Scott Brison warned over turtle's pace of public service

Canada's new Treasury Board president was warned about the efficiency and openness of the federal public service when he took over the job as its top employer, according to documents obtained by CBC News.

Public service accustomed to 'limited disclosure, insular policymaking,' documents warned Treasury Board head

Treasury Board president Scott Brison will repeal controversial Conservative changes to the federal public service sick leave program. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Canada's new Treasury Board president was warned about the efficiency and openness of the federal public service when he took over the job as its top employer, according to documents obtained by CBC News.

Briefing notes prepared for Scott Brison in November warn the public service will have to undergo a "cultural change" if the reigning Liberals want to deliver on their promise of open government.

The documents, obtained under the Access to Information Act, describe a public service used to "limited disclosure" and "insular policymaking."

Documents prepared for Treasury Board president Scott Brison say the 'government is not doing a good enough job of meeting the needs and expectations of citizens.' That was emphasized with this photo. (Treasury Board of Canada)

When Brison took over the cabinet position in November, he was tasked with reforming Canada's access to information laws, making the government "open by default," improving the government's communications policy and bettering government services.

"Some of these changes are not easy. They are radical departures from how the government has operated over the last decade," the documents read.

Government services need a 'reset'

Brison was reminded the "government is not doing a good enough job of meeting the needs and expectations of citizens for quality, accessible services." The notes say only 45 per cent of Canadians have a positive perception of federal services.

A stock image of a turtle was used to illustrate how long it takes to implement budget decisions. (Treasury Board of Canada)

That was illustrated with a stock image of an exasperated worker, his telephone raised high in the air.

At one point, the briefing notes used an image of a turtle to emphasize how slow Treasury Board is at implementing budget decisions. (It takes an average of 15 months for projects to receive funding.)

The documents note that while "the government can rely on a dedicated, high-performing and well-managed public service ... there is room for improvement."

'Intelligent risk-taking' wanted

For the Liberals to reach their promise of "real change," there will need to be a "reset" of how the government delivers results to Canadians, warn the briefing notes.

Brison said his government plans to shake things up in the public service.

"That means, among other things, breaking down some of the hierarchies within the public service around decision making," he said, pointing out that the average age of new hires in Canada's public service is 37 years old.

"If we're going to attract the best and brightest to the public service, if we're going to attract millennials to the public service, we have to modernize it, including flattening hierarchies that have acted to stifle creativity and good decision making."

Brison says accountability shouldn't be used as an excuse to quash creativity and entrepreneurial thinking. 

"We want intelligent risk-taking within the public service."

PSAC agrees

Chris Aylward, national executive vice-president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, said despite the connotations in the documents, he's not offended by the warning. 

"When they're talking about the quality of service, they're absolutely right. When you make serious cuts to vital services that the Conservatives made, well obviously that's going to affect the quality of service," he said. 

"So we don't get offended when they talk about the quality of service because we agree ... That's not to say that those who were left behind to do the work are not dedicated, are not competent. They very much are."

Government is not doing a good enough job of meeting the needs and expectations of citizens for quality, accessible services.- Treasury Board briefing notes

The briefing notes provided recommendations on how the new government can accelerate its open government plans, but they were redacted. 

The documents did recommend the government modernize its communication policies so federal departments could release more information.

Access to information

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came swinging into power on a promise of making the government more open and transparent. But when it comes to making information more readily available, the briefing memos note the public service is bogged down. 

More businesses, the public and media are using the Access to Information Act to obtain information, but government institutions are "straining" to meet the demands.

A page outlining the key issues facing Canada's access to information laws was redacted. Aylward called the rules around those laws "ludicrous." 

"There definitely needs to be a cultural shift. We certainly agree with that. The last 10 years have been demoralizing for public sector workers. There's been a culture of fear and suppression," he said. 

Aylward said the public service's relationship has changed with a switch in government, but he would still like to see more people hired. 

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