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Unions call for action after report criticizes values and ethics in federal public service

Alex Silas is vice-president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada for the National Capital Region. (Olivier Plante/CBC - image credit)
Alex Silas is vice-president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada for the National Capital Region. (Olivier Plante/CBC - image credit)

Unions representing federal public servants say the government needs to do more to address dissatisfaction among the workforce after a recent report found some employees are unable to feel pride in their work.

"It's more difficult now to be proud to be a public servant, because of people's perceptions of the institution and because of Canada's role on the global stage," said one participant who testified as part of the Deputy Ministers' Task Team on Values and Ethics Report.

The report was published in late December and authored by members of a task force assembled by Privy Council Clerk John Hannaford.

It's the first major values and ethics review since an earlier report titled A Strong Foundation was released nearly 30 years ago.

Alex Silas, executive vice-president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada for the National Capital Region, said the union supports the recommendations put forward in the report, but wants to see action.

"What we've seen historically, unfortunately, is that the values and ethics proposed by the federal government are not implemented in the workplaces of the federal government," Silas said.

According to the report, it drew its findings from over 90 conversations that took place with public servants and external stakeholders starting in September 2023.

What the report heard

The report notes that "public servants must provide frank and professional advice, without partisan considerations or fear of criticism or political reprisals."

It includes accounts of racism and discrimination, and a perceived double standard resulting from unequal application of the government's Values and Ethics Code for the Public Sector.

"The higher up the food chain you go, the less accountability seems to exist," said one participant.

"I am still finding a lack of cultural competency when it comes to engaging with Indigenous Peoples," said another.

In a statement, the president of the Treasury Board, the department responsible for the federal public service, said the team is reviewing the recommendations and will soon discuss next steps.

"Every public servant deserves a safe and healthy work environment, period. Officials receive training on respect in the workplace and are encouraged to report any behaviour that goes against the Code," Anita Anand said.

Some participants noted a feeling of censorship that "includes having a social media presence that is aligned with values and ethics principles."

"How does the non-partisan stance that public servants are supposed to demonstrate mix with [values and ethics] when it comes to world events and crises?" one participant asked.

Jennifer Carr is president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada.
Jennifer Carr is president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada.

Jennifer Carr is president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

"Public servants should have a policy for social media use that outlines what we can say on a public platform and we should not say on a public platform," another participant noted.

Jennifer Carr, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, said the report's recommendations did not answer those specific questions.

"Which makes it very hard for us as unions to provide guidance and to serve our members and for the public servants to know what is and isn't OK," Carr said, adding she hopes it wasn't merely a "performative exercise."

Report recommendations

The report said "the pandemic dramatically changed how the public service works, impacted citizens' trust in public institutions, increased their expectations and diminished their overall satisfaction with government services."

Its 15 recommendations includ asking senior leaders to continue "the engagement with equity-deserving communities and networks," and that central agencies "update guidance for social media use as required."

Wayne Wouters, the former clerk of the privy council appointed by Stephen Harper in 2009, said it's an excellent start because of the importance of values and ethics to the public service.

"They have far reaching implications for governance, for public trust and for the well-being of our society and Canadians as a whole," Wouters said.

"It is our foundation, it is the basis of public trust,."

Wouters, now a strategy and policy adviser at law firm McCarthy Tétrault, said if he was still clerk today he would continue the dialogue.

"I'm biased, very biased, but it is still one of the best public services in the world but we just got to keep modernizing our system and ensure that they can be the most productive and add the most value they can in serving Canadians," he said.

A spokesperson for the office of the privy council said the observations and recommendations in the report will help identify next steps.

"Clerk Hannaford has also asked deputies to play a pivotal role in continuing to broaden conversations within their organizations, and to report to him and the Deputy Clerk on their progress," the statement said.