Changes to federal public service staffing don’t go far enough

The Liberal government’s latest budget implementation bill includes some welcome but limited changes to staffing in the federal public service. 

Appearing before the Senate Social Affairs, Science and Technology Committee, PSAC National Executive Vice-President Sharon DeSousa argued the proposed changes to the Public Service Employment Act (PSEA) are a start but don’t go far enough to create a more inclusive and diverse federal public service. 

“For years, our equity-seeking members have shared that they do not feel the current staffing process is inclusive,” said DeSousa. “As it stands now, the process lacks accountability, is wide open to arbitrary staffing decisions and favouritism and disproportionately impacts persons from equity-seeking groups.”

There are ongoing staffing problems that still need to be addressed, including delegating staffing authority to the lowest levels of management and managers being able to hire employees who are the “best fit”, whether or not they are the best qualified. 

Bill C-30 proposes to amend the PSEA to:

  • include the concept of an inclusive public service and expand the definition of “equity-seeking group” to include all grounds under the Canadian Human Rights Act;
  • evaluate and examine qualification standards and assessment methods to help identify barriers or biases that negatively impact persons of an equity-seeking group;
  • use audits and investigations to determine whether there are biases or barriers that disadvantage members of equity-seeking groups;
  • expand the citizenship reference to include permanent residents for external positions.

These changes simply don’t go far enough. While audits of the staffing process will be able to determine if our members face barriers to employment, the systemic barriers in staffing have not been addressed. One of these is the almost unrestricted discretionary powers of hiring managers to determine the staffing processes and desired outcomes. 

Instead, PSAC put forward a series of recommendations to address equity gaps in the Act at the committee hearing: 

  • addressing the use – and abuse – of discretionary powers;
  • giving the Public Service Commission the power to demand that departments have clear and transparent mechanisms and the authority to demand changes to processes and procedures;
  • ensuring investigators tasked with identifying bias and barriers have the necessary experience and knowledge.

But the changes to the PSEA aren’t sufficient to address the systemic staffing issues in the public service, DeSousa advised Senators. Because of the flaws in the Act, many PSAC members are choosing to file complaints with the Federal Public Service Labour Relations and Employment Board instead, which has become more legalistic, cumbersome and intimidating while having limited remedies. 

Even though the amendments give PSC and deputy heads the power to investigate staffing processes for barriers and biases for equity-seeking groups, this recourse process is not often used because it is frequently unsuccessful.

“Ultimately, major legislative changes to the staffing process are needed”, said DeSousa. 

PSAC’s submission to Treasury Board earlier this year on staffing issues recommended several proactive measures. The union will continue to push for long-overdue changes to improve staffing and build a more equitable and inclusive public service. 

May 27, 2021