Essay: My Government Valedictory

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By David Martin

Last month's federal budget made this Canadian pretty happy - in at least one respect. The announcement of massive job cuts confirmed to me that I had made the right choice.

Two years ago, after 28 years of mostly faithful service, I finally retired from the Canadian federal government. But unlike many of my departing colleagues, I want to say a final fond farewell.

Sort of.

And that perhaps highlights what is wrong with today's federal civil service. Nobody seems to leave on good terms anymore. For most superannuates-in-waiting, the sooner they can exit government the better, and few want to be bothered by such niceties as retirement parties, lunches and dinners.  

What has happened to make most retirees bitter and hellbent on an early exit? Is it just the usual crusty attitude of aging curmudgeons like me? In part, perhaps, but I think there's something more at work here. 

When I first started working in government 30 years ago, there was no widespread acrimony within the ranks. Sure, some folks were dissatisfied but, for the most part, people were happy to be employed in what was then perceived as actual public service.

As a junior lawyer coming from the private sector, I was happy to bring my experience to government employment. I found the work interesting and challenging and, in those days, the salary was comparable to what I could have earned in private practice.

Senior lawyers in my field respected our work and frequently engaged in cooperative efforts with us to improve the workings of government for everyone's benefit. Back then, I had the sense that those both inside and outside government viewed their work as a calling.

Today, it feels much different. Senior executives no longer work their way up the ladder in a particular branch or department gaining valuable expertise along the way. Instead, they are now promoted into positions whether they know anything about the job or not.

Sadly, these interchangeable mandarins also started adopting business-style language and practices in what is essentially a non-business environment. In later years, I found that my suggestions to improve service were ignored. Communication tended to be in one direction only, from the top down. Consultation both internally and externally became more of a token exercise than a useful productive common effort.

Since senior managers are now seldom knowledgeable about the detailed functioning of their own branches or departments, they're often unaware of the damage being done by younger mid-level bureaucrats. Younger mid-level bureaucrats don't know enough to know what they're doing is often counterproductive. To make matters worse, they usually have little patience for older employees and what they view as their outmoded ways of thinking.

My little government branch is typical of the new Zeitgeist. Ten years ago, it functioned with a staff of about ten people. Since then, the file inventory has increased, at most, by fifty per cent. Yet the number of employees has more than tripled.

All this was done in the name of efficiency with the best of intentions. Management repeatedly preaches the gospel of simpler procedures and faster turnaround times. But more often than not, changes do nothing more than complicate and confuse things. Ironically, these efforts often have the consequence of growing a manager's fiefdom and thereby increasing his visibility and chances for promotion.  

A good example of this dysfunctional situation is the document that governs the procedural aspects of the branch I used to work in. After years of fine-tuning, it was a compact seven-page document that served as an efficient and effective guideline for members of the public using our services.

In a matter of a few years, that relatively short, user-friendly notice grew from seven straightforward pages to a convoluted, barely comprehensible seventeen-page handbook that confuses both us and the public. 

Although I couldn't be happier about retiring, I must admit that I do feel a twinge of sadness and regret. I wish that my departure could have been different. Years earlier, I had envisioned preparing for retirement by mentoring younger hearing officers, helping the chair to make effective and efficient changes to our practice and generally making use of my acquired experience to make things better.

Sadly, now all I can say is that I am happy that I got out before things get even worse. If managers who ignore the past and dismiss experience are the new bright lights of the public service, I want no part of it. 

Maybe there's more to the changes being made than I can see. Maybe it's just a question of older baby boomers like me getting out of the way and letting younger people with new ideas take over. Whatever it is, I'm just glad I managed to get through the exit door before being trampled by the swarm of aging colleagues following quickly on my heels.

The current initiative to cut upwards of 20,000 government jobs is one way of dealing with the malaise that is rampant in the public service. But I think it will fail.

If the powers that be don't identify where the real inefficiencies are, their cuts will likely do more harm than good. The people who leave may well be the ones with corporate memory, the ones who could have made things work better. They'll leave behind the young and untutored who will likely continue to re-invent the wheel and inadvertently add more layers of inefficiency.

Even if some of these folks do decide to hang on in the face of rapidly sinking morale, I doubt that they will be in the mood to now cheerfully impart their wisdom, experience and knowledge to the new cohort racing up the ranks. Not that it would matter much, since, in my experience, that new cohort doesn't listen anyway. As former colleague recently said: "Everyone sends messages. But no one is receiving."

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