Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Public service set to grow despite expected job losses: experts

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Parliamentary budget officer Yves Giroux said there are several commitments and goals in the budget that “will result in additional hirings in the public service.”

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The 5,000 jobs expected to be lost to attrition in the federal public service over the next four years is nothing compared to the number of staff the government will need to hire to meet its commitments, experts say.

The federal government announced with its budget tabled earlier this month that its total workforce would drop as it looks to find savings through attrition.

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The budget looked at historical rates of attrition and estimated the number of full-time equivalent job positions in the public service was anticipated to drop to around 363,000, from an estimated 368,000 as of the end of March. In 2023, number of such jobs within the federal public service was 357,247, up from 335,957 in 2022.

Despite the expected 5,000 loss, parliamentary budget officer Yves Giroux said there are several commitments and goals in the budget that “will result in additional hirings in the public service.”

Giroux noted that the budget promised improvements such as reducing Canada Revenue Agency call centre wait times and addressing antisemitism and Islamophobia through departmental offices — all of which he said are based on hiring more people.

“I personally don’t see how they will be able to reduce the number of employees by value if they also want to do all these other things in the budget,” Giroux said, adding that he wouldn’t be surprised to see the government reduce the speed of hiring in the coming years. “That’ll be very hard to reconcile.”

“I think what we’ll see is an increase in the number of public servants.”

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Between the 2015-16 and 2021-22 fiscal years, about 4.5 per cent of full-time federal public service employees left the government, with departure rates ranging from 3.6 to 5.3 per cent.

In 2022, the size of the federal public service was 335,957, and there were about 15,118 (4.5 per cent) employees departures.

“A reduction of 5,000 over the next four years, which is 1,250 per year, does not seem like much in comparison,” said Sahir Khan, executive vice president of the University of Ottawa’s Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy in an email. “Even if the reduction is net of the planned departures, then it will still be relatively small compared to the population size.”

Aaron Wudrick, director of the domestic policy program at independent think tank The Macdonald-Laurier Institute, said the estimated loss of public servants is “not even an explicit promise” but an observation based on past trends.

Aaron Wudrick
Aaron Wudrick, director of the domestic policy program at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. Photo by Handout /MACDONALD-LAURIER INSTITUTE

“I actually wouldn’t even count this as as a concrete commitment,” Wudrick said, noting that he “fully expects” that government will continue to grow. “They haven’t explained how they’re going to get there. They have not implemented a hiring freeze.”

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Wudrick said the size of the public service has “increased substantially” under the current government, adding that “if it’s going to get bigger, it should probably also be better” in terms of the quality of public services.

“I’m not sure that this government has achieved that,” he said.

Treasury Board president Anita Anand said in an interview that the government needed to hire public servants to help with its emergency response and service delivery during the pandemic and is now in a “post-pandemic period” where it’s working with departments and agencies to find savings.

When asked how many public servants are expected to be hired over the next few years, Anand said it “very much depends” on the area that the government is examining.

“For example, in the cyber area, we do see a need for more public servants with specific expertise in the innovation economy, in AI,” Anand said. “I want to be clear that ministers do not hire public service employees, that those decisions are made by deputy heads.”

“I will be speaking with all ministers and departments and agencies, not only a select few,” Anand said, adding that the government always looks at the opportunity of training and “scaling up” through the existing workforce.

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Anita Anand
President of the Treasury Board, Anita Anand, in her office in Ottawa, on Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024. Photo by Spencer Colby /POSTMEDIA

A budget item that raised concern among federal unions such as the Canadian Association of Professional Employees and the Public Service Alliance of Canada, Giroux said he believed the government shared their estimation of how many public servants would be lost through attrition “in response to criticism that says they only think about increasing the public service.”

Giroux said the government’s departmental plans typically anticipate a decrease in the number of employees in the coming years, though when those plans get realized, there’s usually an increase in that number.

An analysis by the office of the PBO of the government’s 2024-25 Departmental Plans, found that the number of full-time-equivalents (FTEs) is expected to have reached 439,000 in 2023-24, up almost 20,000 compared to last year’s plans.

The report found that the Canada Revenue Agency, Employment and Social Development Canada, and Public Service and Procurement Canada accounted for half of the increase in staff.

“Based on the past three years of Departmental Plans, a pattern has emerged where the projected profile of FTEs (reaching a peak and then declining), is revised upward across the planning horizon in subsequent (departmental plans),” the report said, noting that the 2023-24 plans showed that numbers would peak in 2022-23 then start to decline, though the latest plans show that numbers will peak in 2023-24 before declining.

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