There are few groups in the working world that are subject to more criticism and greater public and political scrutiny, while at the same time being afforded less respect and sympathy, than the vast and varied category broadly described as civil servants.
Overpaid and underworked, the threadbare lament suggests. Feeding relentlessly from the public trough. Resident in a realm of relentless redundancy, with such overworked pejoratives as "bloat" and "excess" continually attached to descriptions of the field.
And it’s unlikely there are many places in which career public servants have been held in lower esteem than in Manitoba during the past half-decade, as the Progressive Conservative government of former premier Brian Pallister sought to curtail their numbers, cap their compensation and close the door on virtually all dealings with the unions and professional organizations that represent their interests.
Simply put: Mr. Pallister made very clear his disdain for civil servants and unions, and apparently made it his mission to marginalize and minimize them as he focused his efforts on budgetary restraint and deficit elimination. Since the PC government took power in 2016, the former premier’s pledge to scale back the civil service has been realized, with its numbers having been reduced by 18 per cent. More than 2,600 positions have been eliminated from a workforce that currently stands at slightly more than 12,000.
For politicians of a conservative bent and members of the public focused on the provincial bottom line, this no doubt comes as very good news. But for the untold thousands who regularly require access to provincial services, what is becoming abundantly clear is that those services become much more difficult to navigate when there aren’t enough people there to provide them.
"You can’t run government services without the bodies to do the work and managers to make sure policies are in place and planning is there for the long term," said Michelle Gawronsky, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees Union.
She’s correct. And what makes the observation particularly relevant is the revelation in the Manitoba Civil Service Commission’s 2020-21 annual report that within five years, 21.9 per cent of civil servants and 34 per cent of senior managers will be eligible to retire. Within a decade, those retirement-eligibility numbers are 40.5 per cent and 61.6 per cent, respectively.
With the current government having worked so hard at making the civil service an unattractive career option, one is left wondering who’s going to provide those services to Manitobans in the medium to long term. With every position cut, staff departure and vacancy left unfilled for the sake of austerity, the workload and stress on those who remain threatens to create, simultaneously, levels of customer frustration and staff burnout that will be unacceptable to all and unsustainable going forward.
There’s nothing flashy or trendy or sexy about the services they provide, but civil servants are essential to the ongoing navigation of all Manitobans’ lives.
What folks hereabouts might soon learn is that while few ever express profound affection or undying respect for civil servants, absolutely nobody can abide the grind of trying to get things done when there aren’t enough of them.
A career in civil service is a pursuit that should be admired for its dedication to tasks that are typically taken for granted. Such a vocational choice should be admired, encouraged and suitably supported in a way that makes more Manitobans consider it as a viable option.
The answer to an oft-repeated question about civil servants — "Who needs them?" — is, quite frankly, all of us.