Robyn Benson, PSAC

Conservative performance review



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To hear Treasury Board President Tony Clement tell it, federal public workers have never had their work performance evaluated before. He knows his audience, and that’s not the workers who are more than familiar with the Performance Review and Employee Appraisal (PREA) system that’s been in place since the year dot.

And the media have swallowed this bilge whole:

While the government already assesses performance of senior bureaucrats, there is no government-wide program to review lower-ranking employees.


Newsflash: federal public sector workers have always had their work evaluated annually by their supervisors. Gosh, here’s a report from the Auditor General about the process—dated 1982. And one can almost hear the hand-wringing.

Our findings reveal that present performance review and employee appraisal practices in the public service are not perceived as fully accomplishing their intended purposes. All departments audited have policies, forms and procedures in place, and some have devoted considerable effort over the past few years to ensure that their systems comply with the Treasury Board policy. Nevertheless, the credibility of performance review and employee appraisal in the public service is questionable; a considerable number of employees are critical about the uses and value of the process.

Employees want to know what is expected of them and how well they are doing in their jobs; however, the present systems do not adequately provide this kind of feedback. This is of concern in view of the fact that the primary purpose of performance review and employee appraisal is to help employees to improve their job performance and develop their skills through ongoing discussions about the work expected and the results accomplished. It is significant that over one-half of the public servants surveyed during this audit said that they did not receive enough information from their supervisors about their performance. It is equally significant that 64 per cent stated that the performance review and employee appraisal process has little or no effect on the way they do their jobs.


In other words, the efficacy of the PREA process has been questioned for decades, but not its existence. And it may surprise some—especially the ones who have been taking Clement seriously—to learn that unions have no problem at all with a feedback system that actually allows employees to improve on the job.

People should know that the functioning of the appraisal process is not covered by collective agreements. Performance reviews are not grievable to a third-party tribunal. And the same system applies to managers and to public workers alike.

This system is not now being implemented by Tony Clement. Warts and all, it’s been around as long as most people can remember.

But as the excerpts from the Auditor General’s report more than thirty years ago indicate, the system isn’t infallible by any means. It can be useless as a tool in the wrong hands. And it can be used by abusive managers to punish employees they dislike. The debates about the usefulness of these reviews have raged on for decades.

Clement figures the system isn’t working, however, not on the basis of performance or productivity measures, but because not enough people are being fired.

He said most Canadians are stunned that an employer as large as the government didn’t have a systematic way to track performance “and so they should be.” The number of employees dismissed for incompetence or misconduct over the years is relatively stable and much lower than in the private sector.

The dismissal rate for unsatisfactory performance in the private sector is between five and 10 per cent of the workforce compared to 0.06 per cent in the public service. In 2011, for example, the government sacked 54 employees for misconduct and 99 for incompetence.


This sort of stuff impresses the benighted, but stop and think for a moment. What is being compared here? The federal public service has relatively sophisticated recruitment and retention strategies, and stringent basic requirements for jobs. Getting into the public service is no cakewalk. The private sector, however, comprises everything from Mom and Pop stores to IBM. Hiring can range from off-the-street to rigorous. Clement isn’t comparing apples and oranges: it’s apples and tutti-frutti.

Can we seriously measure the productivity of departments by the rate at which they fire people? Clement thinks so. It just can’t be that federal public workers generally measure up. No, can’t be. That’s a Conservative article of faith. Who needs evidence?

But in any case, those numbers need a closer look. In the non-unionized part of the private sector—which is most of it—many workers (in the low-wage service sector, for example) are unlikely to have the means to launch an expensive wrongful dismissal suit on their own. Unionized workers in both the public and private sectors have access to representation that allows an unfair firing to be challenged without cost to themselves. A further point: during the grievance/arbitration/adjudication process, a fired worker may agree to resign instead, further skewing the statistics.

Of course, the “experts” can be counted upon to weigh in. Here’s public administration academic Donald Savoie:

“Public service unions have a lot to answer for in terms of performance. They haven’t been a force for improved productivity. I have never seen a union go to the wall in the name of productivity. They go to the wall for a better deal for their members and to protect their interests whether justified or not. And that is a lot to answer for.”


It’s hard to know where to start with such ivory tower ignorance, but let’s take a stab at it. Productivity is a function of good management. Unions have little or no say in the matter. Workers are assigned tasks and are expected to carry them out. The usefulness of those tasks, and their relationship to other tasks, is a management responsibility.

If an individual worker’s competence or capacity comes into question, the union is there to ensure that the process is fair, and to advocate for its members. I wonder if Professor Savoie would argue that defence lawyers “have a lot to answer for” because they get accused clients off. Surely our members should have the same rights as an accused to a competent defence.

If the evaluation process is imperfect, and it likely is, why not approach the problem positively instead of simply suggesting that not enough people are being tossed into the dustbin? Could it be that lack of managerial direction, or other factors, including personal animosity, play a role in the alleged incompetence or incapacity of an employee? That’s what unions are there for, in part—to ensure a fair shake for members in the workplace.

We’re happy to “answer for” that. But our advocacy role is also required by law. Has Savoie never heard of the duty of fair representation? That’s Unions 101, Professor. Look it up.

While on the topic of performance reviews, by the way, would it be cheeky to suggest that such a system be in place for, say, Senators? Or senior Conservative-appointed officials?

Maybe too much to hope for.


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This page contains a single entry by Robyn Benson, PSAC published on June 3, 2013 8:30 AM.

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