Creating a High-Performance Civil Service

Commentary, Public Sector, Frontier Centre

It’s no exaggeration to say the traditional civil service model is a costly anachronism.

Red tape and paper-shuffling clog the arteries of departmentville. Most debilitating is the process-bound micro-management of all personnel and financial decisions by large central agencies. While well intended, their rules and controls cost hundreds of millions, killing productivity and dumbing down the organization while repelling those with talent and creativity.

Compare a deputy minister in Manitoba with the CEO of a private sector firm. They sit atop organizations with comparable staff levels, spending and revenues. The top-ranked civil servant of the largest department makes a little over a hundred thousand dollars a year. The CEO typically makes three to four times that, plus stock options.

More importantly, the private manager actually has control over his firm’s resources. He might, for example, have the freedom to spend up to a million dollars without the approval of his board of directors. (Of course, bad decisions could lead to job loss.) The deputy minister, meanwhile, has little control over anything, thanks to the grip central agencies maintain over every aspect of operations. In fact, he has to run to a junior Treasury Board analyst for approval of any measly expenditure over $15,000.

The private manager has authority over personnel. He can hire whomever he deems most valuable and can likely pay whatever it takes to secure them. But the Public Service Commission tells the deputy minister who can be hired and what they will be paid (usually peanuts). Seniority, or time served, is the main qualification for advancement. Where the private organization might have 25 or 30 job descriptions, we find advanced bureaucratic overkill in the civil service. At last count, the Manitoba government had roughly 1200 of them, or almost one job classification per ten employees.

Tasks are compartmentalized and rigidly defined. With little exception, everyone’s pay is based on a job classification that applies uniformly across the organization. Since specific performance is seldom measured, work proceeds at a leisurely pace. Is anyone surprised that the traditional civil service model embodies mediocrity, waste and low-performance government?

The private manager controls assets and has every incentive to deploy them effectively. The deputy minister controls nothing and must follow the dictates of remote central agencies immersed in manuals and rulebooks. As an added insult, elected officials interfere in department operations and administration, areas in which they have no expertise and competence.

So how do we modernize our government workforce by bringing a performance dimension to it?

Manitoba’s civil service will soon experience 4,000 to 5,000 retirements. This is a golden opportunity to create a workforce that is leaner, focussed on results and better compensated.

These retirements will allow painless downsizing. Instead of replacing staff, we could use the opportunity to restructure. That would mean changing the Public Service Commission and the Treasury Board into strictly advisory agencies. At the same time, we would convert the individual departments into autonomous business agencies with clearly defined goals, giving their CEOs the power to deploy resources towards measurable outcomes. Central agencies would shrink as thousands of minute regulations, job classifications and procedures disappear.

The process would replace a system of unquestioned mediocrity with one of excellence. A focussed, high-performance, well-paid civil service can produce more with less. Competitive and modern, it would deliver better services while saving hundreds of millions annually.

Manitoba already uses a much watered-down variation of this prescription in its singularly successful running of many functions through Special Operating Agencies. The retirement bubble provides an opportunity to extend the winning formula.