Time to Strengthen the Public Service

When I graduated from university I wrote the federal public service exam, believing that public service would be a career where I could make a positive contribution to the life of my country. I ended up choosing a different path to public service, working for most of my career in the public interest sector for non-profit organizations, and then 3 years ago offering to serve the people of Fredericton South in the Legislative Assembly.

Today, the civil service is maligned, disparaged, even vilified by some. Public service more broadly is seen as suspect with elected representatives trusted less than just about any other occupation, and public interest organizations regarded as special interest groups with a self-interested agenda. These perceptions are toxic to democracy and provide a pretext for diminishing the role of government and citizen advocacy at a time when we are facing a number of tough challenges.

Mounting an effective and fair response to our rapidly aging population, rural decline, persistent youth unemployment, multi-generational poverty, slow economic growth, the transition away from fossil fuels, a rapidly changing climate, and ecological decline requires a public service that is properly supported to help governments tackle these challenges with evidence-based options for new public policy. However government cut-backs and its sometime antagonistic relationship with the public service have compromised its capacity to rise to the challenges of the day.

Few departments have the in-house capacity to engage in research, strategic planning or policy development anymore. A former Deputy Minister of Social Development explained to me how he had to contract out policy development work to consultants with chronically unsatisfactory results.

Progress is needed on many fronts. How do we make our communities age-friendly? How do we address the growing social isolation of seniors? How do we foster the development of innovative housing and care environments for seniors and the elderly? How would we embark on a basic living income program to improve on social assistance and unemployment? How can government support the development of rural communities? How do we make the transition to a low-carbon society? Given the plans for further cuts to government departments, either we can't, we'll make a poor job of it, or we pay high-priced consultants to tell us how to do it.

Ten years ago, there were 9,000 civil servants working for our provincial government. When the Liberals formed government in 2014, this number had been cut by 1,300. Yet, Treasury Board President Roger Melanson wants to cut another 1,300 positions.

Our public service has already been cut too close to the bone, handicapping our ability to meet the challenges we need to face head-on. Further cuts will incapacitate it entirely.

The relentless refrain from government is they're looking for efficiencies, a word that has become synonymous with cutting positions. What we need to focus on is effectiveness. How do we effectively support rural communities in their efforts to improve the well-being of their residents? No group has the specific responsibility to champion rural and community development. What about the societal transformation we are going through as seniors make up an increasing part of our population? Where is the horsepower in the public service to manage this radical demographic change?

How do we facilitate the transition away from fossil fuels? At the Department of Energy and Resource Development there is essentially one person who has energy efficiency as one among many files. The same could be said for renewable energy development. No Department has the mandate for ensuring we have effective public transportation infrastructure and services.

Where do we go for the evidence we need to make good public policy? We don't understand which youth are leaving the province and why. There is a poor understanding of who makes up the working poor. We haven't got a good understanding of the consequences for New Brunswick of increasing automation. We don't know where and how to focus our efforts on preventing disease for the most effective results. This list is a long one.

Part of the problem has been the hostility and distrust that consecutive governments have had for the public service. Rather than successfully managing the public service so it can effectively serve New Brunswickers with its expertise and evidence-based policy options, the political party in power has too often seen the public service as its handmaiden. One can only imagine what this has done for morale.

Pubic servants also get sidelined when a government allows itself to be captured by corporate or partisan priorities, silencing their advice and ignoring their expertise. Certainly there are exceptions to the rule, where Ministers and their senior staff effectively work as a team to advance the public good, but this is all too rare in an era where so much decision-making is directed from the Office of the Premier.

The senseless cuts needs to end, and the role of the public service needs to be restored so it can effectively help the party in power address the challenges of our time. Further hacking away at it will incapacitate us all.

David Coon is the MLA for Fredericton South and the Leader of the Green Party.