The BC government and media have used demoralizing figures calling for up to a 50 per cent reduction in the civil services. Are these figures warranted? And are we not unnecessarily discouraging civil servants?

Are B.C. Civil Service Cuts Overstated?

Let’s put some perspective around the much-rumoured decimation of the B.C. civil service by the Liberals. Government has used figures as high as a 50 per cent reduction over the next three years and the media has used lots of ink and air time to repeat these numbers. Predictably, this has created some fatalism in the civil service. Combine that with the ongoing core review processes and government’s plans to reduce its ministries spending—excepting health and education— by an average 35 per cent and we get a kind of premature rigor mortis setting into some agencies. In one case I was told not to expect any new initiatives to go forward for at least six months because the agency might not have the same mandate, if any, in half a year. “And I might not be here either,” I was told by the same person.

As a small lobbying group that constantly has to fight out of its weight catergory to get anything to go forward, (for instance, we are the only industry group championing enhanced forestry at the moment.), we can scarcely afford to deal with the civil service in some kind of coma. Add to this the general paralysis that happened six months ago in the lead up to the election, the lapse of governance during the ensuing transition period, and then the Liberal preoccupation with their own 90 day agenda up until September, it’s no wonder smaller players like us, the political pocket lint, if you will, of the governing process, feel their issues aren’t getting heard.

It is not as if the bureaucrats have gone into a sulk, but they could temper their anxiety by considering some not well reported facts. First of all, without trivializing the effect reducing the civil service by any amount might have on the service levels in the province, or downplaying the impact these reductions would have on families and communities, let’s not assume that government is above using the time worn tactic of overstating the reductions. That way the actual impacts, when they come in lower, will seem like a relief compared to what was anticipated. A cynical strategy, but useful in the paradox of public relations. Just as likely, the Liberals have no idea what the reductions will come in at and the fifty per cent figure represents their poor grasp of the future. Considering the strategic principle that we are more inclinded to act the less we know, the ongoing review process and information gathering will likely over time temper the Liberals’ tendency for dramatic cuts. Considering these notions then, the actual cuts are not likely to halve the civil service.

Let’s speculate then that the figure is closer to a 35 per cent reduction over three years. That’s 12 per cent annually. My government sources tell me that there is an aggragate ten per cent vacancy rate in the civil service at any given time. Admittedly, it may be simplistic, but if we freeze those unfilled positions that appear in the system due to natural attrition, we get a two per cent annual reduction. A six per cent real job loss over three years. That’s a little different than fifty per cent. OK, so its playing with numbers, you say, but given the general uncertainty, these numbers are just as legitimate, if not more so, than the headlines we have been reading. And they are not likely to induce the wide-spread pessimism that is infecting bureaucrats across the province. An unneccessarily demoralized bureaucracy is no help.