Public service workers oppose government’s lack of accountability and restriction of rights
PSAC, September 15, 2011

Members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada march through downtown Iqaluit June 18, 2011 to protest planned cuts by the Harper government to federal public services. (Nunatsiaq Online)

(Ottawa) — More than five years since the coming into force of the Public Service Modernization Act, the legislation has failed to provide for a fairer and more accountable staffing process in the federal government, and fails to balance the political rights of workers with the need for an impartial public service, said the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) in a report released today.

Merit-based hiring has been severely weakened by the Act and accountability for unfair or biased staffing processes has deteriorated. Also, the Act has opened the door to stringent and unnecessary restrictions on the political rights of public service workers by the Public Service Commission.

In the 29-page report, PSAC outlines how the legislative changes that came as a result of the passing of the Public Service Modernization Act (PSMA) have failed to achieve the objectives of improving working relations in the federal government and ensuring better and more efficient services to Canadians.

“The public service cannot serve the interests of Canada, or promote the constitutional goal of peace, order and good government, by unduly curtailing the constitutional rights of its own workers,” said John Gordon, National President of PSAC. “The legitimate interest of the public in an impartial public service must be balanced against the political rights of workers.”

The PSMA brought about changes to two key pieces of legislation which provide the framework for staffing and labour relations in the federal public service: the Public Service Employment Act (PSEA) and the Public Service Labour Relations Act (PSLRA).

One of the main problems with the changes to the PSEA is the new definition of merit in hiring public service employees. The new definition of merit allows the criteria through which merit is determined to include present and future needs. This definition creates tremendous latitude to establish criteria for selection for which there can be no accountability, as future needs are entirely speculative.

“Canadians rightly expect that when the government hires in the public service, the most qualified candidate amongst a pool of qualified candidates will get the job,” said Gordon. “The new legislation’s definition of merit in hiring actually contradicts the principles of excellence and accountability that Canadians expect, and opens the door to favouritism and partisan appointments.”

The Public Service Staffing Tribunal set up to investigate cases of abuse in hiring has issued less than 20 decisions in which it has accepted the allegations which have been put before it with regard to abuse of authority and other matters falling within its statutory mandate. Worse, the new legislation eliminates independent third party review of errors, irregularities and omissions in the selection process. In some cases, deputy heads of departments have assumed responsibility for investigation processes even where they themselves are personally implicated.

“In the absence of real accountability for botched staffing actions, hiring in the public service is becoming looser and in some cases, slip-shod,” said Gordon. “We are on the cusp of a culture shift in public service staffing — less accountability will inevitably mean more unfairness.”

PSAC is also concerned that notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s striking down of prior restrictions on political activities for public service workers, the Public Service Commission is attempting to exceed its authority under the Act to monitor and restrict all political and “advocacy” work of public service workers. The Commission is also considering monitoring Facebook and other social networking sites for what it considers to be potentially partisan activity by public service workers. This is an unjustifiable intrusion into the private lives of government employees which will stifle political expression and undermine the democratic rights of workers.

Changes to the PSLRA, the labour relations framework for the federal public service, have failed to improve long standing problems. Meaningful consultation and effective joint resolution of labour relations issues have not improved since the legislation was enacted.

Alternative dispute resolution mechanisms such as the ones provided by the Public Service Labour Relations Board’s mediation services have been very useful in avoiding the further escalation of disputes in certain instances. Unfortunately, mediation has not been taken seriously by many departments, which has exacerbated labour relations across the federal government. PSAC would like to see the Board take a pro-active role in managing mediation processes including the expectations of the parties prior to mediation to ensure that the individuals attending have the delegated authority to settle disputes.

The report also outlines concerns related to essential service agreements, which must ensure a balance is struck between ensuring the safety of the Canadian public and respect for the rights of union members to strike.

“The raison d’être of the Public Service Modernization Act was to improve working relations and produce a better work environment in the federal public service,” said Gordon. “After more than five years under the new legislation, it is clear that it has failed to produce its stated objective.”

PSAC is calling on the federal government to consider its recommendations as it proceeds with its statutory review of the PSMA.

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