Hot! How — and why — we’re modernizing Canada’s public service

NationalPost.com – FullComment
13/06/18.   Tony Clement

In the past few weeks, the federal government has introduced a series of important reforms to modernize the public service. These changes – to track employee performance and overhaul sick leave – are not only long overdue, but fundamental to the running of a productive, cost effective and accountable public service.

This matters, both to the federal government’s fiscal bottom line and to the quality and affordability of the services that Canadians expect and rely on. The federal government is the largest operation in this country and the largest employer, spending $43-billion annually on public service wages and benefits, which is our most significant expenditure.

How we manage our human capital will have a measurable impact on the value Canadians receive for their tax dollars.

Most public servants are dedicated professionals who consider it an honour and a privilege to serve Canada. But while the federal public service is a venerable institution, it is also weighted down by age-old entitlements that stunt its ability to adapt, and which serve as a tax on Canadians.

These entitlements, vestiges of another era, when the world was less global, less technologically driven and less mindful of debt and deficit, are difficult to disentangle from such a monolithic institution. As with a limp you learn to live with, it’s been easier to try and shuffle along than to try and tackle the cause of the pain.

But we cannot afford to limp along any longer. Paying employees a voluntary severance – in addition to a healthy pension – when they quit or retire, is not sustainable or frankly, fair. That is why Stephen Harper’s government eliminated this perk last year. We introduced 50-50 cost-sharing for public sector pensions for the same reasons. Savings to taxpayers? More than $5-billion by 2017.

And there is much more to do. As I recently announced, our government is introducing a mandatory tracking system for employee performance. The goal is to ensure good workers receive the feedback they need to become great workers and poor performers are dealt with decisively.

The idea that virtually every single person we hire out of a 300,000-strong workforce performs to the standards we expect seems a bit fantastical

At the moment, the federal government doesn’t deal well with underperformers. The dismissal rate is 0.06%. In fact, more people died while on the federal payroll last year than were let go. Given that the private-sector dismissal rate ranges from 5-10%, the idea that virtually every single person we hire out of a 300,000-strong workforce performs to the standards we expect seems a bit fantastical.

A second initiative that I have just brought forward looks to overhaul the current system for managing sick leave. The federal government is one of the few employers in Canada that doesn’t provide benefits coverage for short-term illness (87% of employers do). Instead, we are essentially the only large public employer in Canada to offer bankable sick days – 15 a year in fact, in addition to five family days.

It’s an ad-hoc system that doesn’t allow for active case management of sick employees so that they have the support they need to return to work as quickly as possible. It also seems to coincide with high absenteeism — the highest in Canada, in fact: 18.2 days of paid and unpaid leave a year per worker compared to 6.7 days in the private sector.

In 2009-10, employees used an average of 44.6 banked sick days in the year of retirement. That’s a full two months off work

At the same time, employees seem to get a lot sicker the closer they get to retirement. In 2009-10, employees used an average of 18.3 of their banked sick days two years before retiring and 44.6 days in the year of retirement. That’s a full two months off work.

The sad part is there is essentially no coverage for a new, young employee who may be struck with a sudden illness and needs to be off work for three months, but has not had time to accumulate sick days.

Banked sick days, voluntary severance and pensions fully funded by employers are relics of another generation – another century – one that is out of step with the times we live in today. As an employer, one whose duty it is to serve the public, we have a responsibility to not only remain relevant, but to provide Canadians with services in the most efficient, affordable and accountable way possible.

Tony Clement is President of the Treasury Board.

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A new flank beckons in civil service struggle

NationalPost.com – FullComment
13/06/11.   Kelly McParland

In the alleged war on Canada’s federal civil servants, Ottawa thus far has increased the retirement age, raised pension plan contributions, cut 16,000 jobs (with at least 3,000 more to go) , introduced performance reviews, ended severance benefits for voluntary departures and announced plans to revamp “sick day” benefits to end the practice of banking sick days. It has also sought to control wages, and given itself a bigger role in contract negotiations with Crown corporations.

Perhaps it’s no wonder that, according to Treasury Board president Tony Clement, public employees book off sick at almost three times the rate of the private sector, and that almost half the complaints relate to stress, depression or anxiety. If you visit Ottawa and see people walking around with targets on their back, it’s probably because they’re civil servants.

The unions would have you believe this is part of the Conservative government’s deliberate effort to vilify public employees, and reduce them to the status of indentured servants. A pundit for one of the more union-friendly publications in Canada (except when the employees are its own) has suggested (apparently seriously) that the secret plan of the federal government is to drive down wages and force all but the wealthy to work indefinitely. “Their view of the economy is that nothing should be permitted that might protect those without private means from the need to work — at whatever wage is on offer. No employment insurance. No welfare. No pensions. No unions.”

Scary, eh kids?

It’s true that the Harper government views the size and cost of the public service as excessive, and a key component in its effort to reduce the overall expense of government. Most Canadians, I’m willing to bet, feel the same way. So far, most if not all of its reforms make eminent sense.

When the average lifespan has increased significantly, it’s not outrageous to suggest retirement might kick in a year or two later than it used to. Requiring public employees to pay an equal share of their pension contributions — as do those few Canadians in the private sector lucky enough to have pensions — is not unreasonable. Replacing the antiquated notion of “sick days” — fixed at an arbitrary maximum — with a comprehensive plan covering short- and long-term absences only makes sense. And performance reviews are fine, as long as they’re carried out professionally and not treated simply as another way to hound employees and waste management’s time.

These gains haven’t come cheap. In order to end the generous severance benefits agreed to by successive governments, Ottawa has been forced to buy out those claims already accumulated, at an expected cost of $3.5 billion.

You’ll never convince the unions of that, however, especially as round two may be about to begin, with special emphasis on the powers and perquisites of the unions themselves. As Postmedia News has reported, the Conservatives are set to discuss a series of proposed measures that represent a severe threat to the way the public service unions do business.

The measures, in the form of resolutions at the Conservative Party’s annual conference later this month, would limit involvement in political activity, restrict the ability to collect mandatory dues, and increase transparency in how they spend those dues. The goal, which would be anathema to organized labour, would be to give workers a choice of whether to join a union or not, and require the unions to delineate money spent on partisan political activities, as opposed to actual worker issues. As much as that would  offend labour leaders, it would please the Tory heartland, offering an attractive opportunity for a party that has been battered by scandal and shows signs of having lost its way.

The danger to labour extends well beyond Ottawa. As private sector union membership has dwindled, its dominance in the public sector has grown. Were it to be weakened there, it would represent a threat to the movement as a whole. That’s why it feels it’s engaged in a battle for survival. Unfortunately, it pits the unions against what’s best for the country, and even for members themselves.  An ever-growing public service, at ever-increasing cost, does no one much good. The wider the gap between civil service benefits, and those common in the private sector, only increases public discontent and demands to rein in the bureaucrats.

The last time Canada engaged in a serious budget-cutting exercise in the 1990s, the Liberals achieved it by drastic reductions in the number of employees, and by raiding their benefits. Those gains were wasted when prosperity returned and the payroll was allowed to swell once more, under Liberals and Conservatives alike. The Conservatives would have done themselves a lot of good if they had had restricted that growth from the beginning. Now they’re in the position of cutting their own increases.  It’s not really a war, but it really shouldn’t have been necessary.

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