Saskatchewan’s professional public service is being systematically politicized. To stop this, the public service head must become an officer of the Legislature. Published as an op-ed by the Regina Leader-Post 22/02/2017.
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February 22nd, 2017
The halls of Saskatchewan’s Legislative Building have become increasingly filled with partisan appointees in recent years, former public servant Rick August argues. TROY FLEECE / Regina Leader-Post
Saskatchewan government ministers are amply funded for the hiring of political assistants. Senior public service managers, on the other hand, are expected to be politically neutral, providing the best possible advice to government without partisan interest or bias.
This system is under attack. Many department heads are now overtly political, and more and more senior management jobs are being filled by political partisans. The management of the public service is, in short, being systematically politicized.
This is an important issue. Individuals with dubious qualifications find themselves managing billions in expenditures and billions more in public assets. Their salaries consume millions of tax dollars. As politicization takes firmer root, access to government business depends more and more on partisan allegiance. In the long run, the same will be true of citizens’ access to services.
One might ask how room is made for partisan appointments, when government job numbers are closely watched. The first way to create vacancies is to fire professional public servants. In many departments almost all senior jobs have turned over since 2007. This means a loss of experience and expertise, not to mention substantial costs for financial settlements.
The second method is management bloat, the conversion of front-line jobs to management. My former department, Social Services, in 2008 had 13 staff at the executive director level or higher. By last year the number was 25 and climbing.
Political hiring and firing is, in simple terms, corruption — the diversion of public funds to benefit the governing party and its supporters. The risks of public service politicization can be seen in recent controversies over land transactions at the Global Transportation Hub.
We are supposed to have safeguards against a politicized public service. The Public Service Commission was created decades ago to prevent political interference. Laws and regulations prescribe clear rules about hiring and firing by merit and appeal mechanisms for unjustified terminations.
Unfortunately, there is no real scrutiny of government human resource practices and no penalties for breaking the rules. The fatal weakness, however, is that those at the top of the human resource system are appointed by cabinet. The system thus depends on the goodwill of the current government to hire and fire based on merit and refrain from political interference.
Without reform, this deeply flawed system will fall into the hands of the next government, with risk that politicization will simply continue in different hands. To prevent this, I propose that the head of the public service be an officer appointed by the legislature — like the ombudsman and provincial auditor — rather than an official appointed by cabinet.
Appointment of legislative officers is still controlled by the governing party, but open reporting would make it much harder to hide abuses from the public. In effect, greater transparency would increase accountability for ethical management of the public service. I strongly hope such a reform will be embraced as a means to protect the professional public service, which is an important element of our form of parliamentary democracy.
Rick August is a Regina-based analyst who has written and practised extensively in the area of social policy reform. He worked under six different premiers as a Saskatchewan public servant before being terminated on political direction in 2008.
Contact Rick August for more information about this article.