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.