The state of Canada’s civil service

2010-09-17

in Canada, Economics, Geek stuff, Law, Politics

Alex Himelfarb, a former Clerk of the Privy Council (Canada’s top civil servant), recently published an article in The Mark talking about public policy and Canada’s civil service. He is candid about how he sees the role of the civil service developing, calling it an institution “increasingly described as in crisis, trying to serve in a climate of blame and mistrust masquerading as accountability.” He expresses concern about partisanship and the superficial character of politial debate, and warns about how policy can drift in damaging directions. Finally, he suggests that there is hope in the emergence of increased public debate:

What we need now is a public discourse that neither dismisses nor panders to our private concerns, but rather links them to public issues. It’s time we override our impulse to paper over our differences and demand that our leaders participate with us in the dialogue, however difficult, we so need. We cannot let Canada change without a fight – or at least a vigorous conversation.

To some extent, this mirrors the enthusiasm of the present Clerk for Web 2.0 – though government in general may not yet be willing to allow the level of freedom, individuality, and independence required for that shift to be meaningful.

Himelfarb also wrote another piece, in the same newspaper, about ‘Why We Vote Against Our Interests‘. As further discussed in an interview on The Commons, the former Clerk expresses concern about the diminished role of expertise in policy-making:

There is something unseemly and even dangerous about the assault on evidence and experts especially coming from our political leaders. But it has resonance with many because government seems distant from and irrelevant to our lives, a “foreign thing” where decisions are made about us but without us. The distance between citizen and state must be reduced.

We can only hope that the public policy debate in Canada evolves back towards reasoned discussion on the basis of sound logic and evidence. To make policy Stephen Colbert style – from the gut – doesn’t equip Canada to deal with the challenges ahead, or take advantage of upcoming opportunities.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

. February 13, 2011 at 9:39 pm

Oui, ministre
A tool for linguistically joined-up government

BUREAUCRATS the world over are famous for their ability to describe the most mundane matters in such convoluted terms that only other civil servants understand what they are saying. Canadian bureaucrats require an additional skill: almost half the jobs in the 200,000-strong federal civil service demand someone who can obfuscate in two languages at once. The Canadian government spends at least C$30m ($30m) a year on training civil servants to use both official languages, English and French, yet such is the subtlety of bureaucratese that graduates can still find themselves reaching for the mot juste.

Enter Dick de Jong, a retired civil servant, who has just published “The Bilingual Vocabulary for Governance, Public Policy and Administration”. Its door-stopping 591 pages walk civil servants through almost every subject they might have to deal with on the job, starting with democracy and ending with space exploration. Phrases that currently trip off the governmental tongue, such as “a time of financial constraint” (une période de restrictions financières) appear, as do ones that ministers who had to answer for the Canadian army’s treatment of Afghans might like to forget, like “missing detainees” (les détenus disparus). There are helpful euphemisms. Recession? No, just une correction passagère. Mr de Jong says that, although he is a fan of plain language, he had to deal with terms bureaucrats normally use.

. June 6, 2011 at 7:30 pm

‘Troubling shifts’ in PS attitudes
Study find the longer people work for government the more disengaged, less motivated they become
Don Butler, Ottawa Citizen

Recent post-secondary graduates recruited by the federal public service appear to become more disengaged and less ambitious the longer they’re in their jobs.

That’s a key conclusion of a new study that provides an intriguing window into perceptions of government employment by new public service hires and potential recruits. The study, recently posted to a government website, was done for the Public Service Commission by EKOS Research Associates.

It involved online surveys with two groups of people hired through the government’s Post-Secondary Recruitment Program (PSR), as well as recent hires recruited through other methods and “potential recruits” -mostly university graduates under age 35.

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