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What is the public servant’s role?





Brendan Boyd, Jared Wesley, Victoria Matejka, Karine Levasseur, Andrea Rounce, Isabelle Caron


The role of a public servant may seem straightforward: to serve the public. However, the roles, relationships, and responsibilities of public servants are complex and are likely to be viewed differently across the groups involved in and affected by government.


For many decades, public servants had a bargain with politicians. Public servants provided expert advice to politicians and loyally implemented their policy decisions, in exchange for job security and anonymity. However, today public servants frequently face job insecurity and experience increasing demands for accountability from the public. Additionally, public servants are often asked by politicians to defend government policies rather than simply explaining them, which risks politicizing their once non-partisan and impartial role.


With these changing attitudes, we wanted to know how public servants, the general public, and politicians view the role of public servants in Canadian democracy. Our team, including Jared Wesley, Brendan Boyd, Karine Levasseur, Isabelle Caron, and Andrea Rounce, fielded three surveys in early 2021 to answer this question. The surveys were sent to federal, provincial, and municipal public servants, average Canadians, and members of parliament.


According to our study, a majority of the general public and public servants support the traditional public service bargain. Both groups believed that public servants should be anonymous and non-partisan. Politicians were divided on whether public servants should be non-partisan at work, raising concerns about the possibility of politicization. However, politicians were the most likely to suggest that public servants should remain non-partisan outside of work, suggesting they do not trust public servants to leave their personal views at home. Public servants themselves did not believe they should remain non-partisan in their personal lives. The general public was split on the matter.


When asked if there were situations where public servants could refuse to implement direction from elected officials, the majority of the general public said there were none. Conversely, politicians and public servants thought that there were some situations where public servants could defy their political masters.


This research should embolden efforts to reinforce the traditional role of the public servant and the institutions of Westminster government, as there is support among public servants and the general public. However, politicians would have to be brought on board with these efforts. More education for politicians about what is required of public servants outside of work and for the general public on public servants’ legal and professional commitments at work would be valuable in bridging the different perceptions of these groups and improving public servants’ relationship with elected officials and citizens.

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