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One of the best ways to have an impactful career is to work in the public sector, where civil servants are working in a diversity of capacities to fulfill the government’s social, environmental, and economic objectives. Many people hoping to work in social impact and social innovation often tend to focus their search on the private or social sectors, while overlooking the work that governments are already doing to address public problems. In the worst case scenarios, an overreliance on private sector solutions can actually serve to displace the role of the public sector.
The fact that the pro-social role of public sector institutions is widely under-appreciated is no accident. For the last 40 years, an economic philosophy known as neoliberalism has helped undermine the role of the state by arguing that governments are inherently inefficient, and that self-regulating markets should be able to solve most of society’s problems. This theory of the economy, also known as ‘trickle-down economics’, is the now debunked theory that a combination of privatization, deregulation, tax cuts, and trade liberalization would inevitably increase overall prosperity. As the UN has recognized, the world has been fundamentally altered by the outsourcing of public services to the private sector. A key component of this shift was the loss of a culture of public administration; with the rise of ‘new public management’, public institutions across the Western world were scaled down or restructured to behave more like private sector organizations. Through a combination of privatizations, tax cuts, and budget cuts under regimes of austerity, there has been a massive transfer of wealth from the public to the private sectors. Private wealth in most rich countries rose from 200-350% of national income in 1970 to 400-700% today, while net public wealth has declined dramatically in nearly all countries.
This change has affected Canada in many ways, although less intensely than in the United States or United Kingdom. A hugely important shift impeding the role of government was the reduction of tax rates; between 1997 to 2016, Canada’s corporate income tax rate was cut in half from 43% to 26.7%, leading to a 40% cut in hospital beds between 1952 and 2018, social housing units being cut by the thousands or stranded with multi-billion dollar repair bills due to a lack of maintenance, and underinvestment in public transit infrastructure, among many other trends. Privatizations rose, while governments under Brian Mulroney, Jean Chretien, and Stephen Harper sought to reduce the size of the federal public service through layoffs and budget cuts. The austerity program of regressive taxes, civil service layoffs, and privatization schemes had the effect of increasing costs for Canadians, particularly through the creation of new user fees, while also undermining public faith in government
Fortunately, there are signs that the era of neoliberalism may be ending. With governments spending trillions around the world to build back better from COVID-19 pandemic, there is a new appreciation for the role that governments play in improving the livelihoods of citizens. A new generation of economists are emphasizing the role that public investment plays in innovation, and resounding calls for a Green New Deal have galvanized support for federal initiatives designed to create a more sustainable and just world. The Government of Canada has announced new strategies, such as the Investing in Canada plan, which will invest in many new public infrastructure projects and hopefully create thousands of public sector jobs.
Differences between Government Levels
The Canadian government is composed of three branches: federal, provincial and territorial, and municipal. Each of these branches are assigned, under Canada’s constitution, different roles and responsibilities for the administration of Canada. To learn more about the various public agencies in Canada at a federal, provincial, and municipal level, and how they are working to advance social and sustainable development, see our Job Board which lists key public agencies and their main strategies and priorities.
Like all parliamentary democracies, Canada’s federal government is divided into three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. The legislative branch, which consists of the elected House of Commons and the Senate, makes the legislation that the executive branch (consisting of the Prime Minister and their Cabinet), implements and oversees. To learn more about the government’s structure and parliamentary system, see these guides from the Government of Canada and the House of Commons.
A useful infographic summarizing the work and priorities of the Government of Canada is available from GC InfoBase, which outlines comprehensive data on government spending, services, priorities, and results. The executive branch of government is overseen by the Prime Minister, who appoints elected members of the House of Commons as Cabinet Ministers to oversee various portfolios. The government decides its priorities by providing Mandate Letters to the various Cabinet Ministers, which collectively outline the government’s goals and plans for the year. To track the government’s progress on the goals of its Mandate Letters, you can view this Mandate Letter Tracker which includes action items and their degree of completion. In turn, the federal agencies and departments release Departmental Plans which determine how the government will spend money to advance its priorities; to browse Departmental Plans, see this directory for the 2021-2022 year, organized by institution.
In the 2020-2021 fiscal year, the Government of Canada spent $440 billion to advance its priorities, a significant increase over the previous year due to the stimulus spending program adopted to build back better from COVID-19. The 2021 budget included spending organized according to five central themes: job creation, small businesses and growth, women and early learning and child care, climate action and a green economy, and young Canadians. In the interest of promoting transparency, the government has adopted a Policy on Results since 2018 requiring all departments to report on the progress made on their core responsibilities and the programs contained within those responsibilities. For the 2020-2021 year, the federal government aimed to achieve 1,541 results, measured according to 2,722 different indicators; of these indicators, 46% have fully met their target. To read more about departmental results, see this interactive infographic summary.
In total, the federal government comprises 159 federal organizations across 25 portfolios. For a full list of federal departments and agencies, see this directory. The Canadian federal public service has 319,601 employees, making it the largest employer in the country. The Public Service of Canada is made up of central agencies, ministerial departments, and their various associated agencies and crown corporations. Canada’s central agencies include the Privy Council Office and the Treasury Board Secretariat, with the Clerk of the Privy Council serving as the head of the civil service of Canada. Public service organizations are divided into the Core Public Administration, primarily consisting of the ministerial departments and departmental agencies, and Separate Agencies such as the Canada Revenue Agency or Parks Canada. For a full list of services provided by the Canadian federal government, see this directory. The ministerial departments include the following:
- Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada
- Canadian Heritage
- Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs
- Employment and Social Development
- Environment and Climate Change
- Fisheries and Oceans
- Global Affairs
- Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship
- Indigenous Services
- Innovation, Science and Economic Development
- National Defence
- Natural Resources
- Public Safety
- Public Services and Procurement
- Veterans Affairs
- Women and Gender Equality
The Canadian government has adopted and is obligated to report on a Federal Sustainable Development Strategy, which outlines Canada’s strategy to implement targets and plans to meet the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. The strategy is overseen by Environment and Climate Change Canada, although the plan touches on a wide variety of goals related to human and ecological wellbeing and involves the work of many ministers and 99 different federal organizations. For each goal, the strategy outlines associated targets, short-term milestones, and implementation actions, which can be viewed in this database that is searchable by sector, partner, department, action type, and region. For further information, see this list of departmental sustainable development plans. Canada has also adopted a 2030 Agenda National Strategy, which aims to accelerate progress on the SDGs throughout the UN Decade of Action. The 2030 Agenda includes a series of indicators known as the Canadian Indicator Framework, developed by Statistics Canada in collaboration with other departments, which will be used to measure progress on the various SDG actions. The 2030 Agenda is overseen by Employment and Social Development Canada.
As a confederation, Canada has 10 provinces and three territories that are collectively delegated various governmental responsibilities as outlined in the Canadian constitution, including education, health care, some natural resources, and road regulations, some of which are jointly shared by the federal government. Similarly to the structure of the federal government, provinces have their own legislative assemblies from which a government cabinet is selected by the Province’s elected leader, the Premier. Canada also has three territories, which have no inherent sovereignty (unlike provinces) and possess only those powers delegated to them by the federal government. To learn more about the provincial government system in Canada, see this guide from the Canadian Encyclopedia.
Canada has over 3,573 municipalities that are subject to some form of local government, ranging from large metropolitan areas like Toronto and Vancouver to much smaller townships and villages. Municipal governments, in many ways, are responsible for administering the activities that most affect the daily lives of Canadians, from emergency services and transit networks to garbage collection and water treatment. Municipalities also deliver many vital social services, including social housing, long term care, public health, and many other important activities. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities is the national voice of local government, including over 2,000 members municipalities nation-wide that collectively represent over 90% of Canadians. To learn more about the FCM’s work, see this list of focus areas which includes infrastructure, housing, public safety, telecommunications, and much more. To learn more about local government in Canada, see this guide from the Commonwealth Local Government Forum.
Key Concepts and Definitions
Executive Branch: The executive branch of Canada’s federal government is the body that oversees the implementation of Canadian laws. It is overseen by the Prime Minister, who appoints elected members of the House of Commons as Cabinet Ministers to oversee various portfolios. A useful infographic summarizing the work and priorities of the executive branch is available from GC InfoBase, which outlines comprehensive data on government spending, services, priorities, and results.
Legislative Branch: The legislative branch of Canada’s federal government, known as Parliament, is the branch which is responsible for proposing and passing legislation. The legislative branch of Canada’s government is composed of two bodies: the House of Commons, which is composed of elected Members of Parliament, and the Senate, which is composed of Senators appointed by the Prime Minister. For more information on the activities of the legislative branch, see the annual report of the Senate of Canada as well as the reports and disclosures of the House of Commons.
Public Service: The Public Service of Canada includes all federal employees that work in the various ministerial departments and agencies that comprise Canada’s civil service. There are 137 distinct organizations within the Public Service, including 22 ministerial departments, 3 service agencies, 17 departmental corporations, 50 departmental agencies, 12 special operating agencies, and 6 agents of Parliament. For a full list of federal departments and agencies, see this directory.
Crown Corporation: There are 43 Crown corporations in Canada, which are revenue-generating state-owned enterprises. Prominent Crown corporations include the Bank of Canada, Export Development Canada, and the Canada Infrastructure Bank. Employees of Crown corporations work for the government, but are not considered public servants. For the full list of Crown corporations, see this directory.
Mandate Letters: The government decides its priorities by providing Mandate Letters to the various Cabinet Ministers, which outline the government’s goals and plans for the year. To track the government’s progress on the goals of its Mandate Letters, you can view this Mandate Letter Tracker which includes action items and their degree of completion.
Departmental Plans: The various federal agencies and departments release Departmental Plans which determine how the government will spend money to advance its priorities for that particular calendar year. To browse Departmental Plans, see this directory for the 2021-2022 year, organized by institution.
Federal Sustainable Development Strategy: The Canadian government has adopted and is obligated to report on a Federal Sustainable Development Strategy, which outlines Canada’s strategy to implement targets and plans to meet the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Neoliberalism: Neoliberalism is an ideology which professes that governments are inherently inefficient, and that self-regulating markets should be able to solve most of society’s problems. Neoliberal governments across the Western world, beginning with those of US President Ronald Reagan and UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, aimed to reduce the size of government and the civil service, cut public spending, lower taxes, and dismantle regulations in the interest of generating economic growth and increasing competitiveness. This theory of the economy, also known as ‘trickle-down economics’, has been debunked, with many observers claiming that the era of neoliberalism is finally over.
New Public Management: New public management is a theory of public governance which emerged in the 1980s, arguing that governments in Western social democracies should aim to become more efficient by emulating the managerial practices of the private and acting more like businesses. Within this market model of government, citizens are viewed as ‘customers’ and public officials as managers. New public management was a key component of the neoliberal transformation of the public sector.
Public-Private Partnerships: Public-private partnerships are projects commissioned by a government that are contracted to, or delivered in partnership with, private sector organizations. While cross-sector leadership is necessary for tackling shared challenges, public-private partnerships have often had the tendency to reduce public oversight of key infrastructural projects while transforming public services into profit-making opportunities. Public-private partnerships have frequently resulted in increased costs and reduced accountability while doing little to improve overall efficiency.
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Career Resources for this Sector
There are many reasons to pursue a career in the public service, chief among which is the fact that these jobs can help you make a real difference in peoples’ lives. The public sector has potential career paths for people interested in almost every social or environmental issue, and it provides a stable means for candidates to advance their career with optimal flexibility and job security, a strong work-life balance, and a competitive salary with numerous benefits. To learn more about working in Canada’s public sector, and average salaries, see this guide from GovJobs.ca.
To learn more about how the federal public service is structured, you can check out the Government Electronic Directory Service, which provides a transparent organizational chart of every federal department. Each ministerial department is typically run by two or three Deputy Ministers, who are the most senior civil servants in the country. Each of the Deputy Ministers oversees Assistant Deputy Ministers, who are assigned to manage various general portfolios known as ‘branches’. For example, the Minister of Environment and Climate Change has Assistant Deputy Ministers overseeing branches for Canadian wildlife, climate change, environmental protection, international affairs, and more. Each branch is then further subdivided into 15-20 different divisions. The Environmental Protection branch, for instance, is subdivided into Plastics and Waste, the Carbon Market Bureau, the Industrial Sectors and Chemicals Directorate, and more. Each division is run by a Director and their Deputy Directors, who oversee the policy analysts that work directly on files.
Getting Hired as an Analyst
Public policy jobs within the public service have their own distinct classification system. All public policy jobs are tagged with the identifier “EC-0X”, where EC stands for ‘economic and social science services’, the phrase used to refer to analyst roles. An EC-02 role is an entry level analyst job, while senior analysts have the designation EC-05. You can find out more about public policy jobs and their associated rates of pay at this link.
To get started in the federal public service, it is advised to begin looking for positions with the Federal Student Work Experience Program, the Post-Secondary CO-OP/Internship Program or other recruitment programs. The public service hires over 11,000 students per year as part of the FSWEP program alone. Once entry-level co-op or student positions have been filled, candidates become ‘bridgeable’, meaning that they are eligible to be bridged into a full-time role.
Most public servants begin as contract employees, working for 90 day contracts. These jobs are relatively easy to secure (compared to permanent positions), and can be started right away. Most co-op and student roles are 90-day contracts, providing an excellent way to get your first government work experience right out of school.
To secure a permanent position, there are a variety of paths. The first is to stay consistent with a few contracts in a row, while developing new skills and expanding your network within the government, and then apply to qualify for a ‘pool’, which is a directory of individuals qualified at a certain level of education and experience. Departments will create pools of candidates to develop a list of names to recruit from, and eligible candidates within the pool can be pulled at any time to fill a particular role. Candidates can also list that they are within a given pool, and hiring managers can recruit them from this pool when they would like to hire you. Another strategy is to participate in special post-graduate recruitment programs, such as the Advanced Policy Analyst Program or the Finance Canada Post-Graduate Recruitment Program. These are rotational programs which give you the ability to try out a few different teams and potentially move on to higher level positions. These special recruitment programs are extremely competitive, but they are very valuable experiences for those hoping to build a career in the public service.
General interview tips when interviewing for policy analyst roles:
- Clearly explain why you want to work in that particular sector, and that you have a strong understanding of the underlying issues;
- Learn the key priorities of the department you’re interviewing with, their strategies and goals, the scope of their work, as well as the stakeholders they serve and what their needs are;
- Demonstrate familiarity with the key laws or regulations related to your sector (i.e. the Environmental Protection Act for positions in Environment and Climate Change Canada);
- Demonstrate that you have excellent research skills, and are a self-directed learner;
- If you don’t know a piece of information, outline very clearly that you know where to look to find that information;
- Ask good questions!
Typical job tasks for a policy analyst might include the following:
- Prepare a summary of a new report released by the World Bank and circulate key findings to team
- Provide input on a report developed by another division based on the perspective of your team
- Attend an event and provide a summary for senior management and team
- Update a previous report with current statistics and findings
- Prepare a briefing note on a key topic of interest to the senior management
Public servants can come from many different backgrounds and academic disciplines, although a background in social science (i.e. political science, economics, etc) is always beneficial. Graduate degrees in public policy or public administration are also an excellent way to increase your depth of knowledge in particular policy fields, and increase your employability. Graduate programs are also a good way to get your first work experiences in the public service, if you do not already have experience with a co-op or internship with a government organization. Some relevant Canadian university programs include:
- Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy – Master of Public Policy
- Max Bell School of Public Policy – Master of Public Policy
- Carleton University – Master of Public Policy and Administration
- University of Ottawa – Master of Arts in Public and International Affairs, Specialization in Science, Society and Policy
- University of British Columbia – Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs
- University of Toronto – Master of Public Policy
- University of Waterloo – Master of Public Service
- Université de Sherbrooke – Gestion de l’environnement et politique appliquée
- Université de Sherbrooke – Gestion de l’environnement et de la biodiversité intégrée à la gestion des territoires
- Université Laval – Baccalauréat en développement durable du territoire
- UDEM – D.E.S.S. en santé environnementale mondiale
- UQAM – POL5913: Politique de l’Environnement
- Université de Moncton – Baccalauréat en Développement Durable et Zone Côtière
- Université d’Ottawa – Maîtrise en Administration Publique Spécialisation en Durabilité de l’Environnement
- Université d’Ottawa – Maîtrise en Affaires Publiques et Internationales Spécialisation en Durabilité de l’Environnement
- Université d’Ottawa – Baccalauréat spécialisé en économie et politiques publiques de l’environnement
- Université d’Ottawa – Maîtrise Science politique Spécialisation en durabilité de l’environnement
- Université d’Ottawa – Maîtrise Développement international et mondialisation Spécialisation en durabilité de l’environnement
Looking for Positions
GC Policy Unofficial, a Facebook community, is a useful resource where hiring managers regularly post about open policy opportunities on their teams, with dozens of new jobs being posted each day. These postings will include information about the files that analysts will be working on, the size of the team, their goals and ambitions, and the technical requirements needed for the job. While many jobs in the federal public service require bilingualism, it is usually acceptable to apply for positions and see first how stringent they are with the language requirements.
When looking for positions in the general federal public service, see the following job portals:
For careers in the provincial public services, see the following job portals for each province and territory:
- British Columbia
- Nova Scotia
- Newfoundland and Labrador
- New Brunswick
- Prince Edward Island
- Northwest Territories
For careers in local government, see the following job portals and aggregators:
Look at our full list of employers on our job board to find many more impact-driven employers in this sector
Additional Resources to Learn about this Sector
To learn more about the various public agencies in Canada at a federal, provincial, and municipal level, and how they are working to advance social and sustainable development, see our Job Board which lists key public agencies and their main strategies and priorities. Several key government strategies and plans include the following:
- Budget 2021
- Investing in Canada Plan
- Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change
- 2030 Agenda National Strategy
A useful infographic summarizing the work and priorities of the Government of Canada is available from GC InfoBase, which outlines comprehensive data on government spending, services, priorities, and results. For the 2020-2021 year, the federal government aimed to achieve 1,541 results, measured according to 2,722 different indicators; of these indicators, 46% have fully met their target. To read more about departmental results, see this interactive infographic summary.
To learn more about the common, standardized curriculum provided to all public service employees, see the Canada School of Public Service.
For more information about public sector careers, see the following public service unions:
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