On Being in the Public Service

I could probably obtain employment in the private sector, and it remains my back-up plan should the current gig at NRC come to an end (I continue to be 'unqualified' to obtain employment at a university). I'm sure I could earn more money, one way or another, working in the private sector.

But as I told our new General Manager recently, I feel like I belong at the National Research Council. "I'm where I want to be," I said. My sense of meaning and belonging are satisfied to a greater extent working, as they say, "in the service of Canadians," than they would serving some more particular interest.

I say this because this is National Public Service Week, an occasion I'm sure all of us in the public service greet with a certain amount of cynicism, especially recently, but one which touches on why many of us are here.

It's not just a job. When I'm working here, it's hard not to ignore the fact that I'm working for the same outfit that employs people like Stephen Lewis, Chris Hadfield and Romeo Dallaire. That's not insignificant (no, I don't get to have lunch with them).

There was some concern last year when the new Values and Ethics Code for the Public Sector came out, especially that part which was euphemistically titled 'respect for democracy', as it seemed to suggest that we needed to 'toe the line' and follow the policy and direction of the Prime Minister and his government.

But, of course, we've always had to do that. It comes with the job. Our primary purpose is to serve the people of Canada, but what that amounts to, in practice, as it is sometimes intoned in our offices, "our task is to serve the government of the day."

The 'Respect for Democracy' section says:
The system of Canadian parliamentary democracy and its institutions are fundamental to serving the public interest. Public servants recognize that elected officials are accountable to Parliament, and ultimately to the Canadian people, and that a non-partisan public sector is essential to our democratic system.
Now (as later sections make clear) that does not mean I put away my own views and interests when I join the public sector, nor even does it mean I can support a political party and engage in political activism. But what it does mean, very clearly, is that I can't use my office to support one or another political party, and I cannot use the resources of the Government of Canada to support a political campaign on behalf of one or another party.

That I think is pretty reasonable. Indeed, one might argue (as I have in the past) is that this does as much to protect the public service from the government of the day as it does to ensure that we support its policies and procedures when we are at our workplace. Just ask Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin.

It's not really a fine line at all. Not to me. And it's not a violation of my oft-touted principles to work in the interest of political policies I personally oppose (and to do so enthusiastically).

I have a multitude of principles on topics ranging from environmentalism to truth in advertising to open access and free learning. At the top of that list of values is respect for and support for the instruments of democracy. I believe that each and every person has the right to be heard, to be represented, and where appropriate, to have those views upheld and implemented. Even if those views are sometimes not mine.

It reminds me of the days when I was president of the Graduate Students' Association, and hence, chair of GSA representative meetings. Clearly, I had a political agenda. But when I sat in that chair, my demeanor changed, necessarily, as my job became one of ensuring that the meeting ran properly and people were able to be heard and make decisions. 

This sometimes resulted in Council voting to support measures I opposed. Quite often, actually. But I considered it to be more of a political victory to see democratic process implemented and respected in the GSA that I did to see any particular policy implemented within the organization.

It's also similar to my approach regarding the nascent Moncton Free Press. We are intended as an alternative newspaper, and of course there's going to be certain (generally progressive) points of view represented in the newspaper. But despite my support for some of those views, I still want to see the opposing view represented in the newspaper, and even featured, if it wins enough support. Because, as I explained to others, having a newspaper where every point of view can be represented is itself the political victory.

I see becoming a member of the public sector as making a choice to play a similar role in terms of national and public policy. It's more of a victory to me to see that a government that wins the support of the people can implement its agenda, than it would be for me to work in my role as a public servant to constantly try to undermine that agenda.

Right now, this means supporting the agenda and prupose of a government I would not personally vote for. But I know full well that one day a government I would vote for may take office, and I want the mechanisms to be in place to enable that government to succeed. Nothing undermines faith in society and public institutions more than to see the people vote for a certain legislative agenda and approach, only to have it undermined by undemocratic forces operating in the structure of government.

But supporting the government of the day is not the only value the public service represnts. Here's another one, again from the new Values and Code of Ethics document:
Treating all people with respect, dignity and fairness is fundamental to our relationship with the Canadian public and contributes to a safe and healthy work environment that promotes engagement, openness and transparency. The diversity of our people and the ideas they generate are the source of our innovation.
 This is pretty important to me.  It forms the basis of my work toward wider access to education, and support for openly accessible resources. It also forms the basis for my work in an open environment, such as the publication of my newsletter, and even in my writing of this article. It's what we saw most recently in the work of Chris Hadfield - he could have just gone up and did his job in space, but he chose to take us all along with him.

It is also interesting to me to see in this values a reflection of the principles I find essential to the proper and effective functioning of a network. I've enumerated them on numerous occasions before: diversity, autonomy, openness, interactivity. These are also the values we want to promote in society, and it becomes the role of the public service is to ensure and support them.


  1. On a much smaller scale, I had similar feelings when I served as an election judge -- the term in Maryland for the people who work at voting precincts during primaries and general elections.

    My county has more than 300 precincts; in each, there were a minimum of 8 workers, and often more. They included two Chief Judges, two Assistant Chiefs, two Check-in Judges, and two Voting Unit Judges. The Board of Elections rules state that, for example, the two chiefs should not both be registered to the same party (one could be an independent). The chiefs have equal authority, and both of them would do things like sign the printout from the voting machines at the start and at the end of voting.

    I found that regardless of party, election judges were focused on helping every qualified voter to understand his rights and his choices, and to making sure he was able to cast his vote as he saw fit.

    That could mean explaining why an unregistered voter can't vote in a primary (we had closed primaries; to vote in the Democratic primary, you had to be registered as a Democrat a certain number of days prior to the primary), or what the consequences might be of casting a so-called provisional ballot if you showed up at the wrong location (you might not find your local candidates on the ballot for this precinct).

    My goal and my responsibility was to make those explanations regardless of the individual's political views so that he could make an informed decision.


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