Op-ed: Public servants deserve our support
The following is an op-ed written by Karine Levasseur and Andrea Rounce, associate professors of political studies at the U of M. It was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on June 12, 2017.
Few of us are aware it is National Public Service Week. We celebrate mothers, fathers, even romance, but public servants? Why have an entire week dedicated to public servants, also referred to as bureaucrats or civil servants?
Quite simply, public servants are an integral aspect of governing and delivering many public goods — those that benefit all members of society.
They test water quality, conduct driving exams for licences, manage the day-to-day relationships with organizations delivering services on behalf of government and make difficult decisions about whether to place a child in the care of the state when families experience distress.
National Public Service Week was created by the federal government in 1992 to recognize the contributions public servants make to programs and services. Now celebrated by provincial, territorial and municipal governments, National Public Service Week provides an opportunity to consider the value provided by public servants throughout Canada.
Increasingly, though, public servants in Manitoba (and in Canada generally) are expected to do their jobs at a time when trust in government is very low. Moreover, public servants in our province must contend with a focus on reducing costs and “red tape” while continuing to provide a high level of service to Manitobans.
Public servants work in bureaucracies — an organization with specialized requirements for each job, a focus on rules and a hierarchy (hence, they’re often known as bureaucrats). Bureaucracies are designed to ensure governments can do the work they need to do while ensuring that the principles of Westminster-style government, including ensuring that lines of accountability and responsibility are clear, are followed.
However, bureaucracies are often framed as being unnecessarily bloated, slow and ill-equipped to change. We expect perfection from bureaucrats while simultaneously criticizing them and sending signals that they are expendable.
As academics who study bureaucracies and teach the next generation of public servants, we argue this trend is a dangerous one. To be sure, governments need to contain costs from time to time, and it may be necessary to reduce the number of public servants, or even the programs and services that governments provide.
However, these cost-cutting exercises and the unfortunate rhetoric that accompanies them come with the real concern of losing institutional memory. Government leaders come and go, but bureaucrats spend their careers in the public service and, as a result, they build knowledge and expertise about past attempts to resolve public policy problems and challenges to implementation, not to mention a critical understanding of legislation and regulation.
With the retirements and departures of senior public servants through changes at the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority and cuts at Manitoba Public Insurance and Manitoba Hydro, as well as reductions across the Manitoba government broadly, we risk the loss of institutional memory which serves an important purpose in government as well as presenting a challenge to morale. Quite simply, public servants are the key holders of information, so recognizing what public servants add to the capacity of government to make and deliver good public policy is critical.
Along with the loss of institutional memory is the very real concern that eroding trust in government also applies to the public service. There are many great examples where public servants (and bureaucracies) have been creative and innovative in their approaches to policy advice and program implementation. In fact, Manitoba’s government acknowledges many of these every year, through its Manitoba Service Excellence Awards.
Continuing to discuss the public service as a drain on society rather than as contributors to a healthy democracy fundamentally hurts us all, and the goods we rely upon. Public servants are our neighbours, soccer coaches and friends, and they deserve support.