Cole: Another Canadian public service survey, another missed opportunity?

Late last year, about 180,000 employees again provided their opinions on subjects ranging from confidence in their senior management to harassment at work. The official report on the findings cherry-picks the results a little too much.

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Some 300,000-plus people work for the federal government in more than 80 different departments and agencies. About 125,000 of them work right here in the national capital area. Are they happy? Are they committed to their work? Which agencies are the best ones to work for? The annual  Public Service Employee Survey (PSES) can provide some answers.


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Late last year, through that survey, about 180,000 employees again provided their opinions on subjects ranging from confidence in their senior management to harassment at work. An announcement came out in May summarizing the results. Does that report reflect what employees are saying? Not quite. In my opinion, the report cherry-picks the results a little too much. It provides fairly innocuous findings and paints a much more positive picture of worklife in the federal public service than warranted.

I worked for the federal government in six different agencies over 34 years. I have been involved in the PSES since it first came out in 1999 and worked with a team of other departmental officials for the 2005 survey. We developed a methodology using the results to actually rate all federal agencies on a “best to work for” basis. It was modelled after an employee survey still used by the Gallup Organization.


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However we could not get official approval to publish that list. Since retiring from the Public Service in 2006, and using that same methodology, I have been providing that “best” list and reporting on the “real” results of the PSES. As a sort of insider, I try to root out the genuine findings from the surveys and tell the deeper story.

Here are some of the unreported key elements of that story based on the PSES 2020 results:

1. Most public servants don’t strongly feel they get proper training to do their job. (Question 4)

2. Most don’t feel fully recognized for good work done. (Q8)

3. Most don’t have a lot of confidence in their senior management. (Q32)

4. Most don’t think they get much career development support. (Q44)


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5. Most don’t think their workplace is psychologically very healthy. (Q78)

6. There is no comparative rating amongst the agencies.

7.  There appears to be no specific requirement for agency heads to be accountable for and to act on the survey results.

8. Only 61 per cent bothered to fill out the survey. What does that say?

Many public service employees are very happy and engaged in their work. Some agencies go the extra mile to fire up their employees. On my “best” list, one can find several such agencies.

What does it take to be one of the best? Whether it’s a large organization with thousands of employees or a small work group of 10-to-20 people, the leader is typically the one providing the impetus to achieve that result. Western Economic Diversification Canada happens to make the top of my list of the larger agencies, i.e. those with over 150 employees. Employees are encouraged to try new things, and even if they fail, to learn from the effort. Now that’s a novel approach!


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There are other reasons employees are engaged and committed to their work in that agency, but that style of leadership certainly stands out.

At the other end of my list are agencies where employees are not so thrilled. The news is not all bad though. For example, the National Film Board and the Canada Border Service Agency appear to be taking aggressive steps to improve their workplaces for the employees. Time will tell how effective these efforts are in boosting employee morale and performance.

Here’s another element of the PSES that appears to go unrecognized and unused. One can dig down to a small work group within a large agency to find where employees are quite engaged in their work and where they clearly enjoy their workplace and their work life. These, too, can be models of “doing it right” and their experience and stories can be used to help other groups improve. Even one of the lowest-ranked large agencies on my “best” list can have such a model within its own ranks. With a little digging, and I had the help of a government statistician to do this, one can fairly easily find such a work group. Can that model be worth investigating to help transform the whole agency?  I think so.


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Could the PSES be better used? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Tell the truth with the results. Acknowledge and celebrate the good news but also point out the problem areas and openly seek solutions.

2. As I have done, rate the agencies on a best-to-worst basis. Publish the list.

3. Learn from the leaders of the best agencies. The ones I spoke with are willing to help.

4. For the worst agencies, make those agency leaders responsible and accountable to improve on their results.

5. Use the PSES to encourage employees to provide their ideas to improve their workplace and the whole Public Service. Act on the best ones and reward the employees who suggested them.

6. Continue and expand the work-from-home option. The current PSES results clearly show that employees prefer it and that they tend to work better. Our living environment does better too.


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Our federal public service can become a great place to work, and where good work is done. The PSES can be the starting point and the inspiration to do that. The employees will benefit and so will all Canadians.

Jake Cole spent 34 years in Canada’s public service working in six different agencies. Reach him at: colejster@gmail.com. 

The ‘best’ federal departments and agencies to work in

Here are, according to the employees, the best (down to the worst) places to work in Canada’s larger 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


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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


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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


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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


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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 Canada 21

66    Canadian Security Intelligence Service 21

Here’s the same rating for the micro-agencies, those with fewer 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

— as analyzed by Jake Cole.



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