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Editorial: Shell game

There are head counts, and then there are real, live thinking, breathing people. And while governments like to tell you about “the positions affected” and “full-time equivalent positions,” they rarely talk about the people. And that means interesting information sometimes doesn’t see the light of day.

The provincial government has made political hay about trimming the senior civil service. You might remember that the government announced last August: “five deputy minister roles will be eliminated, which represents a 19 per cent reduction.”

But based on information provided to The Telegram by the government, when it comes to deputy ministers and equivalent positions, 15 people appear to have left the senior civil service between March and December of last year — retired or laid off — and nine new people now hold some of those jobs.

In other words, 58 per cent of the most senior staff positions in the provincial bureaucracy have undergone turnover.

One level down, there’s been similar change.

In October 2016, the government announced, “Today the provincial government continued its senior executive reorganization across departments with the elimination of 15 positions. These changes further demonstrate a commitment to streamline government operations (with) now fewer assistant deputy ministers.”

But while the announcement involved 15 positions, the changes in the departments were far more significant. Between March 31, 2016 and May 4, 2017, 36 incumbents left or were ousted from their positions, and 19 new people turned up in at least some of those emptied jobs.

That means the rate of attrition at the second-highest level of the provincial bureaucracy was 47 per cent, in just 14 months.

So while the government may well have more or less kept its promises about cutting positions, they’ve also brought a fair number of new people in through the door.

Now, there’s attrition in any workplace.

But if you looked at a private workplace of even close to comparable size, and saw that something like 50 per cent of all senior managers had gone out the door in a year, you’d be wondering a bunch of things; why they’d gone, to start. Then, you’d probably be wondering about the loss of corporate memory, experience and knowledge that had gone out the door with them. Finally, with the crossovers of departing and arriving staff and severance issues, you’d wonder if the company was essentially paying two people for the same job.

You’d also be asking if there were serious problems at the top.

The public sector, of course, is different.

Sometimes, former political candidates suddenly find high-level work, something that accounts for at least some of the Ball government’s new hires. Sometimes, fear of past political connections leads to departures. There are, of course, the original layoffs themselves.

But “changes in the number of positions”? It’s accurate, as far as it goes.

Clearly, that’s only part of the story.

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