It is easy to complain about public employees: are they not a privileged, elite, sheltered group? It seems that public employees and the cost of public payrolls are, yet again, in the sights of critics from the right. In particular, attacking the ‘burden’ on taxpayers of ‘excessive’ pensions, benefits, and salaries is an easy and simple way to short-circuit a serious political discussion. In Canada, such attacks do not tend to have the racist overtones they have in the US, where a growing segment of public employees come from black, Latino or other racial and ethnic minority groups. Nevertheless, such attacks can be scathing.
One thing about these criticisms is that they essentially miss the point. The purpose of government is not the same as that of business, nor would taxpayers truly want their government to be run like a private for-profit enterprise. Imagine peoples’ reaction if the prices of government services truly followed the laws of supply and demand: the price of healthcare, prescriptions, surgeries, education, road and infrastructure construction, and a whole host of other high-demand items and services would be so high that it would quickly render many private businesses uneconomic. Imagine if every individual had to pay directly for their own education, health care, road use, sewers, personal protection, water, etc.?
The whole idea of having government deliver these services is the general recognition that these common goods are most efficiently (and cheaply!) delivered at collective cost, and by extension, that their operation and administration should be overseen by publicly-appointed administrators who are accountable for the expenses that are taxpayer-funded. You only need to spend a short amount of time in a country with a broken or absent public service to realize the importance of it.
While there is room for debating the extent and scope of public administration, there should also be acknowledgement within the debate that public service is not only legitimate and necessary, but beneficial. In the interests of shifting the discussion and possibly even changing the paradigm for public service, here are some ideas for thinking differently about public service:
Outcomes matter more than efficiency
When patients get better, when special needs adults are able to live independently, and when kids master a new skill, real social goods have been accomplished that save taxpayers money in the long run. Such a calculation simply cannot be reduced to a yardstick that trades off today’s revenues and expenditures. When these outcomes are compromised by budget cuts, not only do individuals pay a price, but the social costs are borne by everyone in society.
Incentives erode the soul of motivation
Talk of ‘rewarding excellence’ and ‘reducing the redundant’ does NOT improve performance. Competition is not the point of public service. Trying to incentivize outcomes increases stress and makes people resistant to change. Companies are discovering this on their own in recent years, but they are also discovering that a decent level of compensation is a prerequisite to a motivated, creative, and productive employee in any enterprise.
Bureaucracy means fairness
This may be a hard sell, but next time you’re waiting in line for a drivers’ license or filling out a passport application, consider the effort and expense required to ensure that all of those who use public services are treated consistently and fairly. Then consider what happens when those services are cut or reduced. How much is fairness worth to you?
Cutting services is self-defeating
In the open market, fraud and deceit flourish because businesses lack the ability to police themselves and are highly motivated to abuse their power and superior knowledge. The cost to legitimate businesses in restoring confidence when violations occur is significant. A large part of what government provides is trust and confidence when the market fails, which allows businesses to be profitable. If business is less profitable, economic activity slows and tax revenue falls. Beyond the purely instrumental argument that austerity directly reduces economic growth, austerity is self-defeating because it increases the hidden costs of doing business in hard times.
Public servants create wealth, and create the conditions that enable private businesses to create wealth. Of course governments should be accountable for costs, especially since the disciplining competition of the market is less sharp and the high demand for public goods and services can tend to push prices up. However, the solution is not to heighten competition but to recognize and account for the benefits that public service provides, and not just to focus on its costs. A truly balanced account would show that taxpayers are investing their resources very efficiently indeed.