Be civil to our Civil Service
“There is no greater challenge and there is no greater honour than to be in public service” — Condoleezza Rice, former US Secretary of State
I often read online and social-media comments regarding the call for civil servants' wages and salaries to be slashed or for massive reductions in the size of the government workforce. There has been this constant drumbeat for years, and it is growing much louder now that we are going to have to come to terms with the economic fallout from Covid-19.
We saw this subject rear its head last week with the views expressed by former finance minister Bob Richards, who believes the time has come to reduce civil servants' salaries. And then we saw the expected robust defence of its members by Bermuda Public Services Union president Armell Thomas.
The online and Facebook comments on this article maintained the consistently vitriolic and polarising views that it always has, and there appears to be no end in sight.
Civil servants and public officers are paid from the public purse for providing and delivering services that are needed for our residents. They educate our children, collect and burn our trash, pave our roads, collect our duties and tax, provide facility management and many other services.
These services provide for the smooth running of our country and are just as valuable as what the private contractor and other private businesses provide to our island. In fact, civil servant administration is the backbone of the economy that allows the country to operate effectively for the private sector to pursue profitable business operations.
Often and unfortunately, public officers are viewed and commented on as employees that simply live off the public purse and are glorified welfare recipients. However, when this narrative is provided, the predictable outcome will be a battle and clash with irreconcilable differences.
Civil servants do not have stock options, they do not profit share with their employer — the Government — and they are paid considerably less than their private-sector counterparts.
Government lawyers, teachers, officers, masons and administrative assistants are paid substantially less than these same occupations in the private sector. Therefore, it is understandable why there is resentment at the constant narrative that they should automatically take a pay cut when the Government's funds decline.
The debate starts off on the wrong foot and then it descends into antagonistic and even vitriolic language with no end in sight.
When the Government faces revenue shortfalls, it has options. It can raise revenue via taxation or reduce spending. The latter usually starts with penalising civil servants. This is understandable given that the payroll of civil servants makes up the greatest expense of the Government — or most businesses, for that matter.
However, there are other alternatives. The Government can also put more emphasis on raising revenues. It can do this via an income tax that everyone should bear which distributes the burden in a sensible way and across the board to public and private employees.
I recognise this makes everyone uncomfortable, especially as our tax structure is designed to incentivise high-net-worth earners to come to our shores to work. It has always been viewed as sacred ground to even consider this; however, we all will agree that in these unprecedented times, unprecedented solutions are demanded.
Our government has had a poor record of embarking on profitable ventures that grow the economy. We spend far too little time in this area as a potential solution to assist our regressing economy. Ironically, our attention has always been on options that ultimately will cause the economy to shrink.
We do, however, excel and thrive at forming committees, undertaking feasibility studies and compiling the same reports over and over that sit on bookshelves only to collect dust. If ever there was a time to stop this trend, that time is now.
The economy has undoubtedly flatlined. At the end of April, we have had more than 25 per cent of our working population apply for unemployment assistance. Tourism and the hospitality industry are all but lost, with flights grounded and cruise ships docked.
International business has now become our one-legged stool by default and this should be considered unacceptable to our leadership. It is not good for Bermuda or even international business because it is a recipe for economic, social and political instability.
If the Government is going to reduce spending, a reduction of services will have to be looked at. In addition, privatisation of services is another option that could be explored. Providing the incentive for present employees to become the owners of these new private companies with a long-term contract is also a potential solution.
The last thing that an ailing and shell-shocked economy needs at this time is a further reduction of governmental employment or a reduction of their disposable income. There are many employees, in the government and private sector, who are already struggling. Even if this is unavoidable, it should not be always the no-brainer first resort or the first automatic conclusion.
The issue of civil servant redundancy is an entirely different issue and should not be mixed in the same boat as austerity. The Government as an employer — if it does not require a service to be provided by its employees or has to decide if it can still afford the service — must make a management decision based on the priority of policy decisions.
Furlough days has been floated recently. The last time we saw furlough days, it came with less than a 5 per cent reduction of pay for civil servants. It also came with the Government negotiating a 10 per cent reduction for the price of goods at the grocery stores.
Voluntary redundancy was also offered and accepted by more than 600 employees. In addition, our political leaders at the time took a 10 per cent reduction in their salary. We should hope that any potential reduction in governmental salaries comes with similar reductions in the amounts paid for their main expenses as well.
Bermuda, this subject is very difficult even in the best of times. It demands from our leadership a skilful, multifaceted approach with clearly defined goals. Addressing it effectively at this time would go a long way towards getting us out the economic crunch we find ourselves in.
• Vic Ball was a One Bermuda Alliance senator from November 2014 to July 2017