The Public Service and the future of Canada


When analysts call Canada an administrative state, they’re usually referring to the size and structure of the Canadian public service. What began in the 19th century as a relatively small organization characterized by political patronage appointments has evolved to become the largest single employer in the country. 

Big, yes, but critics often exaggerate the size of the public service by confusing it with the public sector – the more than three million Canadians who work for organizations that receive much of their funding from one or more levels of government.

The public service refers to the 250,000 Canadians who serve federal government departments and organizations that are staffed by Ottawa’s Public Service Commission. 

These Canadians hold an incredibly diverse selection of jobs. Among their many duties, public servants develop and implement policy, enforce regulations, analyze and assess government programs, communicate the government’s intentions to Canadians and protect Canadians at home and abroad.

The Public Service Commission was established in 1908 to ensure that public servants were hired on the basis of merit, not because of their powerful friends or how they voted in the last election. 

Today, the commission is also committed to building a public service that reflects the multicultural characteristics of the Canadian population. Until the 1970s, the focus was on improving French-speaking representation. Today, women, visible minorities, aboriginal Canadians and disabled Canadians have all been targeted as favoured employees.

For a century, public servants have been expected to serve the government of the day impartially, but a number of 20th century prime ministers have distrusted their bureaucracies. 

For example, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker referred to the civil servants he inherited in the Department of External Affairs as “Pearsonalities” because he believed that they were committed to advancing the interests of the leader of the Liberal Party, Lester B. Pearson, a diplomat and former External Affairs minister. Diefenbaker later came to appreciate the professionalism and loyalty that characterized the vast majority of public servants, but his change of heart did not extend to his successors. 

In the 1970s, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau decided that the bureaucracy had become too powerful and independent and made drastic changes to the nature of public service employment. His most senior public servants – the deputy ministers – who had become used to serving in single departments for years, began to be shuffled into new jobs every few years, making it harder for them to develop the knowledge and experience necessary to shape policy effectively.

This process speeded up in the 1980s, changing the role of senior public servants. Instead of being policy advisors, they now became departmental managers. Instead of helping the government devise the policies that best served the country’s interests, they became experts in organizing study groups, coordinating meetings and implementing the will of their political masters.

As the public service became bigger and more expensive to maintain, it also became a prime target of government cut-backs. Nevertheless, despite repeated efforts to decrease the size of the bureaucracy, the public service has continued to grow. 

Popular resentment of that growth is strong. But the public service’s union since 1966, the Public Service Alliance of Canada, is one of the country’s largest and most powerful trade unions, and every effort to cut staff is met with resistance. There have also been a few instances of gross professional misconduct that have led to a significant decline in public service morale which, incidentally, could not have come at a worse time.  Much of the senior leadership of the public service is nearing retirement, and the challenges to replace them will be great.

Moreover, the politicians have not made things easier. In the past, departmental failures were the responsibility of cabinet ministers. Today, it is common to blame public officials, not government ministers, for problems. In other cases, governments have stopped their officials from speaking freely in public, frustrating and angering Canadian public servants.

As a result, the future of the public service is worrying. The challenges that Canadian governments will face in the years ahead call for greater public accountability, closer coordination among government departments, and more reliable cooperation between the government and its officials. This can only happen if the public service is staffed by strong, committed men and women who have a trusting and respectful relationship with their political superiors. It is increasingly difficult to attract and hold these types of Canadians.

Further Reading: Donald Savoie, Public Servants, Ministers, and Parliament

Next Instalment: Canadian Law and Order: The Courts

The Canadian Experience is a 52-week history series designed to tell the story of our country to all Canadians. Sponsored by Multimedia Nova Corporation and Diversity Media Services/Lingua Ads partners, the series features articles by our country’s foremost historians on a wide range of topics. Past articles and author bios are available at The Canadian Experience is copyright © 2010-2011 Multimedia Nova Corporation.

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