Some of us love to take potshots at civil servants, especially the ones who labour away in their offices in that evil place called Charlottetown. It’s even a favourite sport among those who either don’t have a government job and want one, and those in the private sector who scornfully look upon civil servants as underworked and overpaid.
Prince Edward Island certainly has a large public sector. In a 2015 study conducted by the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS), our province had 93 public sector employees per 1,000 residents, well above the national average but surprisingly fewer than either Nova Scotia or Newfoundland. Our provincial jurisdictional status demands we maintain a full array of services. Consequently, the public sector makes up a large part of our Island economy. Government employees are everywhere. They patch our roads and operate sand trucks in winter. They protect our natural environment. They teach our children. They take care of us when we are sick. And in these perilous days, they work tirelessly to keep us safe from contagion.
Many of course work as administrators, and program directors, and policy advisors, and technicians. They do what my late father-in-law’s neighbours thought he did as general manager of the Tignish Co-op store. They would say Gerald “pencilled around”, a seemingly derogatory comment born more out of a lack of understanding.
Our Island economy runs on multiple cylinders, diverse and separate. The lobster fisherman and the property tax accountant live in two different worlds, and we should not expect either to understand or appreciate the work of the other.
Twenty-five years as a government employee has given me great respect and admiration for the good public servant, the hard-working, skilled, and conscientious employee who is dedicated to serving the citizens of the province.
And within this invisible army, we call the bureaucracy, I have known several truly exemplary individuals, whose knowledge and creativity drives the development and delivery of programs and services, and who, when called upon by politicians, can lead major progressive change.
One of the most revolutionary and contentious policy initiatives in our history was the adoption of a province-wide waste management program in the early 1990s.
It began with municipal and provincial officials struggling to find the location of a new waste disposal site for the East Prince region, supported by the newly-elected and reform-minded government of Catherine Callbeck.
The East Prince waste management pilot project required a change in the way Islanders thought about their garbage. It had been decided compostable organic materials and marketable recyclable materials would no longer be accepted at the new landfill site.
From the outset there was strong resistance to this new Waste Watch program.
Enter Lowell Croken, a junior level public servant at the time working as a mapping technician. His unique communication skills and proactive approach, and qualities of reasonableness and charm, made him the ideal person to assist the implementation of Waste Watch.
Not that Lowell accomplished this all by himself of course, but change often requires a special agent, and when it came to convincing a reluctant general public that separating garbage was important, he was the right person for the job.
Lowell Croken went on to serve as Prince Edward Island’s Chief Electoral Officer from 2005 to 2013. Now retired, he can look back on an outstanding career as a public servant, having served Islanders with honour and integrity.
There are other Lowell Crokens within government ranks, employees who make a big difference in positive and constructive ways, and I believe we should celebrate their often-unheralded contributions.
It is also important to say good public servants, while doing their best to carry out the instructions of their ministers, always adhere to the laws enacted by the legislature and the regulations approved by Executive Council.
The good public servant knows the limits and operates within them. Recent questions about destroyed emails and the alleged behaviour of certain high-level bureaucrats should not cast a shadow on the majority of government employees who do their job conscientiously and faithfully according to the law.
As Prince Edward Island emerges from the current coronavirus pandemic, our government out of necessity will need to grapple with an unprecedented budget deficit. If history is any guide, there will be cuts to programs and services, and because the salary account is the biggest area of budgetary spending, there could very well be reductions in the size of the public service.
But if Premier King is forced to govern in hard times, I encourage him to not throw the baby out with the bath water, so to speak, and to keep in mind the future of our small Island province depends greatly upon the work of good public servants.