We need to protect Canada’s public service

Posted on April 15, 2013 in Governance Debates

TheStar.com – opinion/editorials – What are Canada’s roughly 250,000 public servants to do when the government they serve isn’t interested in their advice and may even be hostile to it?
Apr 15 2013. Editorial

When Canada’s government works, the federal public service plays an integral role. The bureaucracy exists to provide fearless advice and information to elected officials, and to loyally implement whatever lawful policies and programs those politicians decide upon. But what are the scientists, social-policy wonks, economists and others that make up Canada’s nearly 300,000 public servants to do when the government they serve isn’t interested in, and may even be hostile to, their advice?

At its annual dinner last Thursday, the Public Policy Forum honoured former clerks of the Privy Council, five past heads of the public service, providing a timely reminder of the embattled institution’s essential role in good government.

Senior public servants are a professionally cautious, non-partisan group, so it was no surprise that none of the former clerks explicitly criticized the current government. Yet one clear message emerged from several of the speeches: it must be hard for current public servants to deliver policy advice when their capacity to gather and analyze evidence is being steadily reduced, and in any case, their opinion is apparently less valued.

Had the clerks been unconstrained by their former position, some might have pointed to decisions taken by the federal government over the past six years that imply antagonism to evidence and analysis — and therefore to the public service.

Take the long-form census, formerly our richest source of demographic information and among our most powerful tools for creating and assessing social policy: scrapped on the flimsy premise that it was an invasion of privacy, despite the fact that most Canadians didn’t see it that way. Or the Roundtable on the Economy and the Environment: eliminated, the government has admitted, for giving unwanted advice.

Take the muzzling of government scientists, now under investigation by the information commissioner. Or the axing of the National Council on Welfare, the only dedicated source of research and advice on how to deal with poverty. Take, too, the government’s recalcitrance in its dealings with Kevin Page, the first parliamentary budget officer, whose watchdog job the Conservatives created, and then made nearly impossible.

The many thousands of experts and front-line service providers employed in the public service are capable of doing what no handful of political advisers in a Prime Minister’s Office could ever do. Their research, analysis and non-partisan advice is essential to understanding policy options and their likely impacts. When public servants are handcuffed, muzzled or ignored, we cannot know where we are or how to get where we want to be.

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