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The Canadian taxpayer has demanding expectations for quality service from the government at a reasonable cost. Special Operating Agencies (SOA) are increasingly being seen as one of the more effective means of delivering government services with due sensitivity to client requirements and bottom-line costs.
The government is particularly interested in extending the use of the SOA concept to those organisations whose operations would likely benefit from applying private sector norms in planning and executing service delivery either to the public or to other departments of government. The first group of SOAs was announced by the President of the Treasury Board in December 1989, and the concept was embraced as one of many initiatives of the government's December 1990 white paper on Public Service reform.
Special Operating Agencies are operational organisations within existing departmental structures which deliver services, as distinct from providing policy advice to ministers. As part of their department, they are accountable for their operations through their respective deputy head and Minister Responsible. Each SOA operates under a departmentally approved business plan. In addition, an accountability relationship within the department is defined by its framework document, which also lays out target commitments for service levels and financial performance.
Each SOA negotiates administrative flexibilities tailored to complement its operational requirements. Generally these flexibilities relate to delegations within the authority of the department, but occasionally special authorities or concessions may be acquired from the Treasury Board. Organisations may receive official designation as an SOA from the Treasury Board, based on an acceptable proposal by the minister. The proposal should include an approved business plan and framework document, as well as any special authorities being requested by the department on behalf of the SOA. A key aim of establishing an SOA is to give the opportunity, scope and freedom to managers and employees alike to more effectively serve their clientele.
Agencies rely on the active support and enthusiastic participation of their employees to make a success of the SOA venture. Current experience clearly indicates that the concept can be advantageously used to promote a more creative working environment where all employees become more sensitive to client requirements and seek new ways to improve service delivery. An increased preoccupation with service often results from consultation with clients and greater involvement of employee groups in support of the management process.
Unless specifically addressed in the charter proposal to the Treasury Board, the employees' terms of employment remain unchanged by the SOA designation. Accordingly, the relationships with the bargaining units and the employees' access to work elsewhere in the Public Service are unaffected.
There is no general policy that addresses this question. Normally the SOA designation is granted to suitable candidates on the basis that the organisation is within a stable policy environment and that all parties having a vested interest consider it advantageous to apply the SOA concept.
While it was convenient and expeditious for the first SOAs to operate on full revenue dependency, this is not a prerequisite for SOA status. Increasingly the concept is being applied to organisations that are dependent partially or totally on parliamentary appropriations.
The government is fully supportive of the SOA concept, particularly where it can be advantageously used to provide a better environment for service delivery, and employee enthusiasm and satisfaction, and where it can lead to improved financial performance. The better candidates for SOA status include those which:
- are large enough to justify special consideration;
- are clearly in the business of delivering service;
- can usefully apply private sector practices as a means of improving service and financial performance;
- have creative and imaginative leaders and an inspired work force;
- can be set up with clear and unambiguous lines of accountability; and
- operate within a stable policy environment.
The extent to which the SOA concept is used within the Canadian Public Service in large measure depends on the extent to which Public Service employees seize its implementation as an opportunity for constructive change and on the degree to which the public and parliamentarians see that SOAs are successful.
For further information, contact the Treasury Board Secretariat at (613) 957-2514.