Mayor Nancy Peckford's Op Ed in the Ottawa Citizen

Federal public servants should support the economies of where they reside, not where they work
by Mayor Nancy Peckford

In recent weeks, Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe & Ontario’s Premier have appealed to federal Minister Anita Anand to get public servants ‘back to the office’ a minimum of three days a week in Ottawa’s downtown core. News from an anonymous insider this past weekend suggested this message is being heeded.

As Mayor of a high growth community south of Ottawa, I find this development troubling.

The call for more public servants to get back to Ottawa is partly in response to a distressed business community in the Nation’s Capital. Pre-pandemic, it heavily relied on the good wages of federal employees whose 9-5 lives were tethered to large office buildings in Ottawa and Gatineau.

As we all know, when the pandemic hit, large swaths of Canada’s workforce, including federal public servants, many of whom lived nowhere near Ottawa’s urban core, were suddenly freed from grinding commutes, expensive parking, cumbersome before & after school childcare, among other things. Consequently, they were able to bear down and work harder and longer during an unprecedented national emergency.

Given that memories can run short, it’s worth recalling that during the height of the pandemic, federal public servants rolled out Canada’s largest income stabilization program (CERB) in a matter of weeks, oversaw complex vaccination acquisition programs, provided crucial public health oversight, accelerated its investments in infrastructure, continued to collect our taxes (without a hitch) and generally kept Canadians safe .

And remarkably, almost all of this work was undertaken while public servants worked exclusively from home. Further, many communities surrounding Ottawa found themselves growing as a consequence of this newfound flexibility. This included North Grenville (Kemptville and several rural hamlets) which became an appealing option as families sought a little more space and lower housing prices.

As a result of less commuting time, newcomers and long-time residents of North Grenville frequented local businesses more often, contributing to our economy. Residents also found that, with less commuting time, they could volunteer at the local rink, senior’s centre, or food bank. Their car maintenance costs dropped, and they could better support elderly parents and their own children.

Given this, it begs the question - do federal public servants living in my town or other communities surrounding the Nation’s Capital have an obligation to shore up Ottawa’s economy? I don’t think so. But does the Treasury Board have an obligation to be evidence based and fair about its hybrid work arrangements? Absolutely.

The appeal for public servants to return to work in Ottawa also ignores the fact that, due to our growth, North Grenville is able to invest in more roads, expand recreational options and introduce an on demand transit system. None of these things would be possible without an increasing tax base that comes as a direct result of employees generally having more virtual work options.

As Canadians, we all pay the wages and benefits of federal public servants. Shouldn’t they be able to fully contribute to the local economies where they reside, and not be heavily concentrated in just a few?

Finally, this latest Treasury Board directive comes at a time when the childcare sector has experienced unprecedented demand. The implications of these more restrictive policies on women and care-givers have clearly not been contemplated, despite the federal government’s repeated commitments to gender based analysis.

On top of this, less hybrid work seems to contradict the federal government’s 2024 budget announcement to allocate $1.1 billion over the next 10 years to offload its office holdings more quickly to spur housing conversions in Ottawa, not to mention reducing carbon emissions by limiting the reliance on the ‘single occupancy commuter vehicle’.

Fundamentally, flexible work arrangements mean public servants throughout the region can be more productive, and available to their families during non-working hours. The City of Ottawa’s LRT debacle continues to contribute to persistent and heavy congestion on the 417. Should public servants living outside Ottawa’s urban core pay the price for this too?

I urge all levels of government to take a step back and truly consider the implications of an increasing lack of flexibility. Most senior managers worth their salt in the public service would acknowledge that it’s not ‘in the office’ work that is the secret sauce to workplace productivity. Instead, it’s attracting qualified, well trained, highly motivated, and nimble employees.

This new development will only make recruitment and retention harder, put more people needlessly on the road and away from their own communities, and ultimately deter our best and brightest from working in the public sector.

Contact Mayor Peckford at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Published in the Ottawa Citizen on May 1, 2024

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