The care and feeding of the civil service

Last week, we exclusively told you about a recent provincial government work environment survey in which just 29 percent of provincial employees gave their executives favourable reviews. Commenting on that number - and other unfavourable results included in the survey - Simon Fraser University public policy professor Doug McArthur told Public Eye Radio, "This is a pretty surprising and - I don't like to exaggerate - but almost shocking survey when you start looking at these numbers and seeing how the employees seem to be feeling about their work these days in the provincial government."

"In most ministries, we've got the executive in the ministries - that's the assistant deputy ministers and the deputy ministers - getting satisifaction ratings that are actually below (sitting American president) George Bush's. And we know how low his have been for a long time," continued Prof. McArthur, who served as deputy minister to premier under both Mike Harcourt and Glen Clark.

"This indicates that the senior executives in the public service are not directing their attention to questions of employee relations and questions of providing and improving workplace satisfaction...And I know that public servants are notorious for not being overly happy with their jobs and some would say complain about their jobs. But these numbers have to be taken as a wakeup call."

And what would he do if heard that wakeup call and was still head of the public service? "In general terms there's a few things I would do," responded Prof. McArthur. "One is I would use these numbers as a basis for assessing the management of the individual ministries and the overall public service management system. So, first of all, deputy ministers and assistant deputy ministers in departments that have failing grades here - recognizing that none of them are great numbers - but those that have failing grades, that would enter into my job evaluation of those people. And I would make it an important factor in assessing whether or not these people should continue in their jobs. I think you can draw no other conclusion that, in some cases, they should not be continuing in their jobs."

"The second thing I would do is I wouild take steps to have these ministeries establish processes that they start listening to and finding out from their employees what the problems are. They've got to talk to the employees to try and fix this. It's not going to be easy to fix it. But this tells you the employees have something to say," added Prof. McArthur, stressing the need to use neutral parties to facilitate that conversation.

And he says it's important for cabinet to also "sit down and talk about this. They talk about having a big agenda for B.C. But they really need to look at the public service." Because, "with a workforce that's showing this much dissatisfaction, this much lack of confidence in their senior managers and their bosses, who are showing as much stress as they do...you know work is suffering. You know the quality of work is suffering. You know the programs and services are simply not being delivered effectively and efficiently."

7 Comments

First off, "Prof" McArthur's virtual entire career was spent advising NDP governments, so it's not extremely surprising that he would take shots at a non-NDP administration.

He has been described as part of a "roving pack of NDP appointees" that moved from NDP government to government. Hmmm, that must have been really uplifting to career civil servants to be now reporting to politicized superiors.

One of my favourite McArthur moments was during the 1996 budget. Remember, Glen Clark was going to the people with a balanced budget that turned out to be a crock. Brenda Eaton was sounding the alarm about revenue projections and the likelihood that BC would be impacted.

McArthur reportedly warned Eaton that she was likely to be "re-assigned" out of the Finance Ministry for her efforts. Which she was, and eventually she left government.

Let me see. An NDP partisan criticizing the current government over morale after his own 6 year reign during which the civil service endured massive NDP patronage and endured warnings to budget whistleblowers.

Gimme a break.

I didn't see a single reference to an elected official. Last time I checked the majority of ADMs and senior management don't change every time there is an election.

Sounds like gimmeabreak can't take the cold hard slap of reality that his staff don't like him!

Partisan shots aside, the very low scores indicating serious disatisfaction with leadership in several of the Ministries-- Aboriginal Affairs and MCFD stand out in my recollection -- should serve as a warning to be taken seriously, especially when contrasted with very high satisfaction seen in several other Ministries.

It's hard to say which leaders to blame at MCFD, though, given the revolving door at the top. If Minister after Minister and Deputy after Deputy has tried and failed, you've got to ask if it's their fault or if the Ministry has been given an impossible task. Having said that, with the current deputy first doing "day to day" running of MCFD off the side of her desk and then delegating that task to a subordinate doesn't inspire confidence that the seriousness of the problem is appreciated.

An impossible task? Wait a minute. You mean the government isn't the solution to every problem? What the hell are we paying all those taxes for? Skytrain guideways, overpaid nurses and 2-week-long steroid commercials? Personally I won't be satisfied until every troubled individual has his or her own personal social worker to make all their decisions for them and a financial aid worker to pay all of his or her bills. Except during job actions, of course. Then they're SOL until the raise comes through.

This government is committed to a management paradigm, new public management (NPM), it's been tried and it's failed miserably in many other jurisdictions. Privatization, contracting out, untendered contracts to friends and insiders, golden handshakes and cushy new jobs, bankrolled by the tax payers. Why on earth would frontline workers possibly feel bitter or stressed, with poor morale and even worse marks for management. They are continually being asked to do more with less. Less staff, less equipment, less adequate management, less ethical and decent leadership and supervision. Less job security, more work, more hoops to jump through just to do one's job, which people still try very hard to do in government.

"Alternative service delivery" (ASD) supposedly "innovative" new technologies, which send BC citizens private information right into the hands of American corporations and possibly the government. These same privatized tech networks crash and go down around the Province with a greater frequency than before, doesn't seem too efficient, or productive to me? Almost anyone in management in government these days is there because they will do what they are told, they will follow and carry out the tasks of ideology blindly for the satisfaction of the corporate ethos that truly rewards very few in this great province.

If this were the private sector, the people in charge of this business, er government, would be out on their asses. Maybe they'd still get their golden handshake, but their mismanagement, mistakes and dishonesty would be seen as liabilities in ethical parts of the business world and they would be onto other pastures. In the BC government, this is now seen as the way to work your way to the top, no matter what happens to those below, including the public.
Last time I checked, none of these things made for a happy, healthy and successful work environment.

As long as they're looking solutions to workplace morale, here are some ideas:

1. Hire more regular status frontline staff and support staff, such as assistants. With toxic environments like these, people are crashing & burning and leaving the public service in droves, although that may be part of the point too. The Ministry job postings page says it all:

"Do you know 45% of managers and 35% of bargaining unit employees in the BC Public Service will be retired by 2015?"

2. Introduce and pass whistleblower legislation that protects people from losing their jobs for speaking out on issues of importance to the public interest.

3. Promote people who are real leaders, people with experience and education, training and expertise in their fields, not just pawns moved from Ministry to Ministry who have generic business degrees.

4. Stop the Premier's office and Treasury Board from running social safety net ministries like they are businesses, they are not. People are not widgets and frontline workers are not cogs. Everyone is a citizen of BC and this is forgotten by many in the public service, especially those in charge.

5. Spend the money today, the government keeps telling us we have money and are booming. We can make early intervention happen with all age and special need groups. Prevention of worse challenges down the road is more cost efficient, humane and dignified. It is the right thing to do for our province's young people and it really will benefit us all.

When the NDP took power in 1991, there was a massive purge of the senior levels of government as they brought in a ton of folks from Manitoba, Saskatchewan and the Yukon to ensure loyalty.

That did not go over well with the civil service, Innocent Bystander.

Neither did the McArthur style of bullying and policy manipulation.

In my first year university courses I teach my students why ad hominem attacks are not very effective. The comments about "Prof" McArthur (btw a note to gimmeabreak: as I also teach my first-year students, the use of scare quotes should be reserved for inaccurate or suspect labels; McArthur is actually a prof, unless you consider Simon Fraser a "university") are a good illustration of this. This article was not a gratuitous attack by McArthur on the current government. It was about a piece of DATA, a survey of public employees; McArthur was just offering comment. Attacking him for being a partisan hack, true or not, says NOTHING about the data itself. Gimmeabreak and notsoinnocent unfortunately fail this assignment, but I am sure with some basic training in skills of argument they will do fine in the future.

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