PBO Says Federal Public Service System Is ‘Broken’ and Requires Overhaul

By Peter Wilson
Peter Wilson
Peter Wilson
Peter Wilson is a reporter based in Ontario, Canada.
February 8, 2023Updated: February 8, 2023

The federal public service is “broken” and needs to undergo major changes in many areas that “fail to deliver” for Canadians, says Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) Yves Giroux.

“There’s a system that’s broken,” Giroux told the Senate national finance committee on Feb. 7, saying that there is a lack of discipline within many government departments and agencies.

Giroux said federal cabinet ministers “are not very well equipped to challenge their own officials” and that departments often lack accountability.

“We end up in a situation where it’s public servants responsible for delivering programs that set their own targets, and they usually set the bar not too high so that it doesn’t look too easy, but neither too low, so it’s fairly easy to achieve most of the time,” Giroux testified, as first reported by Blacklock’s Reporter.

“But yet by their own assessment, they fail to deliver upon many of these.”

Giroux highlighted Passport Canada as a departmental example of federal offices that he believes to be underperforming.

“I’d be curious to see in the next departmental results report what Passport Canada will claim is their achievements,” said Giroux, adding, “I wouldn’t be surprised if they claim some sort of success despite the disaster we’ve seen in the last couple of months.”

Giroux was referring to passport backlogs that plagued the department throughout 2022—which Social Development Minister Karina Gould recently said have been “virtually eliminated” following numerous investments by Ottawa last summer to open more passport service locations.

“We still see that in announcements, the government will invest or will spend that many millions to do this and that. Okay, but what will be the result?” Giroux said.

‘Crack the Whip’

Giroux said a number of improvements within the federal government can be made to address these issues, saying that there could be better leadership within departments.

“It’s clear that there’s an opportunity to make it better,” he said, adding that there is “clear room for enhanced leadership to improve service delivery.”

The PBO went on to say Canada’s unemployment rate has “never or rarely” been as low as it is now, but it still takes a number of weeks for Canadians to claim and receive Employment Insurance.

“There needs to be a crack of the whip big time or a change of some sort,” Giroux said.

“There are pockets of excellence, but there are also pockets of, I would say, nonchalance in the public service. Or they’re overwhelmed, or something is not right. But not being inside the public service, unfortunately, I cannot pinpoint what is in need of fixing.”

While Giroux said some federal departments are proactive in sharing information with his office so that he can conduct studies and generate reports, he said other departments often withhold information on the grounds that it is “not public.”

“And then when we made a public fuss about that, I got called [and asked] by deputy ministers, ‘Would you please call us before making a fuss?’ And I said, ‘You sent me a letter. You said that I didn’t have access to that information.'”

Giroux said that while he tries to hold the government to account, he can only do so much unless the government is willing to receive the information he provides and act on it.

“I can provide you with information and analysis so that you can hold the government to account,” Giroux told the Senate committee. “I can testify at committees like this and speak my mind, and lose the only maybe two or three friends I have left in the public service, which I’ve lost a long time ago, I think.”

“I can help you hold the government to account, but I cannot do that by myself.”