On the Hill – In Theory

The idea of a non-partisan civil service is sort of like watching a Little League game. In theory It’s about skills like fair play and teamwork, but what most people really want is for their team to win.

And the chasm between theory and reality got a little wider this week with the announcement of a new twist to a government program.

The initiative is called the Accelerated Economist Training Program (AETP). It offers participants ?one of the most unique and privileged opportunities to begin a career in the federal public service.? The application process is, understandably, rigorous. And the pressure just went up a notch now that applicants have to offer their personal opinions on their potential boss? performance: a thousand-word essay on the federal government’s Economic Action Plan.

The Action Plan has become a major part of the Conservative party’s promotion efforts and, as one article notes, ?is at the heart of election campaigning.? In dozens of cases MPs even went so far as to put the Conservative logo on economic stimulus cheques, a highly partisan move That’s prompted calls for an ethics investigation.

Now, potential AETP candidates are being asked for their views on the ?implications? of any two of the government’s stimulus measures. In short, to comment on current government policy as part of the hiring process. It’s the first time that such an essay has been required for entry to the AETP.

As Leslie Pal, professor of public policy at Ottawa’s Carleton University, told reporters, ?It places an unfortunate implication of inviting people to write glowing things about the economic recovery plan.?

The Conservatives aren’t alone when it comes to partisan games. Not by a long shot. But this move heightens the political pressure on the people who most emphatically shouldn’t be partisan: federal civil servants. Even before the essay requirement, there were calls for a ?formal charter of ethics to protect them from improper political pressure.? That recommendation comes from former Quebec Superior Court judge John Gomery, who led the inquiry into the Liberal sponsorship scandal. Such a charter would ?empower public servants to say no to their political masters.?

The essay requirement doesn’t mean that only Conservative supporters will land the coveted spots. After all, there’s no guarantee that an applicant’s essay will reflect their political beliefs. It’s easy enough to put a flattering spin on just about any company (or government) when you want the job. The point is, It’s the very thing civil service applicants should be discouraged from (and there are plenty of other essay topics that would demonstrate an understanding of economic policy without veering into contentious political territory.)

In fact, the Public Service Employment Act, which came into force on December 31, 2005, espouses a public service with ?a staffing system free from political influence and in which recruitment, hiring, promotions and terminations are based on merit.?

Which all sounds great?in theory.

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