Canada’s aging public service is poised for a “dramatic generational change” that is forcing the federal government to accelerate the recruitment and grooming of young talent, says the country’s top bureaucrat.
On Friday, Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick released his first report to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. It lays out the public service’s accomplishments of the past year, as well as the priorities for the coming year.
At the top of Wernick’s list is recruitment and managing a “generational change” as the last wave of baby boomers, who dominated the face and character of public service for decades, retires.
“It will be important to pass on the values and wisdom of the past generations while mobilizing the energy and creativity of the new generations of public servants. I see this as a key and urgent task for the public service as a whole,” he said in his report.
Wernick said that the public service must “step up the pace” of finding, hiring and developing new public servants – including medically-released veterans who now have first dibs on job openings in the public service.
Treasury Board President Scott Brison has committed to targeting the large millennial generation while adapting the public service to make it more millennial-friendly.
Wernick said the government will also have to accelerate its modernization plan – Blueprint 2020 – to meet the expectations of Canadians and deliver the government’s agenda.
He said rules and processes will be “rigorously” streamlined. Departments must review how their work is done. The culture must shift to focus on results rather than “activity.”
“We must become more sophisticated in defining the objectives of the initiatives we are pursuing, whether they are in policy program regulatory or service areas. The measure of an initiative cannot be the dollars spent or the number of meetings held, but rather the chance and difference made in people’s lives,” the report states.
Canada’s aging population poses challenges for the federal government to ensure it employs enough skilled people of all ages.
The public service, the largest employer in Canada, is emerging from an era of spending restraints and cuts with a smaller, older workforce of employees 18 to 65-plus. The public service now has 257,138 employees with an average age that nudged slightly up to 45 years old over the past year.
Part of the problem is that average age of new hires is now 37 and the proportion of the permanent employees under age 35 has dipped slightly.
About 46 per cent of all public service executives are over age 50. The average deputy minister is 58; associate deputy minister is 54; assistant deputy minister 53.7 and directors and directors-general are 50.
Wernick gave no indication about whether the public service would grow with new recruitment but his report shows new hires aren’t replacing the number of people who leave. Last year, the government hired 6,093 permanent employees – compared to 2,900 in 2012 – while about 9,740 left or retired.
Departments are also hiring term, casual and student employees rather than permanent employees. The proportion of permanent employees – who make up 86 per cent of the public service – slipped as that of terms, casuals and students increased.
Departures remained stable over the past decade — other than the big blip that came with the job cuts from the Conservatives’ 2012 budget. Retirements and other departures hit a peak of 13,000 in 2012-13.
The recruitment and retention patterns are reflected in the experience levels of public servants. Today, 11 per cent of public servants have fewer than four years of experience compared with more than 13 per cent the previous year. The proportion with five to 14 years of experience increased slightly to 49.4 per cent from 48.7 per cent. Those with 25 years or more remained stable hovering at 17 per cent.
Wernick is picking up the same priorities of his predecessor Janice Charette, who put recruitment, mental health and policy development at the top of her management agenda.
Wernick earlier telegraphed mental health as a priority when he notified deputy ministers their performance pay this year would be tied to the health and well-being of their departments.
Mental health is a big issue, with depression and stress accounting for nearly half of all health claims. The government agreed to a joint labour and management task force on how to make the public service a healthy and “respectful” workplace.
Wernick’s report clearly indicates there will be no single plan when the task force releases its final report.
Rather, each department will develop its own “action plan” rather than shoehorn a master set of rules on all departments. That’s because the nature of federal workplaces varies wildly from white-collar office jobs to employees working in call centres, on Coast Guard ships, in prisons or the military.
Those plans will focus on changing culture with leadership, training, support for employees and managers, and then measuring the impact of those changes.
Wernick’s report noted that the last public service survey showed that harassment, discrimination and lack of empowerment are key barriers to a “respectful” workplace.
“These types of behaviours must be addressed,” he said. “There is no place for them in society or in the workplace. Every manager and every employee is accountable.”
On the policy front, Wernick has taken exception to critics who argue the public service lost its policy-making skills over the Conservative decade.
His report, however, says the way policy is developed has to be modernized and a policy community project is underway to strengthen policy-making in a rapidly changing world.
“It will be important never to return to a time where policy was developed in splendid isolation from the operations and services that implement it, or the people affected by it. Nor should policy be developed in silos and stovepipes. All of the important issues facing Canada are broad and multi-faceted.”