It’s a pretty clear message: if you’re a public servant, the government doesn’t want your input. It’s also a little strange; you’d think that a government, and more particularly, MHAs and cabinet ministers, would want to have input from as many people as possible, especially those who are on the front lines of government service.
But the message from the Newfoundland and Labrador Public Libraries executive director, Shawn Tetford, was a clear one.
“Recently, a local staff member wrote their MHA, the minister of Education and the premier criticizing the budget cuts. … Such action by public servants is unacceptable.”
Tetford said in the same memo that there is an internal process for raising concerns, and that’s for public servants to raise the issue with their direct supervisor. Interviewed later, Tetford said it was a management issue: “If all our staff started writing letters to politicians criticizing the decisions that are made, then it becomes uncontrollable and unmanageable.”
Fair enough — to a point. Tetford might not want politicians to hear about concerns without having them winnow their way through library management, but you’d think those same politicians would welcome input about their decisions. The provincial government recently cut $1 million from the provincial library budget, resulting in 17 layoffs and reduced hours at some libraries, so you can probably guess the letter involved was not blindly supportive.
Remember: this is not a case of provincial employees washing the government’s dirty linen in public: this is the ability of library staffers to write to their MHA, cabinet ministers or the premier directly, something that pretty much any other citizen can do at any time.
The minister of Education’s office says the minister was not involved in sending the memo out.
Fine and good.
At the same time, in an open and accountable government (something the Dunderdale administration regularly professes to be), you’d think the minister would countermand the memo. (That being said, someone had to have contacted Tetford to complain about the letter being received, or else he would not have known about it — and that list has to be pretty short and filled with politicians.)
In this case, the minister’s representative said the minister welcomes input — but through “proper channels.” That sounds a lot like the same proper channels that Tetford was describing — but stop for a moment and ask, if you were a politician charged with making budget decisions, would you rather have information processed and homogenized through proper channels, or the raw material?
You could be funny about this: imagine, we have a government that feels threatened by the unfettered opinions of librarians.
But on the serious side, pretty much any librarian in the province could remind you of this little ditty: “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
Politicians aren’t generally precious and gentle flowers. You’d think they’d be willing to withstand a letter or two.