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Opinion

Canada’s Public Service Employee Survey 2020 says: employees happier and former top agencies still on top

By Jake Cole       

The COVID-19 pandemic, while affecting everyone in Canada, might also have given many employees a better sense of the value of their service to Canadians. Whatever the reason, they are a happier bunch.

The results of the PSES provide a rich source of information that, if properly assessed and acted on, can result in positive changes for the employees and subsequently for the Canadians they are there to serve, writes former federal public servant Jake Cole. The Hill Times photograph by Sam Garcia
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The latest annual Public Service Employee Survey (PSES) was carried out in 2020 with results published in May. The most obvious result? Employees are measurably more engaged at work than they were a year ago and perhaps ever. Working from home appears to be a significant morale booster for most employees. The COVID-19 pandemic, while affecting everyone in Canada, might also have given many employees a better sense of the value of their service to Canadians. Whatever the reason, they are a happier bunch.

Certain of the top-rated federal agencies continue to receive top marks from their employees. They provide excellent examples of “how to do it” for other agencies and departments. Their employees tend to readily extol their employers, their immediate supervisors, and their senior managers. While the PSES results show promising improvements for many agencies, there are others whose employees are clearly not as engaged, not as happy, and likely not as productive. Some of these low-rated agencies are not being idle, however, instead taking positive steps to improve the work life of their employees and consequently, the effectiveness of their organization.

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There is another, very good federal agency out there. It’s the Supreme Court of Canada, No. 2 on my list this year. The Veritas (Truth) Statue on the west side of the Supreme Court Building in Ottawa. The Hill Times photograph by Sam Garcia

While COVID-19 has thrown a curve ball into most Canadians’ lives, it has had a rather unexpected, positive effect on Canada’s public service. A little extra digging into the PSES results (provided by a public servant who must remain nameless) tells us that those working from home are quite measurably more happy than those who worked in the office. Now there’s something to think about. While telecommuting has long been touted as a good idea for many reasons, including environmental benefits, it has often been resisted by management. Perhaps it’s time to consider working from home as a permanent option.

Another lawyer, Joe Friday, head of the PSIC, describes his organization as ‘a highly participatory democracy,’ where different perspectives are valued. Clearly, the employees enjoy the participation and they stand as another example of motivated and engaged public servants. The Hill Times file photograph by Jake Wright

As with all these surveys that I have been reporting on since 2008, there are many results with both explicit and implicit messages that seem to go unnoticed or perhaps ignored. Those “missing links,” with a little more digging, can reveal much more key information that could help Canada’s public service significantly improve itself. The results clearly identify many areas where improvements are needed and provide good examples, by way of several progressive agencies, where workers are quite engaged and motivated. Finally, with a little analysis that is not part of the official reports, we can identify which of those agencies are the best ones to work for, which ones that face challenges, and a lot of good suggestions for senior leaders to consider.

Here are some of the worrisome unreported messages:

  1. Only one-third of employees really feel they get proper training to do their job. (Q4)
  2. Only one-third feel fully recognized for good work done. (Q8)
  3. Only just over one-third have a lot of confidence in their senior management. (Q32)
  4. Only a quarter think information flows well from senior management down. (Q34)
  5. Just over one-quarter think they get much career development support. (Q44)
  6. Just over one-third feel their workplace is psychologically very healthy. (Q78)
  7. Only 61 per cent bothered to fill out the survey. What message does that tell us?

Is there a serious effort to look into these issues and take steps to improve? Based on conversations with some current employees, it appears that survey results do receive some attention, but that does not appear to lead to commensurate, follow-up actions. Many of the lower ranked agencies continue to stay where they are, year after year. There were exceptions though. I did communicate with one of the lower ranked agencies, the National Film Board. Officials from that agency appeared to acknowledge the low 2019 PSES results and did manage to improve those results for 2020. That agency has an initiative underway to improve morale amongst its employees. Its latest scores do indicate some positive movement.

Let’s look at the up front, good news from the survey. The top-rated agency on my list of larger agencies (with 150-plus employees) is Western Economic Diversification Canada. It does a number of noteworthy things to maintain and improve the workplace for its employees, things that most other agencies could readily emulate. From what I have learned, and starting from the top, its leader, Deputy Minister Dylan Jones, recently constituted a “Learning on the Edge Award,” a rather unique initiative that celebrates employees who try new things, but fail. He feels that more learning comes from failures than successes and uses the award to push the organization’s culture to embrace innovation without fear. The agency also had an Employee Innovation Fund aimed at encouraging new ideas from all staff (this is one of my favourite ways to bring the best out of employees). Speaking with Patrick Faulkner, head of human resources at WD, I learned about a new, simplified one-page performance appraisal that apparently employees love. This seems like one organization where great care is taken to listen to, appreciate and excite the employees. Looking for an example of how best to run a public service organization? WD might be your first call—they are willing to share their story.

There is another, very good federal agency out there. It’s the Supreme Court of Canada, No. 2 on my list this year. Its administrative head, now retired, Roger Bilodeau is a virtual legend in my books in caring for and energizing employees at all levels in that organization. The current acting head, David Power, may have big shoes to fill, but he does appear to be following the successful style of his predecessor as he refers to the organization as “Like a big family.” What a perfect way to refer to your employees.

There is one more federal agency that is most worthy of mention, actually two of them. Tied for top ranking in the “micro” category are the Military Police Complaint Commission and the Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner of Canada. These workplaces happen to be the highest rated of all the agencies, big and small. The MPCC’s director general is Julianne Dunbar, a lawyer. Speaking with her, she comes across as the ideal public service leader. It is clear that the MPCC executive team does many things that excite, encourage, and engage their employees, too many to list here. However, she is willing to share her insights and her successes with others.

Another lawyer, Joe Friday, head of the PSIC, describes his organization as “a highly participatory democracy” where different perspectives are valued. Clearly, the employees enjoy the participation and they stand as another example of motivated and engaged public servants.

What to do now?

The results of the PSES provide a rich source of information that, if properly assessed and acted on, can result in positive changes for the employees and subsequently for the Canadians they are there to serve. Those agencies at the top of my list provide ready examples of how to do it right. Those at or near the bottom of the list should first acknowledge, and then, like the NFB, search for answers to their respective shortcomings. Every agency can improve itself and if such improvement was a required outcome of these surveys, then it could happen. While there are countless consultants who could offer guidance for such an effort, I am a firm believer in first tapping into the capacity already existing in the public service, perhaps the simplest of all solutions. I am quite convinced that just by honestly and openly listening to their own employees and acting on their input, agencies can come up with solutions and achievements that can lead to both immediate and long lasting advancements.

What about other resources? There are many good books on the subject of raising employee morale and engagement. An old favourite of mine is 1,001 Ways to Reward Employees, by Bob Nelson. A very recent one, with an apropos title, is Retain and Gain: Career Management for the Public Sector Playbook, by Lisa Taylor.

I have said this before: I believe that every federal public servant in Canada goes to work with the willingness to do his or her best for Canadians. I also think the public service has an obligation to provide a workplace that not only allows but openly encourages that to happen. The Public Service Employee Survey results provide a ready roadmap to create such a workplace and to continuously improve it. Let’s build on what the survey is telling us.

That’s what I want to see. That’s why I do this.

Jake Cole spent 34 years in Canada’s public service working in six different agencies. He can be reached at colejster@gmail.com.

Here are, according to the employees, the best (down to the worst) places to work in Canada’s public service (agencies with 150-plus employees). Scores are out of 100.

1        Western Economic Diversification Canada          73

2        Supreme Court of Canada  71

3        Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency     70

4        Canadian Human Rights Commission      67

5          Communications Security Establishment Canada         65

6          Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission    62

7          Canadian Heritage   61

8          Office of the Auditor General of Canada  59

9          Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada       59

10        Administrative Tribunals Support Service of Canada    59

11        Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario           58

12        Canadian Transportation Agency 57

13        Department of Finance Canada    55

14        Canadian Space Agency    55

15        Office of the Chief Electoral Officer          54

16        Impact Assessment Agency of Canada   54

17        Financial Consumer Agency of Canada  54

18        Canada Revenue Agency  53

19        Privy Council Office 53

20        Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages         53

21        National Research Council Canada         53

22        Statistics Canada     52

23        Transport Canada    52

24        Veterans Affairs Canada    52

25        Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada  51

26        Employment and Social Development Canada  50

27        Transportation Safety Board of Canada  50

28        Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission    50

29        Public Services and Procurement Canada          49

30        Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada       49

31        Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada          49

32        Health Canada         47

33        Environment and Climate Change Canada         47

34        Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat    47

35        Canadian Institutes of Health Research  47

36        Canadian Grain Commission         46

37        Infrastructure Canada         46

38        Natural Resources Canada            45

39        Public Service Commission of Canada    45

40        Parks Canada           45

41        Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada           44

42        Royal Canadian Mounted Police   42

43        Department of Justice         42

44        Department of National Defence   41

45        Fisheries and Oceans Canada      41

46        Shared Services Canada   41

47        Public Health Agency of Canada  41

48        Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada        40

49        Public Prosecution Service of Canada     40

50        Canada Energy Regulator  40

51        Canadian Food Inspection Agency           38

52        Indigenous Services Canada         37

53        Canada Economic Development for Quebec Regions  37

54        Library and Archives Canada        37

55        Statistical Survey Operations         37

56        Public Safety Canada         36

57        Canada School of Public Service  36

58        Courts Administration Service       34

59        Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada     33

60        Women and Gender Equality Canada     32

61        Global Affairs Canada         30

62        National Film Board of Canada     28

63        Canada Border Services Agency  27

64        Office of the Secretary to the Governor General   24

65        Correctional Service of Canada    21

66        Canadian Security Intelligence Service   21

And the same rating for the micro-agencies, those with less than 150 employees

1          Military Police Complaints Commission of Canada       85

2          Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner of Canada                85

3          International Joint Commission     73

4          Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada       68

5          Office of the Commissioner for Federal Judicial Affairs Canada           67

6          Invest in Canada      66

7          Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying of Canada      65

8          Veterans Review and Appeal Board        63

9          Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP   61

10        Canadian Dairy Commission         60

11        Farm Products Council of Canada            60

12        Military Grievances External Review Committee           59

13        Patented Medicine Prices Review Board 57

14        RCMP External Review Committee          54

15        Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency    49

16        Canadian Intergovernmental Conference Secretariat   43

17        Copyright Board of Canada           38

18        National Security and Intelligence Review Agency        34

19        Office of the Correctional Investigator      33

20        Polar Knowledge Canada   30

21        Indian Oil and Gas Canada            18

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