Canada reviews public service values; UK’s opposition leader vows to tackle civil service churn: news in brief

By on 11/01/2024 | Updated on 11/01/2024
A photo of the definition of ethics in a dictionary
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Global Government Forum’s digest of the news you need to know but might have missed.

Canada looks to update public service values and ethics

The Canadian public service has released a new report on values and ethics in a bid to ignite discussion about how officials conduct themselves at a time of unprecedented complexity.

The recommendations laid out in the report – which was compiled by deputy ministers, the non-partisan heads of departments – include reviewing codes of conduct with consideration of social media and AI, and bolstering the “core value of respect for people” by addressing racism and increasing diversity and inclusion.  

The public service’s first values and ethics code was introduced in 2003 off the back of the 1996 Tait report, and was updated in 2012.

The 2012 version outlines five core values that guide the public service – respect for democracy, respect for people, integrity, stewardship and excellence – as well as the expected behaviours of officials.

The latest report notes that in the 20 years since the publication of the first values and ethics code, “multi-dimensional global challenges have grown exponentially, and the public sector faces a level of complexity not previously experienced by public servants”.

It added that the COVID-19 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”, and that employees who joined during that time and work partly remotely have fewer opportunities for dialogue on the core values and ethics of the institution than “physical presence [in the workplace] previously facilitated”.

The authors of the report admit that the public service “has struggled to adapt, to innovate and to meet expectations, resulting in a growing deficit of trust and negative perception of legitimacy”.

Read more: Integrity under threat: civil service ethics in the era of populism

In consultation, deputy ministers had more than 90 conversations with public servants, external stakeholders and civil society about awareness of the code, how values and ethics should link to the future of the public service and other issues.

The resulting report contains 15 recommendations across five categories. These include ensuring that departmental codes of conduct are upheld with consequences for violations “regardless of level or position”; embedding governance structures that support leaders in ensuring best practices and cross-cutting issues and actions can be shared; and central agencies playing a greater role in raising awareness of public service values and ethics.

Other recommendations encourage innovation, collaboration and agility “in all areas of public service work… to ensure excellence”, and suggest that guidance be draw up around use of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence.

In his latest ‘Letter from Ottawa’ article for Global Government Forum, former clerk of the Privy Council and secretary to the Cabinet Michael Wernick, focused on two issues from the report in particular.

“What the consultations on values revealed is that a difficult conversation is coming regarding public servants’ expression of personal views on social media. Somewhere between unfettered free speech and a code of total silence, new boundaries will need to be set. In the end it will not be possible to use rules to prescribe and cover every situation, so the compass will have to come from judgement informed by values,” he wrote.

“Public servants are also uneasy about the influence of political staff and will be looking for guidance on the alignment of roles.”

The values and ethics report is dedicated to the late Ian Shugart, who served as clerk of the Privy Council and secretary to the Cabinet between 2019 and 2021, having previously led a number of other departments. The report describes him as “a lifelong public servant, mentor, colleague and dear friend who devoted his life to the service of Canadians. His integrity, wisdom and compassion made him a role model to all public servants and an inspiration to all who had the privilege to know him”.

Read more: UK has ‘gone backwards’ on standards in public life, says ethics chief

US federal government seeks synthetic data to train AI

The Department of Homeland Security is seeking synthetically generated data “for a variety of uses” including building AI and machine learning models, according to a new solicitation.  

The contract opportunity document, released last month, states that while the department generates data for analytics, developing and evaluating technical capabilities and to train machine learning algorithms, “the often sensitive nature of the data in question” means it is “highly challenging” to use or to share across organisational boundaries.

As such, it is seeking synthetic data from the private sector which replicates real data “while mitigating privacy, civil rights and liberties, and security harms”. It describes its need for artificial data as “critical”.

The document references technological research and consulting firm Gartner, which notes that synthetic data can be used to test a new system where no live data exists and that it can create enhanced datasets that “often mitigate the weaknesses of real data”.  

Read more: US agencies lack ‘comprehensive and accurate’ AI inventories, GAO report finds

Giving an example of a possible scenario, the document says that synthetic data could be used by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency to develop realistic training and exercise scenarios or to model cyber and physical environments in real time. 

The call to vendors supports the National Strategy to Advance Privacy-Preserving Data Sharing and Analytics, which asserts that responsible data sharing and analytics technologies “help to advance the wellbeing and prosperity of individuals and society and promote science and innovation in a manner that affirms democratic values”. The strategy aims to support early-stage startup companies and to encourage new forms of data collaboration.

The homeland department’s solicitation is open until 10 April, and companies that participate are eligible for up to US$1.7m in funding.

Read more: AI key to ‘transform productivity’ of the civil service, says UK’s deputy PM

Leader of UK’s opposition party hopes to tackle civil service churn

Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labour Party, will seek to reduce churn among senior civil servants if he becomes prime minister, according to his allies.  

Labour is ahead of the incumbent Conservative government in the polls ahead of a general election that will take place this year.

According to the Financial Times (FT), sources close to Starmer have said that “civil service stability” will be important for delivering Labour’s aims if it wins office and that Starmer believes leading officials should stay in post longer to help drive through reforms.

A source close to Starmer said: “If we are going to have a ‘mission driven’ government, that requires civil service stability. You don’t have that if you have directors-general moving jobs every 18 months.

“The system currently incentivises moving – it is seen as a sign that you are versatile and can take on any challenge – but is ultimately not helpful for delivery.”

Read more: Third of Canadian officials say work suffers due to churn

The Institute for Government (IfG) think tank said last year that the rapid turnover of officials was one of the biggest impediments to the ability of ministers to deliver policy and plan for the future.

It is understood that the IfG’s next Whitehall Monitor report, due to be published this month, identifies what it calls “grade inflation”, whereby civil servants are being overpromoted to get around a pay squeeze, compounding the problem.

Hannah White, the director of the IfG, cited ‘completion bonuses’ offered to those who stayed in a particular role for a certain number of years as a possible incentive.

In response to Starmer’s plans to address civil service churn, Cabinet Office minister John Glen said the government had identified that churn is a “significant issue” and that it had already taken steps to tackle it “with further announcements to come in due course”.

Read more: Third of UK officials looking for jobs outside civil service, FDA survey finds

Publication of Australia’s gender pay gap data ‘important step’, says minister for women

Australian companies with 100 or more employees will have their gender pay gap data published online next month, following legislation that was passed last March.

Minister for women Katy Gallagher said the reform – which aims to improve transparency and close the gender pay gap – was an “important step in raising awareness and holding organisations to account” where there are pay discrepancies between men and women.  

According to the government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency, though Australia’s national gender pay gap is at its lowest ever level, it is still high at 21.7%, with women earning AUS$26,400 (US$17,700) less than men on average. This is significantly higher than New Zealand, for example, whose national gender pay gap stands at 8.6%.

Become a member of the Global Government Women’s Network here

Gallagher – who is also the minister for finance and for the public service – said that factors such as women undertaking the lion’s share of caring responsibilities and being more likely than men to work part-time, “compound over a lifetime” and result in “a massive lifetime gender earnings gap”.

It is hoped the publication of data on 27 February will spur companies that need to do more to change and to equip employees with information to help them decide who to work for.

Gallagher said that businesses had already begun highlighting the actions they are taking to close pay gaps. “It’s great to see employers stepping up and being real partners in this effort,” she said.

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About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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