Public service reflections: Why the role of civil servants must evolve to ensure public trust

By on 19/06/2024 | Updated on 19/06/2024
Image: Chris Barbalis on Unsplash

National Public Service Week has just wrapped up in Canada. The initiative is recognised both federally and in many provinces and celebrates public servants at all levels. It’s aimed at honouring the important work they do and their contribution to government in Canada.

Throughout the week, political leaders, including the prime minister, issue statements thanking public servants for their dedication. Often, awards for excellence, innovation and long-term service are announced to recognise and profile outstanding achievements among the country’s public sector employees. This year was no exception.

But the celebratory nature of the week belies serious tensions in the role of public servants in Canada and how they’re perceived by the public and political leaders.

Canadian distrust

While trust levels tend to fluctuate, a 2021 report found that less than half (48 percent) of Canadians surveyed indicated they trusted the public service, which is slightly lower than the average among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development states (50 percent) and only a little higher than trust in Canadian politicians (44 percent).

During the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare workers were subject to threats of violence as they implemented and communicated public health restrictions. In the last few years, high levels of inflation and concerns about affordability in Canada have prompted strident criticism of public servants working in the banking and housing sectors from both the public and politicians.

The traditional model of the public servant in systems of governments like Canada’s is a non-partisan, career official who can serve governments of different political stripes. These officials are meant to remain largely anonymous and responsible solely to their elected minister as they lend their expertise to elected governments while implementing governments’ decisions and delivering public services.

This model relies on impartiality so public servants can be frank and fearless when providing advice and administer program and services free from political influence.

Read more: Data Challenge serves as an engine of innovation for Canada’s public services

New model necessary?

But many have argued that the traditional public servant model is no longer tenable or desirable.

With citizens’ service expectations increasing, demands for direct input in decision-making and more non-government entities involved in governance, there is a growing school of thought that today’s public servant must be an outward-focused manager who works collaboratively with non-government partners and promotes democracy by engaging directly with citizens.

My research asked the public, politicians and public servants themselves what they thought the role of the public servant should be in Canadian democracy. Despite traditional assumptions that bureaucracy is slow to adapt to change and unresponsive to the demands of the public and political leaders, there was significant agreement among all three groups.

The public, politicians and public servants supported the principle of non-partisanship and believed that, ultimately, elected ministers should be deemed at fault when something goes wrong in government. A majority of all three groups thought public servants should not be free from public scrutiny and that part of their job was to engage regularly with stakeholders, media and other external groups.

The issue is not a disconnect between the expectations of the public and politicians on one hand and public servants’ unwillingness to change on the other. The problem stems from a fundamental tension between non-partisanship and openness and transparency, two values that all groups supported but might be mutually exclusive.

Impartiality questioned

If public servants increasingly engage directly with the public, civil society organisations and the media, the chances will increase that they’ll get drawn into political debates or even politicised. Their expertise could be viewed as serving a particular political interest rather than the public good.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, chief medical officers of health became household names by providing daily case counts and announcing new measures to address the spread of the virus. This caused confusion about accountability as it was sometimes unclear which decisions were made by public health experts and which were made by politicians.

In addition, these officials were subject to partisan criticism and conspiracies.

In these cases the chief medical officers of health were no longer viewed as experts working in the public interest above the political fray. This can affect their ability to do their jobs and achieve the compliance required to make health measures effective.

Read more: Canadian government departments are balancing AI optimism with caution

Evolving model

So what’s the way forward for public servants? Is there a model whereby unelected government officials can engage freely outside bureaucratic hierarchies and have public profiles but still be viewed by politicians and the public as impartial?

To do so, trust is critical. It’s the capital that public servants must accumulate and the currency they must trade in.

Public servants are no longer trusted based solely on their technical expertise. Instead, they must rely on their ability to build relationships, communicate complex and controversial ideas in an authentic way and manage conflict. These skills are increasingly just as important as their ability to design innovative programmes, generate evidence and deliver results.

As public service institutions and leaders celebrated their achievements last week, the Clerk of Privy Council, John Hannaford, and two deputy clerks stated: “We all play a fundamental role in upholding the values that are at the core of our identity as public servants and serve to safeguard the trust Canadians place in us.”

Let’s hope that the individuals, teams and projects that safeguard that trust continue to be recognised so they can showcase the skills and values necessary for public service work – now and in the future.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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About Brendan Boyd

Brendan Boyd is assistant professor at the Department of Anthropology, Economics and Political Science, MacEwan University

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