The ‘scandal’ of bureaucrat pay (Editorial)

In the early ’90s my job as a health-care reporter meant spending a lot of time following Michael Decter around southern Ontario. Decter was the deputy health minister in a newly elected NDP government that was reforming the health system, and his speeches were fodder for continuing coverage. And if health reform and the responsibility for managing a department with a $18-billion annual budget weren’t enough, Decter was also called upon by then Premier Bob Rae to lead wage containment discussions with unions.

In a candid moment during a stop on his ongoing speaking tour, he related how tired he was, how his daughter was wondering when she’d see him. And how, in that frame of mind, one morning before another round of union talks he came across a news article on the “outrageous” salaries of private-sector executives. Soon thereafter, Decter left public service, made a tidy sum investing and then wrote the book, Michael Decter’s Million Dollar Strategy.

Apparently, even socialist public servants (Decter was also an insider with Manitoba’s NDP government in the ’80s) have their limits. Who wouldn’t want more money without the weighty responsibilities of government service? And that was prior to 1997 when Ontario passed legislation disclosing the salaries of every provincial and municipal civil servant who earns more than $100,000 annually — fun reading for your neighbours and an opportunity to have your worth questioned in the media.

The legislation is intended to open up government to the public; it’s taxpayers who are paying these salaries after all. But the public’s right to know government funds are well-spent is over-riding other concerns, such as privacy and, more significantly for HR, the ability to attract and retain star performers.

Are government departments and agencies making better compensation decisions? Is the public better served? The real winners seem to be daily papers that have a field day outing “fat cat” bureaucrats. Headlines shout, “Your taxes, their wages,” and “Big earners on the rise among bureaucrats,” with stories that imply excess and greed, and charts that list specific individuals and their salaries. (Items like education, years’ experience, budgets handled and hours worked never appear in these tables.)

As employers, governments have difficulty attracting and hanging onto top performers — people easily frustrated by excessive red tape, political interference and lower salaries for comparable efforts in the private sector. Having to justify salaries when they are exposed to the public doesn’t help recruitment and retention. Lower-paid taxpayers will rail at high salaries, while private-sector executives will scoff at the “low” income.

Are hard-working talented bureaucrats expected to be embarrassed by their salaries or annually engaged in defending their pay?

Whether the disclosure of public-sector wages serves the public good is questionable. One thing there’s little room for debate on is whether doing so harms morale, retention and recruitment in the public service.

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