Alberta Election 2012: Civil service nervous with political change in the air

EDMONTON — No matter which party wins Monday's election, there's bound to be change in the ranks of the civil service — deputy ministers shuffled, bureaucrats transferred, positions eliminated, new people hired.

No surprise, then, that there's tension in the air in the office towers around the legislature and across the city, where public servants nervously go about their jobs while voters figure out who their bosses will be.

While some people are dusting off resumes, others are closely following campaign talk about wage freezes, cuts to civil services and unnecessary layers of management in Alberta Health Services — all wondering what it will mean for them.

The prospect of a Wildrose victory — the first change in government in 41 years — causes more uncertainty, raising the prospect of wholesale change in a bureaucracy that has worked under the Conservative party for decades.

"Everybody's pretty worried," said one front line worker, who declined to be identified for fear of losing her job.

"All parties have made so many expensive promises, will they balance the budgets on the back of the civil servants?"

While the Wildrose party has clear plans for a smaller bureaucracy, every new Conservative premier in the past two decades has brought change to the civil service.

Last October, with little public notice, new Premier Alison Redford let go nine deputy ministers, shuffled a handful and hired four new ones within weeks of taking over. Before her, Ed Stelmach had imposed hiring and wage freezes.

All that, of course, pales in comparison to former premier Ralph Klein's cuts in the mid-1990s, which saw 10,000 civil service jobs chopped as he set out to "re-engineer government."

The job losses had a major impact on the capital city, not to mention many families — though some workers were rehired by private companies when government work was privatized.

Guy Smith, president of Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, which represents 21,000 government workers, said his union "will build a relationship with any new government." But he cautions the next government against moving in with "wholesale change."

The AUPE leader said he's pleased that Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith promises to hire more front line workers, specifically hundreds of nurses and 100 more RCMP officers. "She recognizes the front line staff has not kept pace with population growth," he said.

But the AUPE boss also wonders where the Wildrose will cut, and said he suspects, as the Wildrose appears to, that there's fat in the management ranks.

(About 8,000 public servants, mostly managers, are not members of AUPE.)

While the Tories and Liberals talk about "finding efficiencies" in the bureaucracy or eliminating unnecessary programs, Smith told the Journal a smaller bureaucracy is "absolutely" in the works if her party wins.

But the Wildrose won't use the Klein model of swift, across-the-board cuts, she said. "We have to be more compassionate."

"We happen to have an opportunity to do this because of demographics, with so many of the baby boomer generation retiring," said Smith. Under new management structures, those people won't be replaced, she said.

Smith said she's not worried about taking over a bureaucracy some say is Tory friendly after 40 years. She is not contemplating "wholesale kind of change," because the values of the two parties are not that different, she said.

"We're talking about measures people have come to expect from governments — balanced budgets, surplus to manage and maintain a low rate of taxes," said Smith.

"Government change happens elsewhere and there is expertise across the country where they have managed this kind of change. I have no doubt there will be a lot of people who can lend a hand."

In the end, the civil service will be happier, she said, with more support on the front lines.

In the days after the election, the most vulnerable will be the powerful deputy ministers, who are appointed by cabinet.

Gary Boddez, one of the career civil servants let go in Redford's reorganization last fall, said it make sense for senior civil servants to be nervous at election time. They are key appointments made by cabinet and new faces would help a new government put its stamp on things.

"Deputy ministers have to be prepared to be moved, it's just a fact of life," said Boddez, who spent 37 years in Alberta's public service.

Cabinet ministers want trusted deputies to help devise new policies and implement change, he said.

Redford's shuffle of deputy ministers caught the civil service by surprise, according to one government insider. It wasn't just about reducing numbers, since she hired four new ones.

While deputy ministers are highly qualified professionals, it can be tough for them to find new jobs in the private sector, said one bureaucrat. Many companies that do business with government would be reluctant to hire someone the government has let go.

On the other hand, some at the senior level speculate that a Wildrose government may not make big changes initially because it will need experienced people to back up an inexperienced caucus and cabinet.

Edmonton Journal, Wed Apr 18 2012
Byline: Sheila Pratt

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