OTTAWA - An elite federal program to recruit the cream of new graduates suddenly wants to know the applicants' views on the government's vaunted Economic Action Plan before they get a job interview.
The Accelerated Economist Training Program invites highly educated people to develop careers in the federal public service, starting at a senior level.
Successful candidates go through two years of training at four departments. They start at about $50,000 a year and after two years can earn over $80,000.
Spaces are in high demand among university graduates.
But this year, for the first time, candidates need to provide more than a list of qualifications and good marks. They also must to write 1,000 words on the federal government's last budget, promoted widely as the Economic Action Plan.
The budget devoted billions to programs meant to lift the country out of recession. It has now become the centre of government advertising and is at the heart of election campaigning and the Conservative party's promotional efforts.
"In 2009, the Government of Canada introduced Canada's Economic Action Plan to help Canada's economy weather the economic storm," says the application form. "In 1,000 words or less, please choose two of these measures and discuss their implications for Canada."
Applicants must consider the social, economic or international policy implications of the budget, it says.
Applications need to be submitted by Monday. It's the first time recruits have to submit an essay. It's also the first time recruiting has been led by the Privy Council Office. Treasury Board spearheaded the program in previous years.
"It smells a little bit," said Leslie Pal, professor of public policy at Ottawa's Carleton University.
"It places an unfortunate implication of inviting people to write glowing things about the economic recovery plan."
Pal said he sees no rationale for asking people looking for a job with the government to comment on current government policy, especially when that policy is so contentious.
"I think this is not a good idea."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has complained past that the civil service was too Liberal.
But some academics say it's too soon to say the Tories are using the hiring program to screen future top bureaucrats with Conservative leanings.
In the past, selection of successful candidates has been done by a panel of public servants, not politicians, notes Matthew Mendelsohn, director of the University of Toronto's Mowat Centre public policy think-tank.
"I have no indication that they're trying to filter certain people for the public service."
The action plan has been the object of widespread advertising by the Conservative government. Signs promoting the initiative are plastered in front of the thousands of infrastructure projects that have received funding from the plan's stimulus program.
The government has been harshly criticized for spending at least $34 million to promote it, and for allegedly using the budget to further political ends. All four Conservative candidates in byelections set for next week have made the action plan central to their campaigns.
The Opposition Liberals have filed complaints with the federal ethics commissioner over the Conservatives' use of giant fake cheques to promote the funding. The cheques in question have carried the party logo or featured an MP's name emblazoned across the top.
At the same time, some senior public servants have quietly raised concerns about what they see as the politicization of the bureaucracy and the prime minister's penchant for using the Privy Council Office for political purposes, rather than just policy.
Officials at both PCO and the Prime Minister's Office have denied criticisms the civil service is becoming politicized.
The Public Service Commission prides itself for upholding a strictly non-partisan workforce that is hired based on merit alone, and has issued guidelines to reflect the principle.
In a recent paper on impartiality, the commission warns that partisan hiring could undermine the legitimacy of government practices, erode public trust, cause turmoil and high turnover, and even threaten the essence of a functioning democracy.
Applicants can be forgiven for thinking the essay requirement is asking for a partisan response, but they'd probably be wrong, said Mike Joyce, an adjunct professor at the School of Policy Studies at Queen's University.
"They'd be looking for analytic capacity," he said. "Often they're not looking for the 'right' answer."
A spokesperson for PCO did not immediately respond to questions about the hiring process.