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Highlights: 2021 report on the public service

By Clerk Report

The Clerk’s annual report to the Prime Minister on the public service was released last week.

Every year the Clerk of the Privy Council (the most senior public servant in the federal public service) issues a report to the Prime Minister on the state of the federal public service in Canada.

Reports generally tend to highlight achievements across departments over the past year but also acknowledge areas where more work needs to be done.

Reports are also usually written and presented in the style and tone of the Clerk of the day.

For example, Janice Charette’s report as Clerk was described as being one of the most memorable for presenting content on the public service in new, dynamic and engaging ways.

The 2021 report from Clerk Ian Shugart described where much of the public service’s external efforts were focused on last year: “COVID-19 and Canada’s confrontation with racism and intolerance.”

The report also described the public service’s internal efforts to, “tackle systemic racism and advance the work on diversity and inclusion” within the federal public service.

While the report may have had little surprises in what the public service focused on last year, what may have been surprising was the Clerk’s honesty about:

  • the lack of representation in the public service;
  • the health and well-being of public servants over the last year; and,
  • the future of the public service and an acknowledgement that things will never go back to the way they were before COVID-19.

Lack of representation and broken systems in the public service that perpetuate it

Clerk Ian Shugart’s report was honest in that despite many actions being taken at the top, not enough is being done overall and not fast enough.

Earlier this year, Clerk Ian Shugart sent a message to Deputy Ministers on a “call to action on anti-racism, equity, and inclusion in the federal public service.”

Then at the end of November, Interim Clerk Janice Charette posted the letters from all departments describing what and how they are answering that call to action.

However, public servants have been vocal that they want to see less committees and task forces but rather real, tangible change.

The Clerk’s report cited some examples of departments taking steps toward meaningful action but at the same time, Clerk Ian Shugart acknowledged the broken systems within the public service that continue to act as barriers toward real change.

This includes human resources and staffing, as Clerk Shugart referenced the findings from the Public Service Commission’s Audit of Employment Equity Representation in Recruitment, “members of visible minorities, persons with disabilities, and Indigenous peoples do not remain proportionately represented and experience a notable drop-off at various stages of the recruitment process.”

“Our recruitment and promotion processes are based on the merit principle but if we are systematically barring large numbers of people with different backgrounds, identities, and other differences, we are excluding people of merit. Rules, processes, and practices that deny people opportunities because of differences do injury to the merit principle.

We must ensure that everyone has the opportunity to demonstrate their merit. Thinking about these concepts with a new perspective and taking concrete corrective actions must be part of our journey towards equity and inclusion. If we want different outcomes, we need to try different things.”

– Ian Shugart, Clerk of the Privy Council

This extends to language requirements in staffing processes, and that a growing number of public servants in social media circles say the current language requirements for staffing and the language testing is exclusionary, unfair and perpetuates a system of inequality and divisiveness.

This was highlighted in a 2017 report to the Clerk that Patrick Borbey, President of the Public Service Commission wrote with then Deputy Secretary to the Cabinet, Matthew Mendelsohn to, “conduct a review of the state of bilingualism in the federal Public Service and provide recommendations to ensure that we are evolving to meet the needs of public servants, and Canadians, in both official languages,” as it had been 15 years since the previous review of official languages in the public service.

“Some current practices need to be questioned because, in the opinion of a large number of public servants consulted, they no longer meet the needs of a modern and dynamic public service.”

– Patrick Borbey, President of the Public Service Commission

However, the report was published towards the end of 2017, nearly five years ago with Patrick Borbey and the Public Service Commission having largely been silent on this since then.

A tired public service

Clerk Shugart acknowledged that public servants are tired and like most Canadians, “have been continually sprinting for over a year.”

Whether on the front lines of COVID-19 or behind the scenes trying to sustain and improve IT capacity to support public servants working virtually, the demands and the pace have taken a toll.

While the report didn’t tackle questions around workload, it did reference the Mental health and COVID-19 for public servants: Protect your mental health web page, as well as the great work the Federal Youth Network has been doing to, “ramp up programming to connect public servants on topics such as mental health and inclusion through their virtual learning series.”

There was also an acknowledgement by the Clerk that, “the ongoing mental health of our employees is going to require sustained attention after the pandemic.”

The future of the public service

Clerk Shugart ended this year’s report on an optimistic note.

The Clerk acknowledged that, as a result of COVID-19, the public service will likely never return to working the way it did before COVID-19.

“While the future is not yet clear, we do have a good sense of where we are likely to see lasting change. Our business models will be more digital, our workforce more distributed, and the path from idea to delivery shortened. Management practices will need to evolve alongside those changes. The question is one to do with extent.”

– Ian Shugart, Clerk of the Privy Council

It’s clear that the federal public service is going through a period of change, likely as many other public service institutions are around the world.

However, for the Canadian federal public service, the Clerk said it will mean taking a hard look at existing processes and procedures, and pursuing reconciliation and justice the workplace.

Other links:

28th Annual Report to the Prime Minister on the Public Service of Canada

Letter from the Clerk to the Prime Minister

News release from the Prime Minister welcoming the 28th report from the Clerk