I Am The Secret Public Servant
Opinion

I Am The Secret Public Servant

A federal employee spills the tea on the inner workings of the government

My name is F, and I am the Secret Public Servant. Over the coming months, I will share an insider’s view of the federal government: how public servants handle controversy and conflict, what we do well, and what we can do better. Along the way, I’ll share some examples that I wouldn’t believe had happened if I hadn’t been in the room. 

A little about me: I’ve worked in several federal government departments over the past decade, both in Ottawa and elsewhere. My work gives me access to some of the highest-level executives, and to their concerns, behaviours, and motivations. I am known as a problem solver, and so I have been privy to very sensitive information. I have been in many discussions about how to handle issues that may soon become public knowledge. I’ve seen extraordinary examples of public service and selflessness, and I’ve seen eye-watering stupidity. 

In this column you’re going to meet a host of characters: the Minister whose riding office is a toxic mess of recrimination and walkouts, the employee allegedly dealing drugs out of his office, and, one of my favourites, the staff member whose behaviour was so bad that it was decided that she could not be fired, because if she were, the chances would be that much greater that her shenanigans could become public knowledge.

But beyond individual bad apples, we’ll also look at some bigger issues and problems: After the Phoenix debacle — a situation where the entire government pay system failed to pay tens of thousands of government employees — what changes were made to facilitate greater accountability, and what chances have been missed? What really happened in the Governor General’s Office regarding her behaviour, and why do investigations cost so much and take so long? Why does the procurement process favour larger businesses over small enterprises — especially large businesses owned by people with very strong political ties? 

We’ll look at the admirable examples too: The senior public servant I’ve met who refuses to claim overtime as a gesture of respect for the public coffers, a similar character who would walk several blocks for a Tim Hortons coffee rather than one from Starbucks (as she didn’t want her per diem going to a U.S. company), and the Director, so outraged by the behaviour of a perennially insubordinate team member she’d inherited, that she almost lost her job by disciplining him.

It’s reasonable to ask why I’m doing this. After all, public servants take an oath of loyalty that includes confidentiality, so where’s my integrity? And why hide behind anonymity? How can any of this be confirmed? Couldn’t I just be making it up?

Let’s start with the last one: You actually couldn’t make up some of the things I’ve seen. But, as a sniff test, I encourage you to share this column with any public servant you know at whatever level. Ask them if what I’ve written, or something like it, could be true from their experience. Dollars to doughnuts, you’ll get a heavy sigh and a burdened “the things I’ve seen” murmur. Just try it.

On integrity: As public servants, we commit to privacy and confidentiality as part of our values and ethics. But we also sign up to the value of “stewardship,” which means being mindful of the long-term financial implications of our decisions. So every time (and they are legion) that a poorly behaved employee is put on a “special project” rather than being disciplined, because management doesn’t have the courage for the fight, it violates our commitment to stewardship. The same goes for every time a contract is awarded to a regular and expensive vendor instead of a promising startup. 

But I fully agree that all conversations in the public service should be private. My aim in this column is not at specific individuals. My target here is a collective culture of complacency that I’ve seen cost the taxpayer millions of dollars and which has enabled unprofessional behaviour to go unchallenged. If this is of interest to you, keep reading. 

And, for the record, I have no political agenda. I am not a member of any political party. I have never run for office, nor have I ever campaigned for anyone. But, likely the same as you, I do vote. And, certainly the same as you, I pay taxes. And so, just like you, I have skin in the game. 

So I am the Secret Public Servant, at your service. Come with me.

Editor’s note: Canadaland has confirmed the identity of the Secret Public Servant and verified their role in the public service, but we have agreed to grant them anonymity, as they will be sharing information in each column that would directly result in their termination.

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