public expectations that service at a local or regional level will continue to be improved. This new public management has focused on enhancing political control and accountability of government administration.

The rights and responsibilities of public servants are outlined in statutes such as the Public Service Employment Act, the Canadian Human Rights Act, the Public Service Staff Relations Act and the regulations and directives passed under the authority of these Acts. Appointment to the public service and subsequent career advancement are based on the merit principle, which, although not defined in legislation, is generally considered to be "the selection of the most qualified candidates competing for a position based on their relative knowledge, experience and abilities, without discrimination or favouritism."

It is administered through the merit system, which includes the regulations, policies, procedures and directives related to the recruitment, hiring and promotion of public servants and which has been adapted to changing circumstances. For example, after the OFFICIAL LANGUAGES ACT (1969) was passed, bilingualism became an element of merit in the staffing of positions. Moreover, efforts to increase the participation of individuals from underrepresented or disadvantaged groups, eg, women, Francophones, native peoples and handicapped persons, have involved special recruitment and staffing measures. Equal opportunity programs have been directed at removing discriminatory practices in recruitment and promotion and affirmative programs have attempted to increase the participation of individuals from these groups directly. Pay equity has been an on-going issue despite major advances in the federal public service towards greater equality of employment opportunities.

The result of comprehensive program review and structural changes in the public service in recent years has been a dramatic reduction in the number of federal public servants. A workforce adjustment directive was legislated in 1995 to facilitate the downsizing. Job security provisions were modified to include early retirement and early departure incentives for employees in departments most affected by reductions. Joint adjustment committees of employer and employee representatives worked together to implement the initiative.

The convention of political neutrality in the public service is maintained by the principle of appointment on the basis of merit rather than on political affiliation. The traditional separation of politics and administration and of the anonymity of public servants theoretically meant public servants could remain neutral in supporting the government in power, but in recent years the recognition that politics, policy and administration are interrelated has modified the convention. As part of their jobs, public servants are actively involved in developing policy and are often expected to explain these policies to the public on their minister's behalf. Front-line service personnel are also required to play a more active role in ensuring the provision of quality service to citizens.

Political rights of public servants are restricted to voting and other forms of passive participation, eg, attending political meetings and contributing funds to political parties. They are legally forbidden to publicly criticize government policy or to disclose confidential information. Public servants wishing to seek a nomination and contest an election for national or provincial office must apply for a leave of absence without pay, which may be denied if it conflicts with job responsibilities, but they are allowed to take an active part in elections at the municipal level.

COLLECTIVE BARGAINING in the public service provides the majority of its employees (not those in managerial or confidential capacities, or members of the RCMP or armed forces) the right to belong to public-service unions and to participate in a process of joint determination of salary and compensation benefits. The employer, represented by Treasury Board, retains the right to determine the classification of positions, standards of discipline and other conditions of employment. The Public Service Staff Relations Board, which administers the Public Service Staff Relations Act, determines bargaining units and agents, hears complaints of unfair practices and is generally responsible for the administration of collective bargaining legislation that falls under the Act. It reports to Parliament through a minister, the president of the PCO, who does not sit on the Treasury Board.

Bargaining is between the Treasury Board and its representatives and certified bargaining agents representing employees. Dispute settlement options include binding arbitration and conciliation, which sometimes allow the right to strike. Collective bargaining, like other rights of public servants, is granted by Parliament and may be changed or withdrawn by that same authority; parliamentary action to legislate striking public servants back to work or to impose wage controls may modify collective bargaining processes. Equally, governments have legislated temporary wage freezes for public servants as part of their deficit and debt reduction strategies.

Responsibility for personnel management is divided between departmental organizations, Treasury Board and the PUBLIC SERVICE COMMISSION. Public servants are employees of their department and the public service as a whole. The Treasury Board has overall responsibility for personnel management policies and represents the employer in collective bargaining, but the Public Service Commission, under the Public Service Employment Act (1967), establishes staffing criteria for departments and assists them in training and development. It exercises full authority for appointments to senior executive positions except at the deputy-minister level. It hears appeals on appointments, investigates allegations of discrimination, decides on cases of political partisanship and audits staffing actions of departments. Established to rid the public service of political patronage, it has remained an independent central staffing agency dedicated to guarding the merit principle.

Provincial Variations

The basic structure and organization of provincial public services are similar to that of the federal government; in recent years some provincial governments have taken the lead in restructuring and re-engineering their public services. Privatizing and partnering with private sector organizations to perform former public service activities is widespread including such areas as social services, education and resource development. There has also been an emphasis placed on service to the client and quality management in most provincial jurisdictions. The role of provincial public-service commissions in staffing and training employees varies widely. Collective bargaining systems have also been introduced at the provincial level but again there are variations in the rights accorded employees in each province.

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