11/14/2012 23:54 EST | Updated 01/14/2013 05:12 EST

The Nanos Number: Tension with the public service

Nik Nanos digs beneath the numbers with CBC News Networks' Power & Politics host Evan Solomon to get to the political, economic and social forces that shape our lives.

This week: How does tension between the public service and the government affect policy?

"Political punching bag."

That's how Nik Nanos characterizes the relationship between the public service and the government right now.

From the battle over killing the long-form census, to disagreeing with the Parliamentary Budget Officer, to the most recent scandal involving tainted meat at XL Foods, the public service has been a target for the government, Nanos argues.

What has that done to Canadians' perceptions of the public service? Nanos Research asked Canadians about their impressions of the role the civil service plays in developing public policy. Here are the results:

- Positive 14%

- Neutral 46%

- Negative 15%

- Unsure 24%

(Source: Nanos Research, random representative online survey of 1,000 Canadians conducted Oct. 13 and 14, 2012.)

Nanos says these numbers could be problematic, especially "when the civil service is trying to attract the best and the brightest to be policy makers and to be part of the public policy process."

He points to negative stories in the news, in terms of the rocky relationship between the civil service and the government, for the apathetic feelings towards civil servants.

Creating good policy

Ultimately, he says, the role of the public service is to create policy and deliver services to Canadians.

When Nanos Research asked Canadians about two different ways of creating good public policy, 70 per cent of respondents said that a collaborative working relationship between elected officials and civil servants is the best approach. Only 9 per cent thought tension between elected officials and civil servants would lead to good public policy. Twenty-one per cent were unsure.

"People see bickering, people see friction, people see tension and they wonder how do we benefit in terms of good public-policy outcomes," Nanos says.

That could serve as a warning sign for government taking on the public service right now.

"The same survey showed that people would like to see civil servants have more influence in the future, because they see that it's on the decline, " Nanos says.

Governments need to be focussed on jobs, the economy and health care, Nanos argues. Fights with civil servants look like a distraction to voters.

His advice to government is, work together with the public service.

"Show how whatever you do is in the public interest, that benefits all Canadians."

Recognized as one of Canada's top research experts, Nik Nanos provides numbers-driven counsel to senior executives and major organizations. He leads the analyst team at Nanos, is a Fellow of the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association and a Research Associate Professor with SUNY (Buffalo).