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Sunday, July 5, 2015

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In praise of civil servants

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In this age of cutting jobs in the public civil service, both provincially and federally, I thought it was time to look at the reasons why we have civil servants, and what, if anything, our tradition offers to the discussion.

Full disclosure: for more than 20 years I was a Jewish civil servant, at Hillel, then Canadian Jewish Congress’ Pacific region (alas, no longer in existence, a development worthy of an article all on its own), then with the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver. I dabbled in the public sphere, working for the Vancouver Health Board in one of its iterations, as well as other non-profits.

Let’s look at what the bureaucracy does for us as citizens.

Start with the minister – any minister. They get placed in a portfolio about which they may know nothing – who can’t think of a multitude of examples? Usually, a portfolio is awarded not for the expertise of the person receiving it, but for the political reward (or punishment) it represents. Far down the rung are things such as multiculturalism and status of women, or family and child services (in a provincial career-killing portfolio) and of course aboriginal affairs.

The high-status stuff? Foreign affairs, treasury or defence, except for those planes and submarines, which have large albatrosses painted on their sides.

Who, then, is in charge of the store, making sure that the ministry runs smoothly, on a time track and within budget, delivering the services we expect in return for our taxes? Who labours to preserve the environment, look after children and families in crisis, make sure that our roads, parks, and other amenities are properly shepherded? Civil servants, who know the ministry and can make sure things get done.

When less gets allocated, less gets done. With less, you can only do less.

I look at the current call for slimming, or in some cases, gutting the federal civil service, and I note that most of it currently focuses on things like the environment, services benefiting more vulnerable populations, and “frills” such as national archives and parks. After all, who cares about the nation’s history or Canada’s green and pleasant land when there’s oil to be routed, mines to be dug, rivers to dam, planes to fly?

And for a government that says, “We don’t govern by statistics,” I guess there’s little need for Statistics Canada.

But I’m here to write about Jewish Canadian issues. Well, the environment, water, trees, animals, people with needs, our history, and information about these things are a concern for us as Jewish citizens of Canada.

As a community civil servant, I was mentored by people who cared deeply about the Jewish community. They also cared deeply about the welfare of the general community and the health of the state. They saw that we have an obligation that goes beyond our own interests and extends outward to the people, air and water all around us. If one part of that whole becomes stunted or ill, it infects the entire body of the greater community.

As Jewish bureaucrats, we were fortunate to have many volunteers to work with. Government services don’t have that luxury. It’s up to the civil servant to do her master’s bidding, but it’s the responsibility of the worker to make sure the minister (or deputy, more often) has the tools to make good decisions. And it’s the responsibility of elected officials to know how to use the continuing expertise of the bureaucrats wisely, so that the citizens benefit from the workings of government.

So let’s not dump on the bureaucrats, or toss them out like last year’s phone book. Without them, we’d be sunk in short order.

“Rabban Gamliel, son of Rabbi Judah Hanasi taught: … All who work for the community should do so for the sake of heaven, for their ancestral merit will support them, and their righteousness endures forever.” (Pirkei Avot 2:2)

The rabbi meant, of course, the Jewish community. But let’s not forget that Judah Hanasi worked very closely with the Romans, to the benefit of his people.

And should we want to extend it to today’s very ramified community structures, give the civil servants their due. Without them, we would be a poorer, less well-served, nation, ignorant of our past and our present. Believe me, civil servants earn their salaries and more.

This column appears in the may 17 print issue of The CJN

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