Canada’s budget watchdog says it’s time for a “deep dive” into the workings of the public service to unravel why departments are spending billions of dollars on consultants while also hiring a record number of employees.

Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) Yves Giroux said the recent spotlight on the government’s growing dependency on contracting for professional services — for everything from policy advice to running programs — raises fundamental questions about the role of the public service.

“Do we have the public service that we need right now?” he said in an interview. “Is it well equipped to deal with the challenges and the expectations that Canadians have of the public service — especially in light of its growth in recent years and the extensive use of outside advice and services?

“I think it’s time to do a real deep dive.”

Giroux is joining a growing chorus of experts who argue it’s time to fix the public service. Former clerks of the Privy Council Office, senior bureaucrats and academics are weighing in with views on what’s wrong and possible ways to fix it.

Giroux’s call comes with the release of his latest report on the government’s spending plans. They showed the cost of outsourcing will hit a record $21.4 billion this year. Spending on contracting has increased by more than a third since 2017-18.

He said the growth of consultants during the COVID-19 crisis was expected, but it hasn’t stopped. Rather than slow down to pre-pandemic levels, contracting which shot up 20 per cent in 2021-22, is still growing at a rate of more than 10 per cent this year.

The bigger question is why departments are adding thousands of employees to the federal payroll at the same time. The number of new hires has grown in lockstep with more consultants.

“If you increase the size of the public service, it’s because you feel there are needs that need to be met. That should reduce the use of consultants, but it’s not happening. They’re both growing in line,” said Giroux.

Personnel costs are the biggest single operating cost in government. The PBO estimates the seven-year hiring boom under the Trudeau government is expected to push the size of the workforce to about 409,000 jobs within five years.

The PBO said spending on personnel grew an average of 6.7 per cent a year – from $39.6 billion to $60.7 billion since 2015. That’s about a four-per-cent increase in compensation for each full-time employee.

Giroux said it might make sense if services were improving, but the bureaucracy is taking a beating for backlogs and delays in passports, immigration, access to information and privacy (ATIP) requests, veteran services and employment insurance.

It also doesn’t add up because the government and unions claim public servants are as productive, if not more, since the pandemic and the recent shift to hybrid work.

“Services are not improving significantly. In fact, some would say they are improving not at all… So, I wonder what’s going on? It’s a real mystery,” said Giroux.

The House of Commons government operations committee is juggling three separate probes into federal contracting. The most politically charged is the $116 million the Trudeau government spent on scandal-plagued consultants McKinsey & Company. Canada’s auditor general Karen Hogan announced she will conduct a review into the McKinsey contracts.

The committee is also widening its study to contracts of other big consulting firms — Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), KPMG, Ernst and Young (EY) and Accenture.

Many worry the committee hearings are so focused on the political blowback of tarnished McKinsey and its possible ties to the Liberals, that getting at what’s behind the growth of consultants and employees is getting lost.

Consultants, who are hired for their expertise and new ideas, never seem to leave. Once in, they get a lock on work and prevent the public service from developing its own in-house expertise.

There are no hard-and-fast rules for departments to follow on what work is best done by public servants or contractors. Many expect such guidance will be one of the recommendations out of these studies.

Treasury Board argues both are growing simply because there is so much more work. An activist government, the Liberals have fingers in many pies and ministers have mandate letters with long to-do lists. Treasury Board President Mona Fortier has said the cost of professional services as a percentage of federal spending has largely remained the same since 2011.

Dominic Barton, McKinsey’s former global managing director, told MPs that McKinsey doesn’t provide policy advice. Rather, it “executes” what government wants to do, be it streamlining its pay or passport processes or digitization, moving paper-based operations to electronic.

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But Barton also said the public service operates in the “stone age” and the government needs to up its game with more training and new technology.

“There’s a technology transformation that’s needed in this government and in all governments. I don’t want to be harsh about it, but we’re in the Stone Age. We have to spend the money. That will need a lot to be able to do it, but it will enable the organization to do more if we do it.”

The government is heavily reliant on IT consulting. Thirty per cent of its IT jobs are vacant and the experts they need are often not interested in becoming public servants. All this scrutiny will make public servants skittish about using them which could be a problem because “government can’t run without them,” said one senior bureaucrat.

The government contracts for all kinds of services. For cleaning, security, building maintenance, translation, temporary help and IT services. A Carleton University research team studying federal contracts took a run at breaking down the kind of services consultants offered departments.

Management consulting, which is typically for advice, is a small portion of government’s contracting bill for professional services. It has grown the most since in recent years and hit about $800 million in 2021-22.

But it’s the public service’s job is to provide frank and “fearless” advice to government – advice that puts the public interest first.

The growth in consulting raises questions whether public servants have lost its capacity to provide policy advice or their advice isn’t sought or trusted. Maybe they lack inhouse expertise or savvy to be good shoppers and buyers? Or are risk-averse public servants so cowed by years of bashing and criticism they opt for the safer course of running ideas by consultants or hiring those who provide the answer they think their political masters want to hear?

A common concern among those calling for reform of the public service is the centralization of power in the prime minister’s office and the frayed trust between politicians and bureaucrats. That relationship underpins Canada’s Westminster-style democracy.

Giroux, a long-time public servant before becoming an agent of Parliament, believes the public service has the capacity to provide advice if there’s an appetite for it.

“Is it because ministers don’t trust the advice they’re getting from the public service, which would be a big issue,” he said. “I think it leads to the need for a deep dive a thorough look at the state of the public service. Is it still the public service that politicians the executive, parliamentarians and Canadians expect.”

Giroux said the public service needs a top-to-bottom review of how the public service is structured, organized and equipped to deliver the kind of services Canadians expect today. In a 24/7 world, the public service has to rethink how it works, hires, pays, manage its workers, including where they work and hours of work.

Michael Wernick, a former clerk and Jarislowsky chair at the University of Ottawa agrees structural issues are key. He says the “core software” of government – its mountain of rules, job classifications, human resources regime and technology, are outdated.

“There’s very little attention to how it works. Its internal governance and processes and structures – basically the software on which it runs is like Windows 95,” he said

Donald Savoie, one of Canada’s leading experts on public administration, has argued for a royal commission. He said the “alarm bells about the public service have been ringing for a long time” and it’s time for a debate. Savoie says he was an “academic in the wilderness” when he warned about eroding trust and the concentration of power in the 1999 book, Governing form the Centre. Now, it’s a premise that’s widely accepted.

But Savoie said any efforts to reform the public service won’t get off the ground without the support of the prime minister.

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Giroux said the state of the public service has been on his mind for a while. The pandemic dramatically changed the nature and how public servants work so the timing is ideal.

He recently mused at a Senate’s committee about a nonchalance pervading the public service, a ‘broken system” and the need to “crack the whip” in some departments. He lamented the lack of a “challenge function” for public servants. They set their own targets for the programs they run, often setting the bar “not too high so that it doesn’t look too easy but neither too low.”

“There are pockets of excellence, but there are also pockets of, I would say, nonchalance in the public service. They’re overwhelmed or something is not right. Not being inside the public service, unfortunately, I cannot pinpoint what is in need of fixing,” he said.

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Kathryn May
Kathryn May is the Accenture Fellow on the Future of the Public Service, providing coverage and analysis of the complex issues facing Canada’s federal public service for Policy Options. She has spent 25 years writing about the public service – the country’s largest workforce – and has also covered parliamentary affairs and politics for The Ottawa Citizen, Postmedia Network Inc. and iPolitics. The winner of a National Newspaper Award, she has also researched and written about public service issues for the federal government and research institutes. Follow Kathryn on Twitter: @kathryn_may.

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