Public service prepares for new era of change, challenges

There are great expectations about what last week's federal budget will mean for the people who craft government policy and programs, but while some observers see this as an exciting new era for the public service, others forecast new challenges ahead.

Contract talks could test sunny ways between Liberals, public service unions

The federal budget brings both new possibilities and new challenges for the public service, observers say. (Canadian Press)

There are great expectations about what last week's federal budget directives will mean for the people who craft government policy and programs. 

But while some pundits see it as an exciting new era of autonomy, growth and collaboration for the public service, others foresee new tensions — and a degree of risk — for the worker bees within the bureaucracy.

The federal public service lost about 30,000 workers over the past five years and more will retire in the years ahead.

In last week's budget, the government proposed a path to develop programs across several departments, but it's unclear what the human resources plan is to help make it happen.

Liberals doing things differently

Genevieve Tellier, professor of political studies at the University of Ottawa, said while the past 10 years saw a more centralized approach to policy development, the Liberals appear to be doing things differently.

But Tellier said she's not sure if all bureaucrats — especially the younger generation, many of whom have only worked under the previous government's tight control — will easily or quickly adapt to a new reality.

"I think it's easy in the short run for a new government to say, 'We will change things, it's going to be a more bottom-up process than top down-process,'" said Tellier. "But in two, three years, will they deliver? Will the government be happy with that? Will they stick to that? Will the public service develop new ideas and be more productive?"

For now, unions representing government workers are cautiously optimistic.

Emmanuelle Tremblay is president of the Canadian Association of Professional Employees. (Chloe Fedio/CBC)
Emmanuelle Tremblay, president of the Canadian Association of Professional Employees, said she even agrees with some of the government's proposed cuts.

"They're proposing cuts to [government] advertising and I think if we can actually use that money to provide the support that our analysts need, to produce the right policy advice so that decisions are made, based on evidence, we'll definitely get our money's worth," said Tremblay.

Tremblay worked in the public service herself up until a little more than a year ago. She said at the time, many of her co-workers felt they were "spinning their wheels." She thinks the Liberal approach is one of collaboration.

"What is important is also the focus on accountability," said Tremblay. "People think that public servants would fear that, maybe some public servants would fear that. I represent economists, statisticians, and I think these people are eager to see the result of their work actually taken into consideration."

Storm clouds, sunny ways

In the midst of the government's plans for new spending and programs it must continue to negotiate more than 50 contracts with its unions. The big ticket item on the table continues to be the controversial and costly sick leave plan.

Christo Aivalis is a professor at Queen's University who studies labour issues. (Christo Aivailis)
Christo Aivalis, a professor at Queen's University whose research focuses on labour, said he'll be watching very closely to see how the government approaches the current round of bargaining.

"They're quite positive on the broad strokes of the budget, but there's a few things coming out of Scott Brison and Bill Morneau that are a little bit more cautious around how they approach public servants," said Aivalis.  

That cautious tone could forecast stormy weather — not sunny ways — in the relationship between public service unions and management, Aivalis said.

"The Liberal government still wants concessions in bargaining. Scott Brison is saying there's not a whole lot of money. It means there's going to be a lot of tension there."