Sunday, 12 February 2012

In praise of public sector employee reward programs


The Province’s political columnist Michael Smyth woke his readers out of bed this grey Sunday morning with a a strongly worded critique of a provincial government employee reward program that costs the government $1.5 million a year.  
Afraid to say I did not fall off my chair in righteous indignation.
No, the first thing I did was to get my calculator out and take the measure of this assault on my precious tax dollars.  So here we go.  Each working day of the year our provincial government spends $173 million.  Assume for a moment that the working day is 8 hours long - I know you think that this is about 7 hours more than bureaucrats actually work every day, but, hey, at least they are probably sitting somewhere at some plush taxpayer- funded desk looking out the window and thinking about how to take advantage of this fancy employee recognition program.  Well, you probably know where this is going.  By my calculation government spends $1.5 million of our money every four minutes.
Four minutes.  Yup.  For a minute there I was worried we were talking about something serious.
But really, let’s think for a minute what this article is really trying to tell us.
It’s obvious, isn’t it?  We are supposed to be outraged at the idea that folks who work for government might have access to the same kinds of employee recognition programs as are available in the private sector.  How dare they? we are meant to ask. It’s not the amount, of course, it’s “the principle of the thing!”
What principle?  
The principle is this: it is that we do not value government, the work it does, nor the people who do it.  Their work is somehow not work in the ordinary sense.  It’s something less.  Something we begrudge.  And most certainly something not worth acknowledging or rewarding.
I know what I am about to say is unfashionable, but I disagree.  I actually think government work is more than valuable, it’s essential to our quality of life.  And I think pubic servants should be recognized more often for the great work they do to make our province a better place.  The idea that they should be able to acknowledge each other’s efforts - at an apparent cost of something on the order of $52 per employee per year - sounds eminently reasonable and indeed admirable to me.  Something to be applauded, not attacked.
It’s kind of amusing to read Smyth argue that the funds spent on this program ought to be spent instead on health care or education.  It’s not just that the amount in question would make no appreciable difference to the health care or education budgets.  No, it’s that his argument assumes that health care and education are abstract inanimate goods, rather than services delivered by - heaven forbid! - public sector workers.  Who, if truth be told, are for the most part hard-working, dedicated, highly-skilled people who, unlike most of us, have chosen to work in the service of the public, not just for their own private advancement.  
Now it’s absolutely legitimate to ask whether this program has the sorts of controls that programs like this ought to have.  But there’s nothing in Mike Smyth’s article that helps me know whether that’s so.  What I suspect is that the two opposition politicians quoted in the article had never heard of the program until Mike Smyth called to tell them about it.  And of course they did what opposition politicians are supposed to do in such circumstances (I know because I used to do it myself when I was an opposition politician) - wax indignant.  Forgetting, of course, that as politicians they routinely have access to the same sorts of goodies - when they are handing out those nice Canada and BC flag pins at elementary schools, what they heck else are they doing except making people feel good?  And if the folks who run our local media outlets don’t have a sleeve or two of company logo golf balls in their desk drawers, I’d be startled.
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By this point in the day, I suspect, the email inboxes of MLAs and journalists are filling with the chorus of outrage of citizens complaining that the fat cat bureaucrats have once again been caught lining their pockets at our expense.  Forgetting, of course, that the target of their outrage is actually the guy down the street who missed his son’s basketball game last week because he was putting the finishing touches on a report to his assistant deputy minister, or the social worker in the apartment downstairs who hasn’t slept well for awhile, because there’s a file on her desk with a problem that has no easy answer and she can’t make up her mind yet what to do.  
I fear that by the end of the afternoon, in time for the evening TV news cycle, this little program will have been killed by some nervous politician.  More’s the pity if that be so.

1 comment:

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