With the election behind us, a newly minted cabinet named and visions of post-pandemic life dangling just on the horizon, eyes across the country are turning to just how the country will “build back better.” For the first time in recent memory, there actually seems to be political consensus on the usually contentious issues of deficits and spending cuts, at least as far as party election platforms go.
None of the major parties campaigned on aggressively paying down the debt or cutting government spending, and there appears to be an understanding that – at least for the time being – the government will continue to be a major player in the economy and the lives of Canadians.
Perhaps it’s time to look at what can be done to shore up financial management and accountability. This would ensure public funds are spent in an effective and accountable way. The Canadian public may be familiar with the important work of the Auditor General of Canada and the power of hindsight when evaluating how effectively taxpayer money has been spent. But it’s the 6,000 accountants, auditors and financial management professionals working away in programs and departments who are tasked with ensuring public funds are spent appropriately in the first place.
As cabinet ministers read up on their new portfolios and MPs prepare to dig into the work of lawmaking, here are three ways they can support good financial stewardship at its source and give all Canadians confidence in how public funds are managed.
Make it easier to recruit and retain the best talent
The public service staffing system is broken. It takes too long to hire, and the hurdles that have been put in place ─ ostensibly in the interests of fairness ─ have rendered the process so cumbersome that managers increasingly turn to non-advertised job processes.
Staffing is also one aspect of the labour relations process that has been excluded by statute from the collective bargaining process. The Public Service Commission of Canada Joint Advisory Council is intended to provide a forum for consultation with unions, but the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) and the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) – the two largest public service unions – question its effectiveness, noting that it functions more as a place for the Public Service Commission to report on its efforts than to engage on underlying issues.
Collectively bargained staffing systems, like those in place in most jurisdictions, might include the joint establishment of staffing standards and timelines, the area of selection policies, and systems for dispute resolution, among other things. In addition, they would ease the burden on the Public Sector Labour Relations and Employment Board, which is currently overwhelmed with a backlog of staffing complaints, by moving such complaints into the grievance process.
Canadians deserve to know that the best and brightest financial management professionals are working to ensure public funds are spent appropriately. The staffing system as it currently exists rewards and prioritizes those who know how to work the system, not those who are most qualified and capable. Giving unions a voice in the staffing system is a tangible, simple step that would benefit everyone.
Make everyone accountable
The broken staffing system has knock-on effects beyond just recruitment and retention. Faced with the need to bring in additional resources, many public service managers end up tendering contracts and engaging consultants instead of staffing vacant positions, even when those skills are part of their teams’ core functions. This is in addition to the already large number of consultants who are brought in for more appropriate and legitimate reasons. At any given time, an alarming percentage of the public service workforce is in what our colleagues at PIPSC have dubbed the shadow public service.
While one might debate the merits of a contract workforce carrying out the daily functions of government, what can’t be debated is that this shadow workforce isn’t subject to the accountability and transparency measures to which public service workers rightly are subject. Access to information provisions, values and ethics codes, and processes of accountability are cornerstones of accountable and responsible government – but those mechanisms and processes disappear once work is handed off to private corporations and individuals.
It’s time for the government to require that contractors and consultants abide by the same ethics and accountability rules as do public servants, specifically a code of ethics, the access to information regime and the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act. Public funds are spent by public institutions in service of the public – there’s no room for privacy and obfuscation simply because the work has been contracted out.
Make it easier to do the right thing
While transparency and accountability measures are crucial to the functioning of government, when it comes to uncovering wrongdoing or mismanagement, it is often individuals – especially those in accounting, audit and financial management roles – who are the first to catch wind of a problem. Yet the very real threat of reprisal for blowing the whistle means these professionals are forced to choose between upholding their professional obligations and protecting their families, personal wellbeing and livelihoods.
Rather than being celebrated, public service workers who disclose wrongdoing are often ostracized and villainized. The channels of recourse available fail to offer timely resolution, and while the processes play out, whistleblowers are stuck working with the very people who are allegedly responsible for the wrongdoing. Reprisals are common and work environments become toxic, potentially leading to mental health issues for individuals. At the systemic level, wrongdoing is allowed to fester.
The good news is that all parties have already agreed on how to make the system better. A 2017 report from the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates includes several recommendations for legislative changes that would give better protection to those who choose to do the right thing. These measures would send a clear signal throughout government that whistleblowing is vital to democracy. It’s time for those recommendations to be implemented.
Good financial stewardship is rarely glamourous work; done well, it barely merits mention. Indeed, it’s often only when things go wrong that we recognize how vital this function truly is. Record levels of spending are still being considered, and all parties agree that the federal government must continue to play a major role as we begin to emerge from the pandemic. Elected officials must be proactive ─ they must shore up the frameworks of financial accountability and support unionized workers, who play a vital role in safeguarding the public treasury and maintaining confidence. Fixing the staffing system, improving accountability and protecting those who disclose wrongdoing are three easy ways to do exactly that.