Approach the civil service cautiously

It seems to be a right of passage for New Brunswick governments. McKenna did it.  Bernard Lord did it and it looks like Shawn Graham is about to do it.   I am talking about a downsizing of public sector employment.  Invariably they get into office, read the report that New Brunswick has more public servants than all provinces except PEI (as a percentage of the population) and then announce the downsizing program.  Having a recession helps but it is not necessary as Bernie Lord announced his cuts during a time of strong growth in the economy.

These programs don’t typically include ‘firings’ but are rather incentives for early retirement and ‘packages’ to buy off a portion of the public workforce.

I watched the Bernard Lord cuts quite closely and found that a lot of really smart and talented people took the package and left.  In other words, this kind of thing has the potential to demoralize the public service and result in many of the most talented people taking a hike.

So I have two points to make:

1. I think efforts need to be made to engage the public service more broadly in this goal of self-sufficiency.  Every single worker on the PNB payroll should see where they fit in this thing and how their individual effort will contribute.   You can’t brow beat the public sector into action.  You must find a way to engage, excite and energize it.

2. If the government embarks on a downsizing effort, it must figure out how to keep top talent.  Just offering a blanket incentive to all to leave the government could end up carving off a lot of bright people – the kind that are needed to help the province reach self-sufficiency.

Finally, we never really discuss these things in the public square so it is hard to formulate a well informed opinion but I have always wondered why there seemed to be hostility between the former Premier and the public service even though they got the highest average wage increases of any province in Canada under his tenure (although some have pointed out to me that was after a decade of restraint under McKenna).   I think some of the tension went all the way back to that initial downsizing program.

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