The Public Service is from Mars, We are from Venus

Last week the Clerk of the Privy Council gave a speech this speech in Vancouver. There is much in the speech that is promising, and some that remains problematic.

That said, I want to key in on the last part of the Clerk’s speech. Myth number 8: “The Public Service is out of touch with Canadians — they’re from Venus, we’re from Mars.

In this piece the Clerk touches on the traditional critiques of how the public service is out of touch. He goes out of his way to outline how the geographic, linguistic and ethnic, are or have been addressed. In addition he outlines why – through outreach – the culture gap between private and public sector can be overcome.

We can debate if these concerns have been sufficiently addressed, and if not, how they should be. I think it would be hard to argue with the notion that enormous progress has been made on this front in the past few decades. However, none of them represent the differences that concern me most.  One which I do not think we can resolve and so requires further thought.

Today, public service employees are members of a union, enjoy life long job security, are eligible for a generous pension plan, and, by and large (particularly in the more senior ranks) live in Ottawa – a city shaped by and dominated by, the public service.

There was a time when the first three traits meant that employment experience of a public servant – such as one’s notions about: job security, opportunity, the expectations of their employer, and relationship with their boss and peers – was not dissimilar to that of many other Canadians.

Today however, this is less and less the case. Fewer and fewer Canadians are unionized, enjoy job security, or a pension.

Simply put, there is a culture gap.

A public servant’s career, life choices and opportunities are shaped by a system that is far removed from that experienced by the vast majority of Canadians. This, in a city where your average public servant comes into contact with non-public servants less and less.  I’m not saying this shouldn’t be the case. What I am saying is that the capacity of a institution to make policy for a public it resembles less and less, and whose experience is increasingly far removed from its own, is troubling and worthy of further exploration. It’s a culture gap I think is on few people’s radar – even the clerk’s.

14 thoughts on “The Public Service is from Mars, We are from Venus

  1. Steph D

    I agree David, there’s an intrinsic assymetry between the public and private sectors. But I’d like to add another aspect to add to your argument on job security & pensions: lower pay.

    While in the private sector, you as an individual have the flexibility to negotiate your own salary or move on to another employer, public servants are stuck to a “lowest common denominator” salary scale.

    If the pay scales were on par with the average salaries in the private sector, then you’d be able to see more interchanges between the two sectors, sharing experiences and insights on each other. Unfortunately, as it stands, a financial specialist who would want to take an assignment with the Public Service would be looking at losing half his pay, as well as any perks he may have had.

    The private sector will not reshape itself in the image of the public service, so it’s up to the public service to adapt.

    Reply
  2. Steph D

    I agree David, there’s an intrinsic assymetry between the public and private sectors. But I’d like to add another aspect to add to your argument on job security & pensions: lower pay.While in the private sector, you as an individual have the flexibility to negotiate your own salary or move on to another employer, public servants are stuck to a “lowest common denominator” salary scale.If the pay scales were on par with the average salaries in the private sector, then you’d be able to see more interchanges between the two sectors, sharing experiences and insights on each other. Unfortunately, as it stands, a financial specialist who would want to take an assignment with the Public Service would be looking at losing half his pay, as well as any perks he may have had.The private sector will not reshape itself in the image of the public service, so it’s up to the public service to adapt.

    Reply
  3. David B

    Steph D:
    Having worked in both camps over my career, I agree that there are disparities between pay in the two sectors, however it is not, by a long shot, always the public service that is paid less.
    At the most senior levels, truly competent and effective managers in the public service could make more on the outside. However at the most junior levels, the opposite applies. Few private sector administrative assistants or clerks make anywhere near what they would in the public service.
    Then there’s that huge group in the middle where the argument about whether they would, or would not, make more in one sector or the other depends solely on their personal skills, interests, and abilities. Let’s face it, many are more suited for a life in the public sector with it’s predicatability, job security, and lots of vacation time. Others would go crazy without the daily challenges and uncertainty that permeate the private sector. And, if it’s all about the money, then they too can move the same as anyone in the private sector can change employers.

    Reply
  4. David B

    Steph D:Having worked in both camps over my career, I agree that there are disparities between pay in the two sectors, however it is not, by a long shot, always the public service that is paid less.At the most senior levels, truly competent and effective managers in the public service could make more on the outside. However at the most junior levels, the opposite applies. Few private sector administrative assistants or clerks make anywhere near what they would in the public service. Then there’s that huge group in the middle where the argument about whether they would, or would not, make more in one sector or the other depends solely on their personal skills, interests, and abilities. Let’s face it, many are more suited for a life in the public sector with it’s predicatability, job security, and lots of vacation time. Others would go crazy without the daily challenges and uncertainty that permeate the private sector. And, if it’s all about the money, then they too can move the same as anyone in the private sector can change employers.

    Reply
  5. Mark

    The perceived gap between private and public sector in Toronto, Edmonton or Vancouver may still exist, but I guarantee you that in much of the rest of the country, public servants renumeration and benefits are as good or better than those in the private sector.

    Reply
  6. Mark

    The perceived gap between private and public sector in Toronto, Edmonton or Vancouver may still exist, but I guarantee you that in much of the rest of the country, public servants renumeration and benefits are as good or better than those in the private sector.

    Reply
  7. ncharney

    Dave, there has been a flurry in news coverage and responses to the Clerk’s remarks. I unfortunately haven’t had time to get to write a response myself; thank you for addressing some of the issues.

    FYI I cross posted this on http://www.cpsrenewal.ca as per our previous conversation.

    Many Thanks.

    Reply
  8. ncharney

    Dave, there has been a flurry in news coverage and responses to the Clerk’s remarks. I unfortunately haven’t had time to get to write a response myself; thank you for addressing some of the issues. FYI I cross posted this on http://www.cpsrenewal.ca as per our previous conversation.Many Thanks.

    Reply
  9. David Eaves Post author

    Hi everyone,

    Wanted to first say thank you for the comments. I also wanted to note that salary is only a small piece of the debate
    We can debate how differentials in salary between the public and private sector impact talent retention (not much in my opinion) but this was not the main thrust of my piece.
    I’m much more concerned about the gap in the career environment between the public sector and everybody else. Public servants are simply confronted with different pressures and choices than the vast majority of Canadians – be them private sector or non-profit. Is someone who spends their entire career public servant (in Ottawa or anywhere in the country) understand or even relate to the citizens for whom the policies they create are supposed to impact? This “culture gap” is a far more fundamental and (in my mind) intriguing question then that of salary or whether public servants could or would gain employment in the private sector (a related, but ultimately different, question).
    Thoughts?

    Reply
  10. David Eaves

    Hi everyone,Wanted to first say thank you for the comments. I also wanted to note that salary is only a small piece of the debate We can debate how differentials in salary between the public and private sector impact talent retention (not much in my opinion) but this was not the main thrust of my piece. I’m much more concerned about the gap in the career environment between the public sector and everybody else. Public servants are simply confronted with different pressures and choices than the vast majority of Canadians – be them private sector or non-profit. Is someone who spends their entire career public servant (in Ottawa or anywhere in the country) understand or even relate to the citizens for whom the policies they create are supposed to impact? This “culture gap” is a far more fundamental and (in my mind) intriguing question then that of salary or whether public servants could or would gain employment in the private sector (a related, but ultimately different, question). Thoughts?

    Reply
  11. Steph D

    Can someone who spends their entire career in Ottawa be able to understand or even relate to the citizens they create policy for?

    In short, NO. It’s impossible. Just like it’s impossible for someone in St. John’s or Vancouver to appreciate how a National Policy affects the entire country if they have never left their environments either. Insulation to the realities of others always leads to ignorance, whatever sector you happen to work in.

    Can we expect every Public Servant in Canada to pack up and move to each and every region in the country? Of course not. Can we expect the federal government to decentralize all of its bureaucracy across the country? I think the shine of that idea would wear off with taxpayers when the travel expense bills started coming in.

    But at the heart of the matter is that each region gets a well-represented voice within the policy formulation process, which arguably has not been occuring anywhere near enough these days. Regional offices need policy capacity to be able to influence the decision-making process, not just deliver programs they have no input into.

    As for the pay issue, my apologies, I wasn’t specific enough. Yes, the lower-end of the scale is higher than the private-sector average (call centres, admins, etc.) but the group I was targeting in particular was the higher end in leadership roles – those who’d be in the best positions for exchanges with private-sector areas and instill the corporate changes at the top to instill the best practices they bring back from the “outside world”.

    Reply
  12. Steph D

    Can someone who spends their entire career in Ottawa be able to understand or even relate to the citizens they create policy for?In short, NO. It’s impossible. Just like it’s impossible for someone in St. John’s or Vancouver to appreciate how a National Policy affects the entire country if they have never left their environments either. Insulation to the realities of others always leads to ignorance, whatever sector you happen to work in.Can we expect every Public Servant in Canada to pack up and move to each and every region in the country? Of course not. Can we expect the federal government to decentralize all of its bureaucracy across the country? I think the shine of that idea would wear off with taxpayers when the travel expense bills started coming in.But at the heart of the matter is that each region gets a well-represented voice within the policy formulation process, which arguably has not been occuring anywhere near enough these days. Regional offices need policy capacity to be able to influence the decision-making process, not just deliver programs they have no input into.As for the pay issue, my apologies, I wasn’t specific enough. Yes, the lower-end of the scale is higher than the private-sector average (call centres, admins, etc.) but the group I was targeting in particular was the higher end in leadership roles – those who’d be in the best positions for exchanges with private-sector areas and instill the corporate changes at the top to instill the best practices they bring back from the “outside world”.

    Reply
  13. David Eaves Post author

    Hi Steph, again I think we are missing each other. This post was not about regional representation in government. It’s an insider vs. outsider issue. The culture gap I’m referring to is created by the difference in opportunities and pressures faced by public servants versus those outside the public service, regardless of where they live in the country. Obviously the issue is more acute in Ottawa since one is less likely to interface with a non-public servant there, but this issue is still relevant for federal public servants living in St. John’s and Vancouver.

    Reply
  14. David Eaves

    Hi Steph, again I think we are missing each other. This post was not about regional representation in government. It’s an insider vs. outsider issue. The culture gap I’m referring to is created by the difference in opportunities and pressures faced by public servants versus those outside the public service, regardless of where they live in the country. Obviously the issue is more acute in Ottawa since one is less likely to interface with a non-public servant there, but this issue is still relevant for federal public servants living in St. John’s and Vancouver.

    Reply

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