High cost of ministry shuffles is ridiculous

Increasingly, we hear the refrain: government is broken — nothing ever gets done.

Increasingly, we hear the refrain: government is broken — nothing ever gets done.

And, all too often, we blame the bureaucracy — those legions of public servants squirrelled away in offices all around this city.

It’s convenient to blame them: they can’t fight back. This week I want to talk about why we should think twice before condemning government workers. I want to do it by the numbers … numbers that add up to more than a decade of governance that has been shy on political stewardship and long on costly, unnecessary internal upheaval bordering on chaos.

An epidemic of ministry re-organization and cabinet musical chairs since 2001 — the beginning of the “Golden Era” of Gordon Campbell government — has cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in new letterhead, new business cards, moved offices, new phones and new computer configurations. It has also left many bureaucrats demoralized and confused and often powerless to implement accountable public policy.

Let’s track a few examples of this fickle, opportunist manipulation of cabinet and government. In June 2001, Campbell killed the long-standing Ministry of Municipal Affairs. He replaced it with Community Development. In January 2004, he got bored with that and changed it to Community Services. By June 2005, Community Development seemed to be the right way to go. That lasted until January 2009 when the Liberals feared they were weak on rural B.C. and changed the ministry yet again to Community and Rural Development. Boring! In June 2010, it became Community, Sport and Cultural Development.

Throughout this dance that passes for government stability there have been no less than nine ministers in the “Community” portfolio. There are other examples: Agriculture, eight ministers and three name changes; Health, six ministers and three name changes; Tourism, six ministers and four name changes. A very good record of this waste of tax dollars and human resources has been kept by the Association of Former MLAs of B.C., which publishes a monthly newsletter “Orders of the Day.”

Former Socred finance minister Hugh Curtis, who organizes the newsletter, says this problem goes right back to the Vander Zalm years. In fact, the bread and butter ministry of Economic Development has changed names 10 times since former premier Bill Vander Zalm first got his hands on it.

Bureaucrats report being moved on a political whim to a new ministry in a strange building across town where their clients (the public) can’t find them. Phone numbers are changed. Co-workers lose track of one another. Then, months down the road when the experiment has failed, these bureaucratic gypsies are sent packing and told to re-adjust as best they can. No one in government is brave enough to put a dollar figure on these costly adventures, which are always accompanied by confusion, loss of productivity and erosion of morale.

In a recent issue of Orders, the X-MLAs suggested that premiers — new or re-elected — should not have the right to re-organize government by themselves. The sad fact is that too often a hounded premier has poured a scotch and re-invented cabinet at the end of a bad week.

The X-MLAs, given to sober reflection and 20/20 hindsight in their twilight years, suggest that premiers seeking to re-organize government should be required to draft appropriate legislation and argue their points in full debate in the House. I know a lot of beleaguered bureaucrats who would say “amen” to that. M

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