The B.C. government has slashed professionals in the public service to the point where it doesn’t have a full picture of what’s happening. In a March 2014 report, the Professional Employees Association (PEA) demonstrated that the province has reduced its complement of scientific and technical professionals by 15 per cent since 2009.
Looking back to 2001, there are 25 per cent fewer professionals in the public service…
Government policy over the last 13 years has been to dramatically reduce in-house government professionals, deregulate natural resource industries and to reduce the role of public service professional staff in monitoring, compliance and enforcement.
We believe that government policy increases the risks of disasters like Mt. Polley and may have significantly contributed to this event. Watchdog agencies, including the Forest Practices Board and the Auditor General, have already voiced concern over the lack of on the ground monitoring happening in natural resource ministries.
The 25% reduction of professionals in public service, despite the economy growing by 46% ¹ (in constant dollars) tilts the balance in favour of private parties with deep pockets, able to hire never-ending parades of consultants who will fortify the aims and objectives of their paying clients. These specialists have little concern for public interests; they are like lawyers paid to defend “every person, however wicked, depraved, vile, degenerate, perverted, loathsome, execrable, vicious or repulsive he [or she] may be.”
The very large companies who exploit British Columbia resources understand the advantage of a mismatch and I’ve heard it expressed crudely, as in “Bullshit baffles brains.” Urban Dictionary defines that as,
“A deception. To put on such a good show the inspector is so impressed (s)he won’t bother with a detailed check or to question anything.”
Not just taxpayers suffer from disadvantage. Small businesses – the putative economic backbone – typically cannot afford to muster similar resources and, by comparison, they become easy pickings for bureaucrats. I recall an example from my own career. An obdurate tax auditor argued that a supplementary regulation superseded a section written in the Provincial Sales Tax Act that formulated our position. He issued an assessment that could have cost tens of thousands of dollars. Our dispute fell on deaf ears for the longest of time, despite clarity of the Act. Only after we spent a considerable sum on lawyers and demonstrated willingness to go to trial was our position reviewed at the highest level and accepted as correct. Had our company been unable to afford defensive actions, we’d have faced a serious financial burden.
That story may sound like a complaint about government service but my intention is to reinforce the importance of employing skilled and knowledgeable professionals throughout government. Downsizing public agencies has eliminated or reduced functions seen as expendable, including optimum levels of supervision and human resource training and development. Inevitably, that results in a civil service that is less effective than it ought to be. For most of us, that is unfortunate. For laissez-faire capitalists, it is movement in the right direction.
My examination of public revenues from the resource industries began after a knowledgeable person offered a tip that material revenues were failing to reach government coffers because industry routinely undervalued and under-reported production. The individual said this continued because government’s enforcement resources were inadequate to ensure collection of amounts properly due. An additional allegation was that mid-level officials were aware but believed corrective action was not welcome at the highest levels.
I also heard a separate claim that top managers of the resource and environment ministries have less commitment to pollution abatement than the major resource businesses they regulate. The reasoning behind this situation was said to be philosophical, the belief of classical liberalism promoted by the Fraser Institute that governments should minimize involvement in the private sector and trust participants to make acceptable decisions in unfettered economies. Believers reject the need for government to act as conservators or guardians of public assets. They believe that private enterprises should be left to maximize their own economic returns.
We’ve reached a strange point in political history where the BC Liberal message machine spins in overdrive, proclaiming more and more accomplishments of government, while the functioning reality is that, in the trenches, managers are looking for government to initiate and achieve less and less.
1. Statistics Canada, CANSIM Table 384-0038, Expenditure-based real GDP, chained (2007) dollars