Death by a thousand cuts

Susan Riley, Ottawa Citizen
Published: Friday, September 23, 2011

No good will come of proposed public service cuts, if experience is any guide. Not a leaner, more nimble public service, certainly, and not a more affordable one. Any savings, history suggests, will be illusory, counter-productive or transient.

Instead, the talented and confident will take advantage of incentives, if there are any – or simply flee an increasingly poisonous work environment – while the deadwood, and the sycophants, will grimly abide.

Morale, already at a low ebb, will plummet further, as the public service becomes an increasingly unattractive workplace. This will make recruitment a challenge, as boomers leave and the reservoir of institutional expertise becomes depleted.

Survivors of the current purge will be overloaded, rates of absenteeism will soar, and, eventually, government may be forced to hire back former employees on contract, or rely on expensive, outside consultants. (Some of these private sector experts may even have personal ties to sitting cabinet ministers.)

It is “theoretically possible” to redesign a bureaucracy to reward enterprise, improve efficiency and prune outdated programs and unproductive individuals, says Carleton University business professor Linda Duxbury. And she believes the federal shop, which has grown relentlessly in the Harper years, is due for a downsizing.

“But the practical reality is that it rarely happens,” she says. That’s because politicians don’t start by asking what they want the public service to do – and what skills will be needed – but focus obsessively on saving money.

And the easiest way to save money is to reduce staffing. Whenever the economy falters, politicians resort to easy caricature – the public servant as indulged, pencil-pushing slacker – and out come the pink slips and running shoes.

(Like his predecessors, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty claims to be focused on austerity and creating jobs – except, oddly, for good-paying, useful jobs in the public sector, which he is keen to eliminate.)

Downsizing is rarely welcomed by public servants or their unions, but this one has been particularly traumatic because of confusing signals from the Harper government.

During the election, the prime minister repeatedly insisted the targeted savings of $4 billion in operating costs would be easily reached through attrition.

With their majority secure, Conservatives are now talking more about cuts – and started with a handful of curators at the National Gallery, a search-and-rescue office in St. John’s and some 300 positions at Environment Canada.

Parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page has estimated some 6,000 jobs will be gone when the smoke clears – far fewer than the 45,000 eliminated during the Chrétien-Martin purge of the mid-’90s. Public service unions are expecting higher numbers and many ordinary, hard-working bureaucrats are braced for bad news. No one feels safe, but no one yet knows how extensive the cuts will be or where the axe will fall.

And the man who wields the axe, Treasury Board president Tony Clement, hardly inspires respect. He remains unapologetic – dead silent, actually – about the $50 million intended for border security he sprinkled around his Muskoka riding before the G8 summit.

Yesterday, Defence Minister Peter MacKay was forced to explain why he commandeered one of Newfoundland’s search-and-rescue helicopters to ferry him home from a fishing holiday last summer. And the chief of defence staff, Walter Natynczyk, is in trouble for using a Challenger to join his family on a Caribbean holiday.

And while Harper insists he pays commercial rate every time he uses a government plane for family outings, his contribution ($1,060 for a $11,000 trip to a hockey game in Boston) doesn’t begin to cover the cost.

Politicians and mandarins always have a rationale for these entitlements, of course: with the PM, its security; with the general, it is his workload and need to keep constantly in touch with headquarters; with MacKay, well, he was just checking out equipment.

Next week, Clement, nine other ministers and senior mandarins – along with a private consultant making $90,000 a day – will receive plans from 70 departments and agencies outlining potential five-per-cent cuts, and 10-per-cent cuts, in ongoing spending. And, while Treasury Board isn’t promising retirement, or buyout, incentives to workers, apparently senior executives will get bonuses (bounty is such an ugly word) based on the savings they find.

It adds up to a disaster-in-themaking: impulsive cuts motivated by optics and ideology, with notional savings devoured by new priorities – more prisons, more foreign military interventions and those expensive fighter jets.

Some suspect Harper of a master plan – of using the pending recession, and his majority, as an opportunity to slash the size of government. If it’s a plan, it isn’t very masterful.

It looks more like the time-honoured reaction of any government frightened by a downturn: heads are going to roll! Just not ours.

Susan Riley writes on national politics. E-mail

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