Now, hug a bureaucrat

I know this is a shameless play on The Economist cover story from last week but nevertheless….

I spend a lot of time travelling around New Brunswick and the Maritime Provinces and it seems to me the reputation of the public service has been slipping. I attend a lot of meetings and have many conversations about the public sector and more often than not these conversations divert into complaining sessions about the inability of bureaucrats to get things done.

I think it is time to rebuild the brand of the public service. I see no practical value in wholesale criticism of the public sector. A strong and successful public service has been fundamental to our advancement as a society over the past 100 years – nationally and within New Brunswick.

We have dramatically reduced poverty in this province and we have developed a high quality public health care system. We have one of the best highway transportation infrastructures for a jurisdiction our size in North America. We have significantly reduced poverty and brought about a made in New Brunswick version of equal opportunity.

All of these achievements were conceived and implemented by a motivated and professional public service.

If you talk to retired public services such as Don Dennison, they will tell you they didn’t join the public service for the paycheque or to have a comfy job. They joined the public service to make a difference. It was more of a calling than a job.

Most of New Brunswick’s recently retired senior public sector leadership started in government during the heady days of Louis J. Robichaud who brought in his own version of the Great Society with a bilingual twist. They saw how the public service could be a powerful force for change and make important things happen.

Changing the conversation doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have spirited debates about the size and scope of the public sector. It doesn’t mean we should gloss over when certain segments of the public service are not performing up to the standards we expect.

But the whole ‘big’ versus ‘small’ government shouldn’t be held hostage to the right wing view that government can’t do anything right.

Dragging down the brand of the public service in New Brunswick will have pernicious effects and could end up exacerbating some of the underlying reasons why people get frustrated in the first place.

New Brunswick is at an inflection point. This is no time for a demoralized public service.

We need empowered and engaged public servants who are encouraged to step up to the plate. How do we exploit our natural resources in an environmentally sustainable way? How do we attract investment and high powered talent into our knowledge-based sectors when the competition is Toronto, New York, Sao Paulo and Berlin? How do we attract, build and retain the next generation of human capital? How do we ensure our core public services – the ones we now take for granted – can be maintained in a fiscally sustainable way?

Let’s refrain from the broad brush view that the public sector is ineffective. Let’s encourage our best and brightest young people to take a second look at the public sector.

The next time you see a bureaucrat, give them a hug. Whether you like it or not, your destiny and the destiny of your community and province will be shaped in large part by what they do or don’t do over the next decade.

10 thoughts on “Now, hug a bureaucrat

  1. I maintain that one reason why the reputation of the public service has declined in recent years is due to the currently prevailing philosophy that the elected have the ideas, and the role of the public service is to simply carry them out. As a result,less is demanded of the public service,and less delivered.

  2. “the currently prevailing philosophy that the elected have the ideas”

    Perhaps that is why so much technical expertise seems to have been lost from the NB public service. The rationale is often that the technical expertise can be replaced with consultants when needed. I think that has turned out to be impractical and expensive. As a result, depts often have trouble responding to new issues and the quality of the public service being delivered degrades. That degradation simply reinforces opinions about the public service – a cycle that feeds on itself.

  3. I worked in the private sector my entire life. I worked for retailers, shopping centre real estate developers and managers, worked for myself, call centre industry and own(ed) a couple of my own small business over time. I have been in regular contact with the public sector, especially in the Economic Development community.

    Having lived in four provinces, and moved to several different communities, back when transfers were common, the initial community networking opportunities were always through Chambers of Commerce and service clubs like Rotary, where you were both always welcome and met both public and private sector people in the community. If you golfed or curled, all the better. In real estate, like many other things, information is power, so meeting the the “movers and shakers” was important.

    Public servants were never the enemy but there was always a feeling that they just quite didn’t get it. Those that we felt did, mostly rolled their eyes and shrugged their shoulder’s as if to say, “Ya’ I know, but what do you do? I like the paycheque.” Of course, that’s how I read it, and that, I see now, is not entirely fair, but not entirely wrong either. I would say my opinion was common in the private sector.

    I have also witnessed some of the most deplorable behaviour by private sector employers, who have used the law to enrich themselves at the expense of good people who worked hard for them. While there are laws on the books to protect people, some are impossible to enforce, or so much due diligence is required that the victim has to move on before the employer is sanctioned and the employee properly compensated,and the abuse continues because it’s profitable. We are not that great in New Brunswick, in my opinion, on protecting our non unionized workforce, in some key areas, which has a negative impact on moving people from social assistance or EI to paid employment, but I digress.

    In the last year, I had the opportunity to work with a very smart and very experienced ‘semi-retired’ public servant, who had vast experience in Ottawa and who was contracting valuable and necessary work through a local non-profit local voluntary board administered organization who counted every penny. Did I see instances of money being wasted. Yes, but in all fairness, my experience in the private sector there were similar and just as costly questionable decisions. Proportionally, from the little I saw, it wouldn’t be much different. What I did witness,was a very impressive and knowledgeable public servant who understood her role and would whose management acumen would put many private sector employers to shame.

    Which, finally, brings me to my conclusions in response to your post. Big hug for you too, ya big galut, for going on soft on us. In this global economy we need the best and brightest looking out for our collective interests and your points are well taken.

    My experience makes me think because we are so bilingual, and many top level federal civil servants are from our pretty little province, that their might be an untapped resource in our midst. “Semi-retired” folks who have experience in both the public and private sector who may ave some insight? As I write this, I can think of very successful folks in a a wide range of sectors from my own region of New Brunswick, now spending at least part of the year here, who might provide some direction for innovation and opportunity. I am sure there are countless others.

    Now I am just thinking out loud.

    “Government is too big and too important to be left to the politicians.” Chester Bowles

  4. Boy, you just HAD to get in that dig about ‘exploiting natural resources’ didn’t you!!:)

    I”ve worked in both the public and private sector, albeit at fairly low levels. Anybody who thinks the private sector is any different than the public sector is delusional. I’ve worked for a large family run organization and the ‘waste’ there was just as bad as with any government.

    I do have to disagree with David here in that it was NOT ‘bureaucrats’ who improved highways or limited poverty. As for that, a new report out of Fredericton says that one sixth of the entire population is homeless or in danger of becoming homeless-so IF a bureaucracy decreased poverty in the past, you also have to admit that it is increasing it now (both of which are untrue). I was in Morocco last January, and this is a developing country bordering on third world and I saw less poverty there than I’ve seen in Fredericton. And thats even with the distinction that there are a fair number of beggars in Morocco (although most are trying to sell you something), while in New Brunswick you won’t see it as much because its illegal to beg there.

    People who ‘want to make a difference’ become teachers, nurses, doctors, social workers, and activists. People in government got their jobs because of who they knew, and because they pay well, and are practically the ONLY jobs that pay well. Bureaucrats accomplish nothing, and contribute nothing. With today’s technology there is NO reason why a provincial department of education is even necessary. If you want a curriculum, you can choose between thousands online for free. And its not cynical to say that teachers always wanted to ‘move up’ the food chain for two reasons-they are sick of teaching, and they wanted to contribute to curriculae development. In Switzerland, teachers go before a council made up of parents who hire them based on their experience and the curriculum they have developed themselves.

    And again, I’ll tell the story of a friend who went in to see an MLA and was told how government job hiring works-MLA’s bring in their choice, and the senior MLA typically gets the hire. Now, that’s hardly a way to foster excellence is it?

    The reason government bureaucracy gets badmouthed is because it deserves it, simply as that. If a government is NOT innovating, investing, and, well, doing what a government SHOULD be doing, then it deserves every complaint against it. Virtually NOBODY is saying to abandon government entirely, the complaint is against government waste. Heck, at the CBC people were actually DEFENDING the university of New Brunswick spending almost 200 grand to fix the porch of a mansion it GIVES to President’s of the university who make 350 grand a year! I’m in Waterloo, with the number one ranked university and where the current president lives in graduate housing with students (and his wife and two cats) while he builds his OWN house (and he only makes 80 grand more than at UNB, ranked 6th of 12).

    Here in ontario there is a scandal because of the air ambulance. A doctor was found to be getting way too much money for what he was doing, but at the least it was meant to be an innovative project. In New Brunswick, what do we see for ‘innovation’? Let’s see, well, they brought in their own line of beer, and the health care system has switched its administrative structure several times.

    You can give them a hug if you want, but to hear a public servant complain is like listening to Mick Fleetwood complain that he’s gone bankrupt four times. What they need is a kick in the arse, to either see if they’ve got a pair, or to get them out the door.

  5. “I”ve worked in both the public and private sector, albeit at fairly low levels. ”

    “With today’s technology there is NO reason why a provincial department of education is even necessary.”

    Two phrases that go together quite well.

  6. @mikel Count me in as one of those defending the $160k “porch repairs.” Seeing as how the property is a historical building, UNB has an obligation to properly maintain it. Keep in mind that this building was donated to UNB and its upkeep is paid for by the sale of the previous president’s residence.

  7. That really has nothing to do with it. Personally I think its ridiculous, it could be used for dozens of other uses rather than house a single family, and since the guy lives in it rent free then he could easily afford to contribute. In ANY university I think its absurd, but in a have not province at a half rate university its especially galling to see the ‘bureaucracy’ treated better than they would be in Toronto or Calgary. However, that’s my point, LOTS of people have defended this, so to argue that NB is some sort of libertarian mecca where people won’t support government under any circumstances is, I think, absurd. Its BECAUSE they make so many bonehead moves that people are so critical. Frank McKenna made a LOT of bonehead moves, but at least they were ‘moves’. I always give the guy credit for his work ethic, even when it was misplaced. IF a government would actually step up with his work ethic and modern ideas of governance, then we wouldn’t be having this conversation about the poor down trodden members of government. However, again, that doesn’t mean it would agree with everybody, particularly here.

  8. @mikel
    I think it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Mikel says that “The reason government bureaucracy gets badmouthed is because it deserves it, simply as that”. Now, that’s one of the top two reasons why I left the public service as many other competent/hard working professionals have done (and continue to do every year). Why did I have to stay in a job that paid me less than half of what I could earn in the private sector and at the same time get badmouthed by those whose lives I was trying to improve? Like David said, the public service is more of a calling than a job.

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