The B.C. government has announced that provincial ministries will no longer be allowed to recruit or hire their own personnel. In accordance with a new "Corporate Human Resource Plan," these functions are being centralized.
From here forward, a bureau called the Public Service Agency will handle the hiring, training and deployment of some 30,000 employees. The government insists this will minimize layoffs during the recession by placing affected workers more efficiently.
In theory, that might well be true. Yet staffing decisions are vital to any well-run organization.
No one understands the personnel needs of a health or education department so clearly as the people who work there. Local, hands-on managers know best what's needed to build their team. This new policy takes some decision-making away from them and gives it to a central bureaucracy.
The same "corporate" model has been applied in other areas of the government, with less than desirable results. Communications staff have been uprooted from ministries and taken over by a central Public Affairs Bureau.
The reason given, then as now, was efficiency. The effect was quite different.
Ministries have lost some ability to control what is said in their name. Line managers who know the facts have been forbidden to talk with the media. The focus of communications officers has shifted more from program expertise to message handling.
In the corporate world, that might all make sense. If private companies choose to centralize communications, that's their affair.
But government is different. Public-sector employees work for us. If we need information, we have a right to speak with a knowledgeable person in the program involved, not a spin doctor in some central agency.
The same corporate model can be seen in the swelling of management. A few years ago, health services were run by a deputy minister and four assistant deputies. Today, there are more than a dozen assistant deputies (or equivalent) and two deputy ministers.
It can also be seen in the private sector salaries now being paid to managers. Gordon Campbell's government has presided over what must surely be the most rapid increase ever in executive compensation.
And not just in the ranks of ministry staff. Management remuneration has gone through the roof in various parts of the extended public sector. The president of B.C. Ferries received more than $1 million in compensation last year, while the top five managers, in total, received more than $3 million.
Let's concede things have improved at B.C. Ferries since the disastrous Glen Clark era. It is a government-created agency, run with a government subsidy and government-funded capital and equipment, providing a monopoly service to a captive audience. In the current economic climate, many wonder how salaries such as these can be justified.
The CEO of the Fraser Health Authority has a compensation package of $450,000. His vice-presidents make between $270,000 and $325,000. In all, 330 employees take home $100,000 a year or more. At the same time, the authority is planning to close operating rooms, reduce elective surgeries and eliminate 200 hospital beds, because of a budget crunch.
It would be unfair to suggest that funding shortfalls in the health sector, or elsewhere in government, are due to overpaid executives. Yet it would be naive to suppose these salaries place no strain on resources.
The business model works well in industry, where there are boards of directors, shareholders and market forces to keep companies honest. But government is a service, not an enterprise.
Across the public sector as a whole, the corporate approach to communications, or management, or executive compensation has not led to a noticeable improvement in quality. We doubt that centralized staffing will be any better.