Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Public-service morale is low? You don't say!

Yesterday, Alberta Jim Prentice announced “outside agents of change” will look into why there is such high turnover and low morale in Alberta’s civil service.
“There have been employee surveys that show the morale of the civil service is low, and that there has not been a healthy relationship between elected representatives of government and the civil service. 
“There has clearly been a very high level of turnover and churn, and I actually found the numbers quite shocking,” he said, adding inexperience at senior levels is also a concern.
I don’t claim to have all of the answers about why morale is low and turnover is high, but as a former government policy wonk and observer of the public sector, here are some issues the agents of change might want to look into:
  1. Workload: Alberta has, roughly the same number of civil servants today (with a population of 4 million) as it did when Alberta had a population of 2 million.
  2. Instability: The public service faces a fiscal roller coaster caused by government choices about revenue streams; the public service frequently experiences hiring freezes, inadequate cost-of-living adjustments and the spectre of layoffs.
  3. Interference: Tory politicians often put civil servants in untenable positions. “Can you do X because so and-so is a constituent?” Civil servants can’t easily refuse these demands and it places the civil servant (not the politician) in jeopardy.
  4. Inattention: Politicians have very short memories and often start projects only to lose interest before they can be brought to conclusion, No one tells the workers this and they labour (sometimes for years) on ultimately pointless projects. Add in nearly continuous “red zones” (when nothing gets approved because of a looming election or leadership contest) and you can see why it is pretty tough for public servants to care about one’s job.
  5. Attacks: This past year saw the government violate workers’ labour rights, freeze their pay, and attack their pensions. And morale is low, you say?
When you treat workers poorly, the workers who have options (e.g., highly skilled, not invested in the pension plan) leave. Those who are stuck check out. The solution to low morale and high turnover might involve some systemic reform, but that should start with the tax-structure of the province (which underlies many of these problems), not the civil service.

A better solution would be a government that has the fortitude to stop throwing civil servant under the bus for partisan gain. Basically, Alberta politicians have been lousy bosses. Will “agents of change” be able to change that? Seems doubtful.

-- Bob Barnetson

1 comment:

Bob Barnetson said...

A follow-in piece: