Ottawa is pretty much a one-industry town. In the capital, the federal public service is the major employer. In fact, the feds are the single, biggest employer in the country.

Yet, as a group, the people who run the government’s operations are largely ignored. Reporters would rather write about politics than policy. And who can blame them? There IS a perception that public service issues are dull. Add to that the bad rap given to bureaucrats: they’re lazy, have jobs for life, build huge pensions yet are largely incompetent when it comes to delivering our services.

Of course this isn’t the reality. But like any large, bureaucratic, historic organization it IS complicated and indeed, problems exist.

I’ve been a business reporter in Ottawa for more than 10 years. With Nortel gone and the technology sector stagnating, I set out to learn more about what is now Ottawa’s major industry, the federal public service.

What I discovered from the outset is that this bureaucracy is a very closed network. Civil servants, even those at the very highest levels, are supposed to be faceless and nameless — not so easy when you’re pursuing a series of investigative broadcast stories about the institution.

I needed to develop new, inside sources. I started with academics, unions, activists, government contractors, watch-dog groups, Members of Parliament. I easily found retired civil servants and was introduced to current workers. I soon had a healthy rolodex of inside contacts, people who would talk to me, largely off-the-record, but who’d guide me and help me focus some of my research. These government sources were invaluable to me and helped me break several stories during the fellowship.

Initially, when news hit CBC airwaves that I was pursing an investigation into the federal public service, calls started coming and email tips began.

Over a beer at a downtown pub, a federal public servant asked me if I’d ever heard of the Interchange Canada Program. I was implored to look into the potential conflicts of interests that exist when private sector executives agree to spend a couple years in high-level positions in the federal government. I got digging.

The Interchange Canada Program was brought in about 40 years ago, to allow public servants career development in the private sector, or to invite private sector executives into the bureaucracy to bring some welcome skills and outside experience.

The concern presented to me was the potential for conflicts of interest.

One bureaucrat complained that bringing a corporate executive in to the public service to do high-level policy development was akin to having an undeclared, free lobbyist right in the department. That gave me an idea.

After a long wait, Treasury Board officials finally provided me with a list of participants over the past 10 years. I cross-referenced names from the Interchange Canada Program with the official lobby registry and found several people who were on the lobby registry and working as a public servant at the exact same time. Of course, this is a big no no.

Analysts told me there was either a serious problem with lobbyists infiltrating the public service from companies such as KPMG, Telus and IBM, unchecked, or the lobby registry is inaccurate, or both. After the issues were aired as top story on CBC Radio’s World Report (along with several other venues including The House, national TV and, Treasury Board president Stockwell Day admitted there was a problem and vowed to look into it. He has yet to get back to me with his findings, but I do intend to follow up.

My intent for this fellowship was to focus on the people and the staffing issues facing the federal public service. As proposed, “middlemen, double-dipping and cronyism” were themes in my reporting.

In meetings with the union representing professionals, I was made privy to new research data showing that the government’s use of consultants has gone up 80 per cent in the past five years. By analyzing the government’s own statistics, it’s clear the feds are now spending billions of dollars on contractors. The union calls it a shadow public service.

Middleman consulting firms manage and facilitate the hiring of many of the independent contractors who work for the feds. They’re often referred to as “escort services”, matching consultants with departments. This match-maker gets an on-going fee for the consultant, yet provides the worker no training, no benefits or job security, just a freelance role with the government. Some people question how much value for money these middleman firms provide to the taxpayer and the Canadian economy.

Government officials say they procure consultants to save money, by hiring people for short projects. But a government employer can also avoid the very cumbersome, lengthy public service hiring process by using a consultant. By hiring a contractor, employment rules, such as official bilingualism can be ignored. It’s also evident that today, consultants are doing more policy development work than ever before. And again, some experts raise questions of potential conflicts of interest when private sector consultants work on public policy.

The “consultant” series of stories had several themes, in fact, I produced 14 different items for CBC TV, Radio and concerning the government’s growing use of consultants. For TV, I focused on double-dippers, the growing number of retirees who are hanging up their shingle to contract to the government. Retirees I talked to said they had more contract work than they could handle. But they noted the growing loss of corporate memory (as consultants do the policy work that was once done by staffers) will continue to be an issue, especially as the demographics in the public service change.

The “consultant” stories drew a lot of feedback, including more than 450 comments on one web story alone.

From the outset of my research, the one theme that kept coming up was the shifting demographics of the bureaucracy, most specifically, the missing generation. In the 1990s, there were cuts and hiring freezes in the public service. Now, a decade and a half later, there’s a smaller pool to draw from when it comes to promoting the government’s next managers. Boomer retirees continue to leave in great numbers. For the relatively few 40-somethings that are working their way up the ladder, the future is daunting. Some fear they’ll be promoted too quickly and fail.

I produced national news and a 25-minute documentary for The Current about the shifting demographics. This doc aired nationally on the morning of an Ottawa snowstorm. I had countless bureaucrats tell me the extremely slow traffic that day meant people who should have been at work, were in their car listening to the item. Several government workers mentioned that the issues I raised came up in water cooler chats or at staff meetings later in the day.

During my time as the 2010 Michener-Deacon Fellow, two senior bureaucrats were found to have been wrongfully dismissed from the Public Works department. (I had exclusive coverage of their precedent setting award with stories on radio news, The Current and The National.) Around the same time, another senior public servant, Munir Sheikh, resigned as Chief Statistician of Canada during the long-form census debacle. And late last fall, the head of the government’s own Public Service Integrity Commission was forced out and an auditor general’s investigation was launched into abuses in that office. This is not an easy time for the federal public service.

That could be why my stories seemed to resonate with the public. I’ve received calls from across the country. Large envelopes full of documents have been delivered to my desk. I’ve had countless secret meetings with bureaucrats who are scared, potential whistle-blowers. As I write, I’ve received three calls this week from bureaucrats wanting me to look into new investigations. I fully intend to research their claims and hope to break their stories on CBC in the future.

For me, the Michener-Deacon Fellowship is coming to a close, but this project is really just beginning. The fellowship has prepared me to follow a very important, largely overlooked workforce in this country. And given that this workforce operates this country, it should not be ignored. There is recognition at CBC that our public service and its issues need greater attention. As I head back to my job in the CBC Ottawa newsroom, I will continue to pursue the leads that have come my way over the past several months. I’ve also been asked to speak to various associations and Public Service groups about my findings. As a reporter, I hope to become known for giving a voice to stories inside Canada’s federal bureaucracy.

Thanks to the Michener Foundation for allowing me to develop a new specialty and bring important public policy issues to the airways of the national broadcaster.

To read more, listen or watch the stories Ms Ireton produced during the 2010 Michener-Deacon fellowship, go to:

Julie Ireton
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation
2010 Michener-Deacon Fellow
February, 2011.