In defense of the Swivel Servants

Alec Bruce makes an important point in his column today.

I have expressed my concern that you can’t have sustainable economic growth built on public sector employment growth. The dollars to fund the public sector either come from own source tax revenues or the benevolence of taxpayers in other provinces (wcich is waining).

But, I don’t dislike the swivel service. In fact, I think a visionary and determined civil service will be critical to New Brunswick pulling itself out of its funk on a variety of indicators.

However, the validity of ‘indicators’ is questionned by government officials. The former Minister of Training, etc. etc. said when asked about our second last ranking in Canada for employment rate, “we don’t compare ourselves to other provinces…” Hmmmmm.

But I digress.

I do think that the venerable Bruce gives the swivel servants a bit of a pass. My own opinion is that there isn’t much innovative or creative thinking coming out of Freddy Beach these days. I don’t know if this culture was inculcated by the previous government or if it is a long standing culture.

That’s why I supported – vigorously – the trial balloon sent up by Premier Graham during the election campaign about bringing in top talent from outside the province to augment the civil service.

Of course, he was crucified by just about every editor, journalist, pundit and person with an opinion. How dare he? Aren’t we good enough? There’s enough talent right here at home, gol darn it!

Of course, that position is ridiculous on its face. Toronto has been raiding the best human talent from New Brunswick for two centuries. In fact, Toronto pulls talent from around the world.

New Brunswick has exported 550,000 people since 1976 (total out-migration).

And yet the mere mention of bringing in senior talent to support the mission of government is considered offensive. Shame.

And, of course, that little policy initiative has been scrapped. I haven’t heard a peep out of the government since.

That’s too bad.

Because Bruce is right. I would support a larger civil service if it actually could be shown to be moving us towards a sustainable private sector economy, redressing poor educational outcomes, etc.

But it is easy in the public service (heck in a private business) to get in a groove (or rut) or on a roll (or slide) (apologies to Rush). Without clear expectations and targets for the public service, you get malaise. That’s not a criticism. That’s a statement of fact.

So, give the public service a clear mandate. Give it clear objectives. Give it proper resources. And put it to work.

Otherwise Bruce’s tongue-in-cheek characterization of goverment employees as “grey-complexioned, lawn-mowing, suburban-dwelling, civil servants” may not be far from the truth.