Wednesday, 12 December 2012

The Parliamentary Budget Officer of Canada

So, Canada's Parliamentary Budget Officer has come out with a report suggesting that the average cost of employing a federal public servant currently sits at $114,100 dollars.  This amount is comprised of salaries and wages, employer pension contributions, health benefits, employment insurance, disability claims, etc.

I am not saying the taxpaying public doesn't have a legitimate gripe, but I wonder how big the gripe should be.  I should say at the outset I haven't read the actual report (my powers of concentration and analysis being a shadow of what they once were), but am basing my comments on media reports, in particular the Ottawa Citizen's coverage, for what that's worth.  I should also say that I like oversight bodies in general - the public sector afterall uses the public's money to provide goods and services to the public, so scrutiny and the attendent transparency and accountability it provides is vital in a relatively democratic society (though as an aside, public expenditures are already monitored and reported on by the Auditor General and though I understand there are probably differences in mandate, the current study seems just the kind of thing the AG could look at - how much money is being wasted by duplicating efforts?)

The following are some random thoughts and questions that have bubbled in my mind (and to be fair, others, such as the Government itself and various public service union leader have raised similar questions):

What's so special about the private sector, anyway?  Invariably, comparisons with the private sector are what spark the most public outrage in these types of situations.  I really don't understand why this is the case.  Setting aside the fundamentally different nature and objectives of the two sectors, many seem to think the private sector is the standard that the public sector should aim to match, rather than the opposite.  Because public servants cost more to employ than the private sector, then the public sector should pay it's employees less, rather than holding the view that the private sector should compensate it's employees more equitably.

And speaking of equity...  One of the reasons critics of the Budget Officer's report have indicated that the average cost is greater in the federal public service is because the federal public service is further ahead than the private sector in pay equity.  The disparity between salaries for women and men doing the same type of job is far less than in the private sector.   Add in the admittedly byzantine "equal pay for work of equal value" where compensation is balanced between types of work and you get less disparity between different occupational groups that are nonetheless (in theorym at least) doing work of equal value.  And though the public service still has work to do, do we really want to set women back to bring the average cost down?

Remember that it is only recently that the federal public sector jumped ahead of the private sector in terms of the average cost to employ someone.  I believe prior to 2003-04, the trend was the opposite - employing someone in the private sector cost more on average than employing someone in the public sector.

How do the private and federal public sector workforces differ?  At least one union leader has pointed out that public sector recruitment has focussed on hiring high-skill and high-knowledge workers at the same time as it has been shedding support positions.  University and college graduates cost more.

The law of averages:  Of course, one of the problems that arises from using averages is that you don't get a sense of the variability within the data being studied both within and between groups.  For example, a political science graduate working in the public service may be better paid than her private sector counterpart on average, but I can guarantee that the Deputy Minister of Finance is paid way, way less than the president of, say, the Royal Bank.  I would further argue that a non-commissioned member of the Canadian forces is probably less well compensated than a comparably employed person in the private sector.  And don't even get me started on the plight of the Canadian soldier, especially when millionaire hockey players are arguing about how many millions they will make for playing a kid's game.

The Price of Bilingualism:  For better or for worse, a lot of positions in the federal public service require its employees to have a level of proficiency in both official languages, including its entry-level positions.  This puts a premium on already bilingual candidates.

The Rodney Dangerfield of Occupations:  This may sound a little whiny to some, and to a degree it is, but being a public servant is not without its drawbacks.  As a group, public servants are held in roughly the same esteem as lawyers, which is to say they are not well regarded at all.  The Government itself clearly has little regard for the public service.  In short, public servants get almost no respect from those they serve most directly, rightly or wrongly.  Also, I would argue that as a whole, the public service is a fairly toxic place to work, notwithstanding the decent pay and benefits.  My job is at least part of the reason I have such a hard time concentrating, formulating thoughts, planning things and generally making me feel stupid.  And no amount of compensation can help me with that.

I also wonder how the public sector compares to the private sector in terms of unpaid overtime.

Why does $100,000 set people off anyway?  People just seem to react badly to public sector compensation numbers that tread in six-figure territory.  But, really, accounting for cost of living increases, $100,000 is merely the new $60,000.  I guess the same psychology that explains why retailer sell their goo at $1.99 rather than $2.00 is at work.

As I say, some random thoughts that I hope try to add some balance to the debate.  I look forward to your views one way or the other.


  1. "public servants are held in roughly the same esteem as lawyers" Considering I'm both, I must be bottom of the barrel! Ha! The US pays my salary, but I suspect that people would have a similar reaction down here.

    I'm glad to have found your blog (via Karen). I was born in Ontario and still consider myself somewhat Canadian. I've only read the one post so far, but I like it!

    1. Thanks for stopping by. I'm glad to have had the opportunity to read your blog as well. I look forward to following it!