The 2003 Public Service Modernization Act, as with many civil service reform efforts in modern, industrialized democratic systems, was intended to ensure the Canadian public that its public sector employees were hired, promoted, transferred, and relieved based solely on merit, and not on ethically questionable considerations like patronage. Perceptions of corrupt and/or inefficient civil service sectors, even in authoritarian political systems, which the Canadian government most certainly is not, can have a seriously corrosive effect on the public’s faith in government. Political systems tend to become morally complacent over time, and legislative efforts at imposing reforms are a routine response to a series of scandals or revelations of gross incompetence on the part of government officials. The Public Service Modernization Act was one such legislative effort at addressing growing perceptions among the Canadian public that its public service sector was on the wrong track.
Among the Act’s most notable reforms were those intended to ensure that a merit-based system was fully institutionalized across the government. Imposition of a Merit System was central to the Act’s provisions, and its requirements that hiring processes be transparent and merit-based, and conducted according to a rigid set of standards intended to minimize the prospects of unethical processes subverting the system, was the principal achievement of this legislative effort. Throughout much of its modern history, the Canadian public service sector was noteworthy as much as anything for the pervasive role of patronage hiring and promotions. Indeed, so pervasive was the role of patronage that the mid-19th to early-20th century was known in Canada as “the Patronage Era.” The Civil Service Amendment Act of 1908 and the Civil Service Act of 1918 were both early efforts at eliminating or minimizing hiring processes that were driven more by political and familial considerations than by merit. Continuous efforts collectively failed to adequately address the problem, so the 2003 Act represented merely the most recent major attempt at reform. The Public Service Modernization Act was not the sole legislative effort of 2003, however. The same year, the Canadian parliament passed the Public Service Employment Act, which established a Public Service Commission with the mandate to oversee the implementation of the reforms spelled out in the Modernization Act. The mission of the commission, which was established by the Employment Act, was described in the act as follows:
(a) to appoint, or provide for the appointment of, persons to or from within the public service in accordance with this Act;
(b) to conduct investigations and audits in accordance with this Act; and
(c) to administer the provisions of this Act relating to political activities of employees and deputy heads.
With this broad mandate, the Commission was authorized to monitor the implementation and continued execution of reforms of the existing hiring system. The Employment Act is very specific with regard to the newly-established Commission’s authorities, noting the following with respect to the priority of merit-based decisions in the hiring process:
30. (1) Appointments by the Commission to or from within the public service shall be made on the basis of merit and must be free from political influence.
(2) An appointment is made on the basis of merit when
o (a) the Commission is satisfied that the person to be appointed meets the essential qualifications for the work to be performed, as established by the deputy head, including official language proficiency; and
o (b) the Commission has regard to
(i) any additional qualifications that the deputy head may consider to be an asset for the work to be performed, or for the organization, currently or in the future,
(ii) any current or future operational requirements of the organization that may be identified by the deputy head, and
(iii) any current or future needs of the organization that may be identified by the deputy head.
In short, then, the Public Service Modernization Act, together with the Public Service Employment Act, were intended to eliminate, to the extent possible, the role of patronage in public sector hiring processes.