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Aaron Wudrick: Federal public servants can get their remote work, but in return they should expect more rigorous performance reviews

Chris Aylward, PSAC National President, is joined by PSAC Vice-Presidents Sharon DeSousa and Alex Silas, as he speaks to reporters at a news conference on the status of negotiations with Treasury Board, as workers from Canada's largest federal public-service union are on strike across the country, in Ottawa, on Saturday, April 22, 2023. Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Summers in Ottawa are usually pretty steamy, but the summer of 2024 promises to be positively hellish and discontented as public sector unions rattle their sabres in response to the federal government’s directive that starting this fall, federal civil servants will be expected to work in the office three days a week instead of two.

This tough talk set off many of the world’s smallest violins, with commentators pointing out that many private sector workers are already spending more time back in the office (or have never been able to work remotely in the first place) and that public sector workers—who already enjoy unheard-of-in-the-private-sector job security and pensions—were largely shielded from the economic pain suffered by most Canadians during the pandemic.

Add to this a sense that public servants haven’t been delivering (such as widespread frustration due to delays in getting a passport) and unflattering case studies of bureaucrats behaving badly (I’m looking at you, 232 Canada Revenue Agency employees fired for improperly claiming CERB or the ArriveCan app scandal) and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that complaining about one more day back in the office is peak entitlement and tone deafness on the part of the unions.

Politically, the Trudeau government is getting hammered in the polls and facing a broader public that does not have a lot of sympathy for an aggressive public sector. And—let’s be brutally honest—if we layer on longstanding stereotypes about “lazy bureaucrats” it may very well be the case that a lot of Canadians just want to see them back in the office out of spite.

Is there any agreeable way out of this? There might be—if we think of the looming fight as a very rare opportunity to give both public servants and Canadians at large something they really want.

Start first with public servants, most of whom just really, really want as much remote work as possible. Unlike most people in the private sector, they have very powerful unions to go to bat for them and it’s probably the case that the aggressiveness being displayed by union leaders simply reflects what they are hearing from their members. That’s a signal of how high up remote work ranks on their list of priorities.

Similarly, we should agree that remote work is possible for the lion’s share of public service jobs. There will be exceptions, but a white-collar workforce that works mostly over screens and keyboards is, in most ways, the ideal type for remote work.

And what do Canadians want? They want to be confident that their tax dollars are being used efficiently in the form of civil servants doing work and doing it well. This is especially important because if the stereotype about “lazy bureaucrats” is true, then it doesn’t really matter whether they’re not working at home or not working at a desk downtown. But for honest public servants (I would humbly suggest, the vast majority) who take pride in their work, I suspect most would leap at the chance to prove the naysayers wrong.

The solution? The Trudeau government (or a future government) should work towards negotiating a central trade-off: more remote work for public servants in exchange for public servants accepting more stringent performance and productivity conditions. Public servants get their remote work; Canadians get better accountability.

These are not the only issues on the table of course. The issue of bloat in the public sector is real, with the headcount having ballooned by over 40 percent since the Liberals came into office. This number will almost certainly have to drop, meaning that even if remote work becomes the norm, it won’t be enjoyed by everyone who is a federal employee today.

Similarly, phasing out gold-plated defined-benefit public employee pensions, which currently have an unfunded liability of over $100 billion should be on the negotiating table. Grandfathering these plans for current employees while getting the unions to agree to move new employees onto a more sustainable defined-contribution plan should be the goal for any government looking to alleviate future risk to taxpayers (it’s possible: private sector unions have made similar concessions in recent years).

We could even consider a truly radical shift: moving the federal public services to a remote-first model. This would open up all kinds of interesting possibilities. Over time, public sector jobs could be more evenly spread around Canada rather than concentrated primarily in the Ottawa region, bringing economic benefits to other parts of our vast country. It would also help make the civil service more reflective of Canadian society, by ensuring a workforce with more proportionate regional representation.

Under this model, teams from various ministries and departments could gather in Ottawa, perhaps once or twice a year, for weeklong in-person meetings and team building. Most federal buildings could still be sold off, with the remainder repurposed for a “rotating team” structure. Beleaguered downtown Ottawa restaurants and bars could probably benefit from the constant influx of out-of-towners cycling through.

Of course, both the government and the unions have to decide what they value most and try to get the best deal, for Canadians and for their members. But if the reaction from the unions over one more day a week in the office is any indication, offering remote work may be the bargaining chip governments need to make broader, lasting reforms.

Labour strife, especially in the public sector, is always lemon. But given the unique dynamics at play today, with a little savvy bargaining, maybe the government and unions can make a little lemonade.

Conrad Black: Those who are blind to the brilliance of the United States on the world stage have lost their minds

A person holds the American flag before the 157th Brooklyn Memorial Day Parade, Monday, May. 27, 2024, in New York. (Yuki Iwamura/AP Photo)

I have been invited to reply to William Thorsell’s farrago of pathologically anti-American nonsense that appeared here in The Hub on May 29 under the title “We don’t have to go along with America’s catastrophic vision of the world forever.” I should write at the outset that I believe I have more reason than almost anyone in this country to have serious reservations about the United States. I do not especially like it as a society; its justice system is so corrupt that it does not, in my opinion, qualify as a society of laws and Canada should not have an extradition treaty with it. Along with its genius of showmanship, from the Declaration of Independence to the Super Bowl, there is almost always a gimcrack element of the country of which, in popular cultural terms, the capital is Hollywood. Its system throws up and often confers undeserved idolatry for a time upon unworthy people.

But we are discussing geopolitical matters and none of that is of the slightest account. The more important facts about the United States are that we owe chiefly to it the great spread of democracy and the market economy in the postwar world. It did the necessary to keep Britain and Canada in the Second World War and President Roosevelt was the chief architect of a strategy by which, as between the big three, the Soviet Union took more than 90 percent of the casualties in subduing Germany and between 1940 and 1945. France, Italy, Germany, and Japan transitioned from being hostile dictatorships, three of them at war with the West, to durable allies of the Anglo-Americans. Meanwhile, the USSR violated treaty obligations and plunged into the Cold War to take secondary strategic assets in Eastern Europe that it had to abandon. The United States strategy of containment led us to victory in the Cold War, without a shot being exchanged between the chief protagonists. The Soviet Union fell like a soufflé.

The United States is not a “hegemon” as Thorsell claims. If it was, it would have absorbed Canada long ago and many other places. All the United States has ever sought in foreign relations is not to be threatened. When it is threatened, it requires the removal of the threat. It has no rival in its own hemisphere, unlike the traditional European great powers where the correlation of forces was more or less equally divided between a number of countries and they had to tolerate each other.

Contrary to what Thorsell writes, the United States has no problem at all with other great powers in the world, as long as they do not threaten it. Like a vintage member of the nostalgic left, he imagines that America is unaware of the rising strength of China and that American capitalist influences are suborning the media and the academies to promote American unipolarity. It pains me to say this about an old and good friend, but a number of assertions in his piece are not entirely sane. He takes seriously Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s statement in Beijing last week that Russia and China will “work toward a more just and democratic…world order,” and promote “cultural and civilizational variety and the measured balance of interests of all members of the international community.”

Thorsell invites us to rely on Russia and China for the promotion of democracy and he imagines that the United States objects to cultural and civilizational variety. He crowns this astonishing triumph of self-brainwashing by requesting the Nobel prize for Vladimir Putin, head of the most overtly aggressive state in the world, who has invaded several of his neighbours and attempted to foment disorder through Russian-speaking minorities in several others.