Ottawa View: `Bureaucrats’ launch campaign to save jobs

This column, serving as Strategy's window on Ottawa, looks at emerging issues, practices and trends in federal government communications.'Lazy bureaucrat' is an epithet that has, over the past decade, tripped with increasing frequency off the tongues of the Great Unwashed.Thanks, in...

This column, serving as Strategy’s window on Ottawa, looks at emerging issues, practices and trends in federal government communications.

‘Lazy bureaucrat’ is an epithet that has, over the past decade, tripped with increasing frequency off the tongues of the Great Unwashed.

Thanks, in part, to those acrimonious postal strikes of the mid-1970s, the public has, over the years, come to view government workers as overpaid, underworked ingrates.

Federal ‘bureaucrats’ (the very word now reeks of derision) have been battling this poor image ever since.

The Tories only worsened the situation by joining the chorus and pandering to public opinion by treating public servants less as assets, than as bloated budgetary line items.

This, at least, is the position of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, which represents about 170,000 federal civil servants.

With the Liberals reportedly about to announce major program cuts, it has, in what amounts to a desperation move, launched a $500,000 publicity campaign to save jobs.

Called ‘In the Public Interest,’ and running throughout September and October, the main message is that when public services are cut, everyone loses. With limited funds, the campaign is relying heavily on the old ‘multiplier effect.’

The strategy, as described by psac Communications Director Alan Pryde, is intelligent: buy bus and billboards in high traffic areas where a high concentration of members work, use promotional material (including fans that were distributed at the 1994 Commonwealth Game in Victoria, exclaiming ‘I’m a Public Service fan’), and produce a magazine with credible contributors (economist Mike McCracken is one), for distribution in key federal ridings.

Then work the media for as much free publicity as possible.

So, news conferences prominently featuring the outdoor creative are being held, and photo-ops are planned with high profile activists delivering magazines door to door.

Coverage generated from the recent rejection of bus ads by transit commissions in Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver, for example, fit perfectly into the game plan.

* * *

Well-intentioned and well-organized, there is only one problem with the campaign; it’s doomed to fail.

Everyone is screaming about the deficit.

Government programs will undergo major cuts. While jobs may account for less than 8% of total government spending, many will be lost.

Given this, inevitably, the psac has had to do something. It can’t strike, and, in the current economic climate, it can’t whine about cuts and freezes.

Last-gasp effort

This campaign is a last-gasp effort to convince people of the unseen benefits of a healthy sized public service. It also sends a message to members that the psac is defending its interests.

All, however, is not hugs and brotherly kisses. There are problems.

For example, each government job category below senior management must belong to a union. Information Services (is) (most Strategy readers deal with people in this category) belong to the psac.

Many detest the tactics of their own union. They are seen as archaic, tub-thumping, confrontational and inflammatory.

psac material routinely insults the government in power. Those offended by this can do little. By law, they must pay membership dues.

Organizing a change in union, as members of the is category recently tried and failed to do, is time-consuming and unrewarding.

There are also geographic splits. Ottawa-based members are far less pleased with the psac’s approach than are their further-flung counterparts. Many refuse to participate in strike activities.

As a result, at a recent general meeting in Montreal, delegates agreed that if members crossed psac picket lines in future, they would be treated as scabs and sued. Not exactly Solidarity Forever.

Government employees are in a vice, squeezed from the top by cost-cutting politicians, and, from the bottom, by a hostile public which, thanks to cutbacks, is waiting longer in lineups, talking to machines instead of people, and seeing less value for the tax dollar.

No amount of campaigning will change this.

Deadwood remains

Deadwood definitely remains in the federal system. Longevity still rivals merit as a criterion for advancement.

Although the tune has been sung for years, managers do need more power to manage.

While the psac’s plea for big government is unsaleable, I hope the cynicism that diminishes a calling that was once considered honorable can and will be overcome.

Nigel Beale is president of Nigel Beale and Associates, a communications firm, and operates the Ottawa offices of News Canada, a news distribution service. Reader feedback is encouraged and Beale can be contacted at (613) 563-3300 (phone); (613) 563-2245 (fax.)