Time to empower next generation of public servants, says Canada's top bureaucrat

As public service week gets underway today, Canada's top bureaucrat says there is a clear focus this year on empowering the next generation inside the federal bureaucracy.

'This issue of generational renewal is important to me,' says Michael Wernick

Michael Wernick, Clerk of the Privy Council, will join in celebrating the work of federal employees during Public Service Week. (Julie Ireton, CBC)

As the annual Public Service Week gets underway today, Canada's top bureaucrat says there's a clear focus this year on empowering the next generation inside the federal bureaucracy.  

In fact, the Clerk of the Privy Council, Michael Wernick, will lead a virtual town hall Monday morning aimed specifically at young bureaucrats.

"I'm pushing for a theme of engaging with our younger cohorts, because this issue of generational renewal is important to me." said Wernick, who himself was headhunted into the federal government 35 years ago this month.

Over those decades, Wernick said he has witnessed the many ebbs and flows of the federal government's relationship with its workers. 

There have "already [been] changes in tone, for sure" under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, said Wernick, the man who gave Wernick his current job.

But those changes haven't been as fast or as far reaching as many federal employees had hoped. Last week alone, government workers from three of the major unions came out to rallies across the country.

Union leaders Chris Aylward and Emmanuelle Tremblay appear at a rally in Ottawa in June 2016. (Julie Ireton/CBC )

"We want to have a dialogue with the clerk," said Emmanuelle Tremblay, president of Canadian Association of Professional Employees, adding she knows Wernick is interested in engaging the next generation of public servants.

"Stop using lower paid workers with no benefits. Offer these young people decent jobs," Tremblay said. "They will stick around. This will be motivating for them."

Several unions are asking for fair contract negotiations and an end to what they call "out of control" outsourcing.

There have also been renewed calls for more independence for scientists: some federal workers say the "unmuzzling" of scientists, something the Liberals promised to do, still hasn't happened.

Ray Paquette, a federal worker and negotiator with PIPSC, says the federal Liberals have made some changes to the public service — but not nearly enough. (Julie Ireton/CBC )

Ray Paquette, who works at Public Services and Procurement Canada and is on the negotiating team for the Professional Institute of the Public Service (PIPSC), said the Liberals have made some changes — but not nearly enough.

"We have a big problem. The science community is still being muzzled, not being able to openly discuss projects that they're on, [and that] would benefit the people of Canada," he said.

"The federal government is still holding them back from being able to do their job properly."

Wernick: 'We're far from perfect'

Wernick isn't under any illusions, however. In an interview with CBC, he outlined a number of challenges, including the need for better internal IT systems, healthier government buildings. and — in what seems to be an oxymoron — a less bureaucratic bureaucracy.

"There are specific challenges around workplace well-being issues," he said. "We have to do a better job on mental health issues. I think people are looking for less hierarchy, fewer rules, lighter structures. That's all something that can be done."

Those objectives are just part of a heavy political agenda that includes investments in infrastructure and new commitments around refugees, Indigenous communities, recreational marijuana and climate change.

Unions know none of these priorities can be delivered without public servants. 

Debi Daviau is president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service. (Julie Ireton/CBC)

Debi Daviau, the president of PIPSC, said at a rally in Ottawa on Friday there's a simple solution to helping the government deliver, and it includes building the right environment.

"There was a very difficult and toxic environment created over the past nine years. And from my perspective, something needs to come from the top if they're going to have the capacity to deliver the commitments of this government," said Daviau.

Without pulling any punches, Daviau said the senior ranks of the bureaucracy need to let go of the "Conservative ideology" and turn their focus to the Liberals' agenda.

"They have to let go completely of whatever they've been clinging on to for the last nine years. That's the only way they're going to speed up a culture change in government," said Daviau.

Adding to the chorus of other union leaders, Daviau said recruiting staff — rather than contracting out — is necessary to replace the "capacities" lost under the Conservatives. 

Michael Wernick is Clerk of the Privy Council and Canada's top bureaucrat. (Julie Ireton/CBC)

Wernick was just 23 years old himself when he got his first job. More than three decades later, he remains a loyal servant.

But he recognizes it's not the same institution he joined in 1981.

"How we work will change. It will continue to evolve," Wernick said. "But there is a constancy of the values, of non-partisan excellent service to elected governments and Canadians, that really needs to be constantly reaffirmed with each cohort that comes in."