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Remote work in the Canadian federal government: a distributive workaround to administrative central

Katherine is a guest writer for the Warwick Economics Summit blog. She is studying for her Master of Business Administration degree at Durham University.

As a confederation of provinces under the purview of a national system, Canada has long struggled with regional representation. The National Capital Region (NCR) refers collectively to the urban and rural areas immediately surrounding Ottawa, Ontario and Gatineau, Quebec, as well as these cities themselves. It has been long acknowledged that if one wishes to advance in one’s public service career, one must relocate to the NCR.

This is because the majority of the more senior, higher-paying and specialized posts within the federal public service are situated at or near respective departmental headquarters in the NCR, resulting in many employees having to relocate away from their established social networks in regions across Canada.

There are significant financial, professional and social costs of this centralized approach. Employees experience obvious, major trade-offs when relocating thousands of kilometres away from family, friends and professional networks, with periodic restructuring efforts further removing the prospect of lifelong job security. For instance, childcare in new settings can be cost-prohibitive, compared to having family members assist.

There are significant tradeoffs for the public service as well, as the majority of individuals who could perform the specialized work available chiefly across the NCR are unable or unwilling to relocate, thus markedly restricting the available talent pool to the provinces of Ontario and Quebec. In other words, many internal public service positions have long been restricted by geographic region, so only government employees residing in a particular area (typically in the NCR) could apply. For the fiscal year ending April 2020, more than half of all hires within the federal public service were within the NCR.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, however, has resulted in a dramatic shift for many professionals working for the public service. Normally, the majority of these professionals were required to physically report to work at all times, no matter the commuting conditions or practical necessity of doing so. This has been changed crucially by the declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) on March 10, 2020.

Within one week of the WHO announcement, the majority of office workers within the National Capital Region were working remotely. This was an unprecedented shift to remote work. Previously established networks were simply unable to accommodate telework (from home) on such a large scale; tremendous and rapid investment in IT was required to facilitate the new bandwidth required. Tens of thousands of government workers improvised home and IT arrangements to carry-out their responsibilities; many managers, for instance, made the effort to learn how to keep their teams healthy despite the tremendous disruption and, in many cases, made allowances to accommodate the newfound presence of sons’ and daughters’ schoolwork and family obligations in the lives of their employees. In the months that followed, the realization that remote work was going to be the default for the near future dawned, and hiring resumed - but with a twist.

Geographic restrictions were previously identified as detrimental to public service recruitment - and are not practiced by other Commonwealth nations like Australia and New Zealand for this reason - by a 2019 report from the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates, titled ‘Improving the Public Service Hiring Process’. This call for geographic liberation in recruitment was answered during the Covid-19 pandemic, with positions previously restricted to residents of a particular geographic region now seen to be possible via remote work. Ultimately, then, these positions were liberated from their former locational restrictions.

Out of necessity created by the coronavirus pandemic, public service hiring managers have examined what is truly required to perform successfully in the roles they oversee. This has seen the location of many positions open to “remote.” This relaxation of geographic restrictions has opened up the talent pool considerably, allowing students and workers to obtain positions they would never previously have considered, thereby shifting and increasing the geographic diversity on Canadian public service teams more than any other effort to date.

Perhaps this new direction towards flexibility will remain a sustained effort - particularly because Canadians deserve the opportunity to pursue a fruitful career within the federal public service that utilizes their training and experience, regardless of their geographic origins and locational priorities.

Simply put, Canadians deserve a public service that best represents the entire country, and have recently seen important - if unconventional and drastic - movements in this aspirational direction.


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