Cuts to federal public service has the potential of actually improving how government works

You have less bricks. So build smaller walls that line paths instead of walls that block.

Subtitle: What if 10% in cuts mean a public service that is 10% more collaborative and innovative?

Let me get into a very touchy topic for public servants: their jobs. It’s not a popular point to make that so many public servants need to be employed to the work of government. Isn’t there room for cost-cutting, job-slashing and re-structuring? What if this could be done while improving public services?

To cut the deficit and avoid raising taxes, the conservative government is looking at slashing federal government jobs. More than 10% are slated to be cut, with the unions reacting saying it will result in reduced quality of services from the federal government. Firms studying the issue are concerned for the possibly 22’000 jobs possibly cut from the National Capital Region alone, with others arguing the public is not concerned for the jobs of overpaid public servants while the country’s economy is facing challenges of its own.

Let’s get into the reasons why I think the cuts may not be a bad thing:

More public servants does not mean better services

It’s no secret that the public service has empire-builders who grow their teams to expand their sphere and influence. As clerk of the privy council 2006-2009, Kevin Lynch grew the public service to towering heights. Did the quality of services increase?

Throwing people at a program, problem or project doesn’t improve it. The public service doesn’t work like an assembly line. In fact it can do the very opposite, adding delays to an already mired bureaucracy with endless unnecessary reviews, meetings, and administrative costs. Check out “the mythical man month” for more information on this concept.

The role of the public service isn’t to keep public servants employed

The role of the public service is to support government. To do that, the public service needs the best people who can do the job. Like with any organisation, there are great workers and not-so-great ones. But it could be very difficult to explain to unemployed Canadians that tax dollars are spent to have public servants keeping their jobs instead of other options.

Let’s take this to further extremes: What if the work of government could be done by 1 person? Would this be a good thing? Or 1 million? Your answer may depend on a difference of cost. Mine does. And lacking more ambitious goals for this government, I do think the work of the public service can be done with less people.

Finding opportunity in cuts

Times of cost-cutting provides a silver-lining for productivity and collaboration. As governments have to do more, or even the same, with less money, they’ll be open to different ways to do this. And this may involve working together, cooperating, sharing, heck, even working openly with the public to increase capacity (a not-so-novel idea called Open Government).

Moving forward

The cuts are inevitable. That much is certain. Jobs (or “boxes” as they’re called in government parlance) will be cut, and people with them. And people will be kept. Some in their jobs, some moved around. The most important part right now is the measure to be used by executives to decide who stays and who goes. And even executives are not immune to the cuts either.

There’s an opportunity to remake the public service, into a modern, efficient, innovative public service. An example of thinking innovatively when working with less is Wikipedia, born out of the tech bust. With venture capital all but gone, Wikipedia founder Jimbo Wales pursued opening up the world’s encyclopedia – all of it, editing, the tech support, administration – all of it – to the community. The potential here for Canada’s public service is just as grand.

Government executives are going to need to think very hard about the public service they want to end up with. This is the time to envision that. If executives seek merely a smaller version of its former inflated self, then 10%-15% across the board is a straight-forward decision. But if executives can envision a better public service, I have a few ideas.

3 Tips for executives looking to make their cuts in the public service

Know that you will need to change. You will need to think about new ways to do your job, and get it done. The old way of doing things will only carry you so far. The metrics, benchmarks and deliverables are going to change. Your success is now about having the team that can go beyond “getting it done” until the next round of cuts, it will be about having the team that is:

  • resilient, adaptive, connected (instead of just knowledgeable with focused expertise);
  • driven, engaged, (instead of just influential and well-spoken from 8 to 4);
  • skilled with technology and tools (they learn anything, and the tools may get innovative);
  • innovative, creative, out-of-the box thinking (instead of risk-aversive who keep you out of trouble).

Here is a strategy to do this.

Identify those you can no longer afford

Non-collaborators are expensive. Sure they get the job done, but some employees can be expensive, each and every time they get it done. Their hording of information helps very few, and when it does help, it helps because of a culture based on empire-building. If government is going to get open and productive, these employees will drag you down while others rise.

Do not get non-collaborators confused with the brazen advice given by disgruntled engaged and driven innovators. Driven collaborators are not easy to find if you don’t have much collaboration happening anyway. And these people will shine and be a powerful force with less barrier-builders.

Do keep your core group of barrier-busters, the collaborators, community supporters and innovators

These are the employees who are productive enough to cover the cut employees. They get the job done, and bring everyone up with them. They don’t horde information: they share it for everyone’s benefit. They plug expensive gaps, the bridge divides in talents, and link collaborators to find answers. You can’t always measure the value of these collaborative gnomes, but when it’s easier to measure a massive fail in productivity in your group, it’s because you don’t have enough of these kind.

Feed innovators, innovation, and innovative ideas

This idea costs executives exactly $0 to do. The innovative types can think outside-of-the box. You may already have them; they tweet, they blog, they attend events related to their job without expensing it. Getting their ideas isn’t hard: ask. Ask individually. Note the ideas. With less executives above you as well, you may be in a position to consider them.

*Update! Thought of 1 more:

Identify those with multiple talents, horizontal experience

Your team probably has those who have worn other hats in their public service career. Maybe you have a policy analyst with programming expertise, a programs officer with HR experience, a statistician with RFP writing skillzzz. Just because the classification system was introduced in the 60s doesn’t mean your team has to work in industrial era stovepipes (silos). These people with multiple hats are a boon for productivity: ┬áit can be a lot of work to get a statistician up to speed for their little chunk of the work than just letting the programs officer do it and get reviewed by one. And a more trimmed-down public service will need to be more open about sharing the work.


That’s quite the silver-lining I’m painting on a gloomy cloud of cuts to the public service. I don’t wish job-loss on anyone not in a position to bear it; it’s a sucky situation for many to face, as is the stress that comes with it. I see much potential from the many hard-working and driven public servants I know. And from challenge comes opportunity, even the impending cuts. I’ve always said “I always prefer a room with half-as many people being twice as engaged.” I hope this will be realizable in the time ahead. And who knows, maybe Open Government will become more of a reality, because it sure hasn’t before.

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