Counting Heads

The government has difficulty disclosing unpleasant truths. They promised to reduce the civil service by 1,000 positions. They claim to have achieved a reduction of 632. In fact, the number has gone up by 277.

In his 2010 budget, former Finance Minister Steele announced that, “We will reduce the civil service by ten per cent by 2013, relying on attrition through retirements and voluntary departures.”

This was an ambitious and worthy goal, with the potential to save $100 million per year. So how should we judge the outcome?

At that time, the “Forecast” number of employees was 9,976. “Forecast” is about the same as the actual number—apparently getting an exact count as of March 31 is difficult so close to budget day.

There is also a 2010 “Estimate” number of 10,935 which represents the authorized number of employees. It is typical for such numbers to be higher because of turnover and other vacancies, although a difference that large would be unlikely in the private sector.

The extra positions do not cost anything unless they are filled. Taxpayers should focus on the Forecast number.

One adjustment is required: to reflect transfers in and out of the civil service that don’t save or cost money. For example, 258 positions were transferred to Dal when it merged with the Nova Scotia Agricultural College. But the funding went with them so no money was saved.

In total, a net of 300 positions have transferred out of the civil service. Here is the scorecard:

Forecast Estimate
As shown in 2010 budget 9,976 10,935
To save 10% 998 1,094
Target for 2013 8,978 9,841
Less net transfers out* 300 300
2013 target adjusted for transfers 8,678 9,541
As shown in  2013 budget 9,953 10,649
Difference 1,275 1,108

*The net transfers out of 300 is since 2009. The net in the last 12 months is about 200.

So, the only reduction in Estimate between 2010 and 2013 has been from transfers that don’t save any money. In the more relevant Forecast number, there has been, after adjusting for transfers, an increase of 277 or almost 3% instead of the promised reduction of 10%.

Against this backdrop, it is absurd that the government is claiming to have reduced 632 positions.

To do so, they use 2014 hopes rather than 2013 results; they explicitly ignore 171 new positions that were created; and they take credit for  the net 300 transfers out that didn’t save any money.

In fact, they have to date added perhaps $28 million of expense rather than the promised saving of $100 million.

Attrition and retirements are a good way to achieve planned staffing reductions. But there has to be a plan.

A plan would specify where the reductions will happen, and which functions will be discontinued or reduced (fewer communications people perhaps?).

It is perfectly obvious that government never had such a plan.

In an ideal world, the government would acknowledge the shortcoming and undertake to do better. Another possibility would be to maintain an embarrassed silence and hope that no one else raises the topic.

What we have instead is spin which attempts to portray failure as success.


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