Expecting public service (and getting it)

Lana Payne
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If he chooses to do so, Kevin Page can look back on his term as the country’s parliamentary budget officer with the knowledge that he made a positive difference.

No one can doubt that Mr. Page took his job, service to Canadians, seriously. But it was more than that, for Mr. Page is not alone in being an exemplary public servant.

So many dedicated public servants perform their jobs with serious and committed intentions. So many begin their public service careers with the idea and goal of wanting to make a difference.

This is actually something the institution of government ought to encourage.

Instead, according to Prof. Donald Savoie, author and Canada research chair in public administration and governance at the University of Moncton, today’s federal service has lost its way.

The author of “Whatever Happened to the Music Teacher? How Government Decides and Why?” noted in a recent commentary for The Globe and Mail that traditional public administration values have been tossed out the window. Public servants are uncertain, he says, with how they should generate policy advice and how they should “speak truth to political power. The result is that the public service has been knocked-off its traditional moorings.”

He blames the problem on the push to have government run like a business. “No matter how hard you try, and no matter how many times you try it, you can never make government look like the private sector. They are basically, fundamentally, different in both important and unimportant ways,” Prof. Savoie told The Hill Times.

But the rush to have government look like it is being run like a business has resulted in less front-line services and more so-called accountability systems.

Prof. Savoie notes that the growth of aggressive oversight and reporting mechanisms in government are part of the problem.

And yet, despite the push to marginalize the federal service, to erode their public policy role, to build a culture of fear, there are sparks of resistance.

Kevin Page has been such a spark.

He has defied all efforts to turn him into a bureaucrat writing reports that no one cares about or reads. It is safe to say that he saw his role as something more than oversight, more than providing transparency and accountability. He fundamentally saw himself as a “public servant.” Not a bureaucrat.

Mr. Page can be proud of his work and Canadians should be proud of his efforts.

He raised expectations. This, of course, is a no-no in the world of Stephen Harper where expectations are routinely dampened so the prime minister can meet them.

In the face of incredible and oftentimes daunting odds, including a prime minister and cabinet who did everything in their power to prevent him from doing his job, Mr. Page persevered.

He did so with quiet integrity and strong-minded commitment to the citizens of Canada. He did so even while on the firing line — which was often. It couldn’t have been easy or pleasant. Of course, there was a path of lesser resistance. Mr. Page chose not to take it.

The mandate of the parliamentary budget officer is the first thing you see when visiting the office’s website.

It is “to provide independent analysis to Parliament on the state of the nation’s finances, the government’s estimates and trends in the Canadian economy; and upon request from a committee or parliamentarian, to estimate the financial cost of any proposal for matters over which Parliament has jurisdiction.”

Whether it was the true cost of our role in Afghanistan, to purchase fighter jets or how federal departments intend to implement austerity plans, Kevin Page has earnestly gone about trying to fulfil his legislative mandate.

There had to be days during his five-year term, a term that will end in late March, when Mr. Page must have questioned whether it was all worth it — the constant conflict, the battle with a government that preached accountability and yet did not want to be held to account.

Ottawa without Kevin Page is going to be less of a place.

But in making a difference, in raising the expectations of Parliament and of Canadians regarding what the role of the PBO should be, Mr. Page will leave a legacy — one of duty, responsibility, leadership, courage and, above all, service.

His resistance has no doubt cost him. In all likelihood, his career as a dedicated public servant will end on March 25.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, he noted that he did not expect when he took the post five years ago that his career would survive what it would take to build the PBO.

And yet he did so anyway.

Canadians should thank Mr. Page for believing in service and for delivering it. More importantly, we should thank him for showing us that we should expect it.


Lana Payne is president of the

Newfoundland and Labrador Federation

of Labour. She can be reached by email at lanapaynenl@gmail.com.

Her column returns Feb. 9.

Organizations: Globe and Mail, University of Moncton, Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour

Geographic location: Canada, Afghanistan, Ottawa

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Recent comments

  • derrick
    January 26, 2013 - 09:14

    Yes, his career will end on March 25 and off he will go to Florida on a golden pension after years of receiving a 250K salary, all paid for by the private sector, that does not have pensions anymore. Maybe we would be better saving the money, spent on him as nothing has changed and we can not afford any more Page's.