Canada’s Federal Civil Service

I have been known to criticize the federal bureaucracy as being too big, too intrusive, and too expensive. So, today I looked up some facts relating to how big.

How big is it?

In 2018, there were a few more than 260,000 civil servants. To that you could add the military, the RCMP and crown corporations and add another 200,000 or so.

While 260,000 seems like a .ot of people, it is actually less than it was in 1975 and proprtional to the population, much less. In 1975 for every 1,000 people there were about 12 civil servants. By 2018 it had fallen to 7.4. 38% fewer.

I’m not sure civil servants per thousand of population is a meaningful metric but nonetheless it is interesting.

Does it reflect the demographics of Canada?

Again the numbersd will be a little skewed because civil servants are all working age and the population is more dispersed, but relating to population demographics we find:

  1. The percentage of women is nearly identical.
  2. Visible minorities plus disabled people in total are nearly identical. Minorities are slightly under-represnted and disabled slightly over-represented.
  3. Aboriginal are over-represented. 4.1% to 2.5%.
  4. Francophones are over-represented. 32% to 24%. However, given that 42% of civil servants work in the National Capital Region, and French ability is necessary in some departments, it is likely reasonable. The need is not distributed the same way as the population.

What does big mean in context?

There are more than 200 departments, commissions, boards, crown corporations, and councils. Some are tiny while others like ESDC, Employment and Social Development Canada, are huge. All of them are represented by a minister of the government and are administratively lead by a deputy minister and many assistant deputy ministers.

We only see newspaper reports about programs. We don’t see the meaning of the programs or the conflicts that have been addressed in a  particular way for particular reasons. There is no program or service that is uniformly important too and respected by each citizen. Some decisions are easy because they are adminsitratively required, like the Canada Revenue Agency, while others are very difficult. Immigration for example. None are single dimension problems as we so often think about them.

We, as citizens, pay far too little attention to policy. Governmental policy is a huge exercise in making decisions with incomplete and often conflicting information. Implementation is sometimes breaking new ground and that exercise is never easy. It is better than guessing because they consider vast amounts of information and positions, but it is far from deterministic.

We don’t see the effects of big, just how the government affects us individually or perhaps in a community way. Quantity imposes problems we as individuals seldom face. The needs and ability to provide service in northern Quebec are dissimilar to Toronto.

Who is responsible?

In some theoretical way, I suppose the ministers and ultimately the prime minister are, but that’s impossible. As a parent, being responsible for just a few children was challenging. Being responsible for a half million people is not possible. Ministers can only see highly summarized reports about what is happening and what is being done to repair errors. It is irrational to hold a minister accountable because some employee in a place 2,000 miles from Ottawa responded rudely to a citizen in a government office. That’s just news, not rational insight into how operations can work.

It is equally foolish to assume the government knows everything they need to know and thus can create and implement sound programs. I personally cannot project six months effectively. In the current environment six weeks is a stretch goal. The decision making and implemetation of new programmes today is one of best guess. I think the departments have been reasonable in shutting down many decisions until more is known.

In a near random world assigning responsibility for either good or bad outcomes misleads people into thinking there really can be control.

Assignning blame is counterproductive

If we blame people for doing their best in trying circumstances we accomplish two things:

  1. People who might be good at making decisions with incomplete information and in conflicting circumstances will avoid the jobs in government. Especially the political ones. It is a no-win situation for them.
  2. We can expect to hire people who are good at narrative building while paying little attention to their decisions and the effects thereof.

It is a variation of Gresham’s Law in economics.

Gresham’s law says “Bad money drives out good money.” The political situation is similar. “Bad employees drive out good employees.” If we pay attention to narratives without attaching them to practical reality, we lose.

We can make it easier for good people to serve us by recognizing the difficulties they face and reining in the blame casting media. If you want to complain, feel free to do so but recognize a thought from Theodore Roosevelt:

“Complaining about a problem without proposing a solution is called whining”

Realistically, your solution should take into account the conflicts and the unknowns and show it is affordable.

Not so easy now is it.


I help people understand and manage risk and other financial issues. To help them achieve and exceed their goals, I use tax efficiencies and design advantages. The result: more security, more efficient income, larger and more liquid estates.

Please be in touch if I can help you. don@moneyfyi.com 705-927-4770

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