Cost Cutting

The recent announcement that the federal government was cutting all part-time, non-Christian prison chaplains was offensive in almost every respect. Minister Toews seems to have a special talent for insensitive choices.

But what is evident from this and other federal announcements is that the Conservative government is really serious about its cost cutting commitments. Minister Flaherty’s 2010 budget called for cuts of $4 billion on an expenditure base of $80 billion.

A 5% reduction to be achieved over several years is not severe—by comparison, the British government set out two years ago to eliminate 450,000 civil service positions, and the distressed governments of southern Europe are cutting even more deeply.  Unlike the prison chaplains, most of the choices being made in Canada have been well researched and carefully implemented.

The Nova Scotia government’s approach to the same question has been greater in ambition but entirely lacking in achievement. In his 2010  budget address, Minister Steele said, “We will reduce the civil service by ten per cent by 2013, relying on attrition through retirements and voluntary departures.” That would mean a reduction of about 1,000 positions.

This has not happened. In fact, reported staff numbers have risen slightly from 9,976 in 2009-2010 to 10,096 in 2011-2012.

The “retirement and attrition” formula for pain-free reductions has over the years been prescribed by governments of every political stripe, and it never works. Reductions only happen when governments come to grips with the hard question of which departments will reduce, and by how much.

It is silly to assume that 90% of the employees can do 100% of the work. If a department is to be reduced in size, government must also identify activities that will be reduced or eliminated.

Recent government initiatives may make it more difficult to achieve staff reductions. Very few Fisheries and Aquaculture employees have agreed to follow their jobs to Digby and Shelburne. The same is true for Agriculture employees whose jobs are being transferred to Truro.

It is often difficult to relocate families from Halifax to other parts of Nova Scotia. A spouse who works, for example, in information technology, marketing, or as a university professor, may find it very difficult to find work in his or her field in Digby or Shelburne.

These employees will be kept on the payroll while replacements are hired in the new locations. Many will not have skills that are valuable outside their sectors, but will nevertheless be kept on the payroll.

The potential outsourcing of 110 IT jobs to IBM could have the same effect if those employees choose not to move with the work.

Achievable cuts in civil service numbers would be possible if the government had a well considered plan.

It does not. So the tough choices necessary to balance the budget have been handed to school boards, universities, and hospitals. The cuts to those essential institutions could have been $100 million less severe if government had fulfilled its stated goal for the civil service.


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