Harper’s ‘dissatisfied PS’ more myth than fact: study
The portrait of the disgruntled public servant, beaten down by a poisonous workplace culture and years of disregard under Stephen Harper’s Conservative government is oft-painted and, generally speaking, pretty inaccurate, according to an article published Dec. 17 in an academic journal for human resource and public sector executives.While job satisfaction among federal bureaucrats decreased slightly during Harper’s time as prime minister, it remained “quite high” overall, writes Jocelyn McGrandle, the article’s author and a PhD candidate at Concordia University. McGrandle based her findings on data from the federal government’s 2008, 2011 and 2014 Public Service Employee Surveys.“Over the past five years in the Canadian political landscape, there have been numerous calls for rejuvenating the federal public service due to toxic work cultures and a general disrespect for public servants,” McGrandle wrote in Public Personnel Management.“Much of this was directed at the Conservative government under Stephen Harper.”So strong was this outrage that the Public Service Alliance of Canada rolled out an anti-Harper campaign prior to the 2015 federal election, McGrandle pointed out. Then-Liberal leader Justin Trudeau also penned a letter to public servants promising a new era of trust and respect for the bureaucracy, if elected.And let’s not forget “Harperman,” the 2015 protest song crafted by Environment Canada scientist Tony Turner that called for Harper’s ousting and led to Turner’s suspension from his job.“2015 was such an interesting election with the public service very clearly coming out, not in favour of a particular party, but certainly against one party,” said McGrandle in an interview when asked to explain her desire to research this particular topic. “That was sort of my puzzle: Is the public service that dissatisfied?“Or is this a bit of political posturing?”Having analyzed the data, she’s inclined to believe the latter.“Much of the lack of satisfaction seems to be mostly political rhetoric,” McGrandle concludes in her article. While overall job satisfaction — ranked by survey respondents in the public service on a five-point scale — declined from an average of 4.14 to 4.05 between 2008 and 2014, “satisfaction, even at its lowest point in 2014, still remains relatively high.”The significance of this finding goes beyond debunking a popular political mythology, McGrandle says. It also underscores the importance of surveys like the triennial PSE survey, which the government committed to conducting more frequently starting in 2018.“These employee surveys ... can be used to measure how public servants actually feel, not how they are told they should feel during the course of an election.”Paul Wilson, an associate professor in Carleton University’s political management program, says he’s not surprised by the result of McGrandle’s research. Not only does it align with some of the findings of his own work on a related subject — he co-authored a book chapter that looked at the relationship between political staffers and public servants under Harper — but it reflects what he witnessed firsthand as director of policy in the prime minister’s office from 2009 to 2011.While certain personalities and departments in the public service may have clashed with Harper’s government — it’s hard to forget the affectionate mobbing of newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau by foreign affairs officials — Wilson said relations between both parties were “generally good.”He’s readily admits he’s far from an unbiased observer but offered his account of a relationship about which many have speculated but few experienced directly.“One criticism I heard about prime minister Harper was that he didn’t listen to the public service.”In fact, said Wilson, Harper read every single memo that came his way, cover to cover.“He wanted advice from the public service, he carefully considered the advice from the public service, and then he made a decision on things — and sometimes he agreed, and sometimes he didn’t.“I think that was a significant thing for the public service, to know that they could always get information to the prime minister and that he would always take it seriously.”Wilson also noted that direct interactions between the low- and mid-level bureaucrats who make up the majority of the public service and their political leaders are limited.“Most public servants don’t interact with the political types — they don’t meet the minister, they don’t meet the political staff … so most people know the political side through what they read in the media and things filtering down from people who are engaging directly.”The extent to which politicalleadership actually has an impact on job satisfaction among public servants was not a relationship McGrandle was able to investigate directly in her research for the article, as it wasn’t raised in the Public Service Employee Survey.“I think there’s certainly an argument for looking at that,” she said. “How satisfied are public service employees; does it really have to do with who is in power? And maybe their own political leanings, or just how that party or leader happens to treat the public service?”Further, McGrandle wasn’t able to measure pre-Harper job satisfaction as the question she used to measure the variable wasn’t asked on the 2005 PSES. Nor has she had a chance to look at the results of the 2017 PSES, the first conducted under the current Liberal government.“Maybe we saw a decrease or an increase under Justin Trudeau, I have no idea.”In her article, McGrandle did identify a number of variables most likely to have the largest impact on levels of job satisfaction among Canadian federal public servants, from a list of personal characteristics (age, gender, level of education, visible-minoritystatus), job characteristics ( job fit with skills, interests, levels of training and opportunities for promotion), and organizational characteristics (satisfaction with superiors and positive relationships with co-workers).Exploring this area is important for policy-makers, she reasoned, given the potential link between improved job satisfaction, increases in organizational performance, and lowered costs that can result from absenteeism and employee turnover.Wilson also pointed out that satisfied bureaucrats are an important recruitment tool.“We want to be able to recruit excellent people into the public service, and if people feel that it’s a dead end, or that they aren’t listened to, then who’s going to want to work there?”McGrandle found that the strongest determinant of job satisfaction was job fit with the respondents’ interests. The second strongest determinant was the respondents’ view of their relationship with their supervisor, followed by their relationships with co-workers and job fit with their skills.
© PressReader. All rights reserved.