How Many Civil Servants?

In a recent speech John Bragg argued that we should reduce our civil service by about 15%. Bragg is the head of Eastlink and Oxford Frozen Foods, and a member of the Ivany panel. There are about 10,000 provincial civil servants.

Bragg cited an Atlantic Institute of Marketing Studies report that showed Nova Scotia having among the highest costs for the provincial portion of the government sector.

Discussions on this topic often start with the idea that reductions can be implemented by not replacing some or all of the workers who leave or retire. This conveniently avoids the question of what positions are to be eliminated. When a snow plow driver, social worker, jail guard, or deputy minister leaves they usually have to be replaced.

Real reductions can only occur if government identifies functions that will no longer be provided, or finds ways of doing things that require fewer people to do them. Even if that is achieved there are obstacles.

The Civil Service Collective Bargaing Act names the Nova Scotia Government Employees Union (NSGEU) as the bargaining agent. (Unlike her response to legislation affecting nurses, union head Joan Jessome has not found fault with this prescribed outcome). That act considerably restricts the ability of government to negotiate on behalf of taxpayers.

Strikes and lockouts are prohibited. If efforts to negotiate a new collective agreement are unsuccessful the matter is sent to an arbitration panel. The panel typically consists of one representative of each side and one “neutral” party who acts as chair.

The act provides no guidance as to the factors to be taken into account by the arbitration panel in reaching a conclusion. Governments are often surprised and disappointed at the result. In 2014, notwithstanding New Brunswick’s dire financial condition, UNB professors were awarded increases of 12.5% over three years.

In the 2012-2015 settlement the NDP government of Nova Scotia added a memorandum of agreement that makes layoffs almost impossible.

So as things stand the government has limited ability to achieve savings if it finds ways to eliminate work or save money through new technologies or outsourcing. Bragg’s proposal would mean 1,500 reductions. It is very unlikely that an arbitration panel would agree to remove the provisions prohibiting layoffs in a new collective agreement.

Nor can an arbitration panel be counted on to implement government wage restraint policy. In the 2010 Ontario budget the government legislated a two-year pay freeze for non-unionized workers in the government and in the broader public sector.

Although the Budget restraint measures did not apply to public service employees who bargain collectively, the government announced its intention to seek two-year compensation freezes in collective agreements coming up for renegotiation. An arbitrator ignored the policy and granted 2% increases in a one year contract.

Bragg’s proposal is based on high level comparisons rather than deep insights into the jobs being done. It is not clear whether a 15% reduction can be achieved without hurting needed services. But the AIMS data cannot be ignored.

Government must make progress on public sector wage restraint, and trimming staffing levels where possible. To do that the Civil Service Collective Bargaing Act must be amended to provide government a greater ability to negotiate and if necessary legislate.

A second area calls for attention. The AIMS data that shows we are over-governed includes staffing for municipalities. It is very clear that we have too many of them. There are 54 municipalities.

Leaving aside Halifax and Cape Breton Regional Municipality (CBRM) the average size of these municipal units is less than 8,000 people. Several have less than 1,000. In Pictou County four municipalities are immediately adjacent to each other.

This creates considerable duplication, particularly in administrators and elected officials. Provincial governments have for too long been content to let the discussions about duplication be led by those obviously conflicted elected officials.

The result is that the numbers only decrease when places like Canso, Bridgetown, Hantsport, and Springhill face fiscal collapse. Several more are showing signs of distress in the Financial Condition Indexes released this week. That is what would have happened to most of CBRM’s seven predecessor towns had they not been amalgamated in 1995. Government should commission a report with the explicit mandate to recommend consolidation of municipal units.

Secondly, it must change the legislative rule book for dealing with civil servants so that services can be delivered as cost effectively as possible. Unlike some of its predecessors the current government has shown it is not afraid of the NSGEU.

The spring session of the legislature will be pivotal to the success of this government. Voters will soon be able to judge whether it has the courage necessary to meet Nova Scotia’s considerable challenges.


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