In 2003, a new Canadian public-service staffing regime was established with the Public Service Modernization Act. This new regime is unique to Canada among the major Anglo-American systems to which the Canadian public service is usually compared, including Australia, Britain, New Zealand and the United States (Halligan 2004). The reason lies in the fact that the Canadian regime maintains an independent authority for staffing the non-partisan, professional public service, even though it is expected to delegate its authority to deputy ministers, who, in turn, should delegate to managers as low down the hierarchy as possible. In these other jurisdictions, by contrast, authority to staff has been devolved directly to the public-service executives in departments of executive government. The United States has long had this model, even though the American public service also contains a very large number of senior management positions that are staffed at the discretion of the president. The three Westminster jurisdictions changed their public-service staffing systems in the context of the so-called “new public management.”
In this paper I outline and assess the rationale for the maintenance of an independent authority for the staffing of the Canadian public service. The fact that Canada was comparatively slow to institute major reforms in the human resources management arena in the reform era labeled as “new public management” has generally served it well. By the time that reforms on this front made it through to the legislative process at the turn of the century, the dynamics of what I call the “new public governance” had clearly manifested themselves. In my view, these dynamics fully justify the maintenance of an independent public-service staffing authority in order to protect and promote the public interest in the institution of a non-partisan, professional public service.
The first part of the paper looks at how “new public management” advances the devolution and thus dispersal of management authority to the public-service executives of departments as the crucial means to improve the management of resources in the public sector. It is also emphasizes the extent to which this empowerment of managers assumes that public-service staff should be treated as simply one “resource” among others, in order that executives have the flexibility to manage their resources as they see fit. The second part considers how the “new public governance” had emerged by the time that reforms to the staffing system were at the top of the agenda. The third section looks at why the non-partisan, professional public service model survived the early assumptions about its demise at the outset of “new public management”. The fourth section looks at the two principal risks in staffing the public service – political influence and bureaucratic patronage. The fifth section considers the status of the Public Service Commission as an independent agency. The final section outlines what might be done to strengthen its independence.