It is a challenge to find the right term to describe it. A hiring binge seems a little tame. A recruiting rampage may be closer to the mark. But call it what you will, there is no doubt that government employment and payrolls are growing at an astonishing pace.
According to Statistics Canada, the country's public sector, which includes, among others, federal, provincial and territorial governments, municipalities, schools, colleges, universities and hospitals, employed nearly 3.3 million people at the end of 2007. That's just over 10 per cent of the population and an increase of 175,000 in five years.
The feds and the provinces combined accounted for a little over 33,000 of the new hires. The health and social services sectors grew by a whopping 48,517. Local school boards were up by 43,208, universities and colleges by 28,152 and municipalities by 27,519.
Donald Savoie, who holds the Canada research chair in governance and public administration at the University of New Brunswick, says that there are two explanations for all the hiring. Governments believe that they need to keep pace with population growth if they are to deliver adequate public service. Second, public-sector employees are aging like the rest of the workforce and large numbers will leave in the next few years.
Their employers are now hiring in anticipation of that turnover. That means they are competing against the private sector for the relatively smaller cohort of younger workers out there. In fact, competing may be the wrong word. Government employers, armed with taxpayer dollars, simply siphon available talent with better-than-average wage and benefit packages, generous vacations and pension plans, and guarantees of lifetime employment.
Savoie - one of Canada's leading experts on how governments spend - sees a couple of other problems. "Technology allows us to do more with less," he says. "We've seen evidence of that in the private sector. We haven't captured any savings from new technology in the public sector."
The other problem goes to the heart of the way governments operate. "The public sector has proven over the years that it is good at launching new programs and services," says Savoie. "It is not good at stopping them. Things just keep going even if they are not as useful as they originally were. It would be a stretch to say that this is good management."
Governments at all levels have been extending their reach and influence, and consuming more of the nation's resources since the end of the Second World War and the advent of the welfare state. Few could argue with the expansion of the public sector 50 or 60 years ago. Government spending led to the introduction of universal health care, old-age pensions and unemployment insurance, as well as the creation of new universities and colleges. Such programs and initiatives actually made a difference in people's lives.
By the early 1970s, the welfare state was for all intents and purposes a finished product. Unfortunately, governments have continued to add programs, services and departments, many targeted at special-interest groups and very few designed to address core needs of the populace.
The result is that, today, governments introduce budgets with billions in new spending merely to maintain, or enrich existing programs. The public rarely derives any discernible benefit. The only way governments can touch the lives of their citizens in a meaningful way is to put more money in their pockets through tax cuts.
A reassessment of what governments do is long overdue in this country and the impending exodus of Baby Boomer civil servants provides an ideal opportunity. Our political leaders, starting at the federal level, should conduct a thorough program review. They should determine what works and what doesn't, what is necessary and what is redundant.
For example, does anyone believe that we should continue to spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually on regional economic development schemes in the East and the West? Is it not evident, after four decades of public spending, that these programs don't work? Is there any logical reason for keeping them going?
With thousands of civil servants on the verge of retirement, we have an opportunity to shrink government through attrition. Let them go. Forget about replacing them. And get rid of the wasteful and useless programs, most of which never should have been funded in the first place.
There will be dislocation, turmoil and protests, but the public interest will be served. Our governments need to be put through the same wringer of downsizing and restructuring that the private sector has endured over the past 15 years.
That experience has produced a period of uninterrupted economic growth and prosperity surpassed only by the post-war boom of the late 1940s through the end of the 1960s.
(D'Arcy Jenish can be reached at email@example.com)