Our ‘Bloated’ Civil Service

It is common to see in the local press, letters-to-the-editor, or comments on website, references to ‘bloat’ in the size of the civil service in New Brunswick. Civil service ‘bloat’ is often cited as a major cause of NB’s debt and deficit. In response to demand – both from the public (i.e. the voters) and from legal obligations – local and provincial governments have certainly taken on more responsibilities over the past few decades, various social programs and health care being just two examples.

Have we in New Brunswick gone overboard? Is our civil service larger than it should be? The data don’t indicate that, at least not in comparison to other provinces.

The data below are taken from Statistics Canada Tables 281-0024 and 051-0001.  Civil servant numbers in these charts refer to those classified as Public Administration – basically those public employees located in provincial and municipal government offices/worksites around the province and involved in administration, program development and service delivery. Health care workers and educators are excluded. Data for each province for 2007 and 2011 are presented, with provincial employee data in blue and local (municipal) employee data in red. To remove the population of the province as a confounding factor, data are presented as the number of employees per 1000 residents. Place your cursor over the bars to see the actual values for each province.


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Comparisons between provinces are not straightforward since delivery of a particular service might be the responsibility of provincial governments in one region, but be the responsibility of municipalities in another. In Ontario, for example, municipalities deliver social services that in NB are provincial responsibilities. In 2011, 29% of the operating budget of London ON was for social housing, family and health services that are delivered in NB by the province. Similarly, in Kingston ON, approximately 29% of the 2011 operating budget was spent on those services.  London and other ON municipalities also pay the cost of staffing and operating their public libraries. It is likely safe to assume that at least some employees related to these services are included as public administration employees in Statistics Canada’s Table  281-0024.

Another complication is the fact that large parts of New Brunswick do not belong to any incorporated municipality but instead are formed into Local Service Districts (LSDs). These are administered by the province. Consequently, provincial employees deliver services which in other provinces are delivered by municipal employees.

Given those concerns, the fairest approach might be to look at the total of provincial and municipal employees in the public administration category as a means of comparing provinces. Totals for NB are similar to the mean for the country as a whole; New Brunswick lies in the middle of the pack.

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In comparison to most other provinces, NB appears to have kept the increase in provincial public servants (public administration category) to a modest level between 2007 and 2011. That does not suggest ‘bloat’ to me (it is more likely a response to poor revenue growth, itself a consequence of poor economic growth). While there is always room for improvement and more efficiency in government operations, the numbers suggest to me that we should look elsewhere to find the cause of NB’s current fiscal difficulties.


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