The words of Treasury Minister, Deputy Ian Gorst, are revealing. He said: “…the reality is, when you increase government expenditure…you tend to employ people.” There’s the story of the last 20 years, in one masterly piece of understatement.
He was commenting after the latest figures showed that the number employed by the public sector continues to go up and up – by more than a thousand since 2018 (7,012 to 8,127) – and with more of those islanders earning in the top wage bands.
Remember, that period covers Charlie Parker’s ‘change train’ which was supposed to railroad efficiency and effectiveness into the public sector, but only ended up leaving blood on the tracks.
Deputy Gorst, of course, carefully implies the growth is related to health spending - although we’ll be asking for the breakdown, as some might argue ‘support’ roles also seem to be the must-have ministerial accessory.
But setting that to one side, the point for many islanders is this. Even if we do focus on health, no one can have missed the litany of reports deeply criticising certain aspects (culture, facilities, structure, outcomes in mental health) of that service. For the avoidance of doubt this isn’t a criticism in any way of the individuals involved - we’re lucky to have them.
Pictured: the official table showing headcount in the public sector.
In response to those deeply poor reports, the government allocates more money. Of course it does. As Deputy Gorst says, that means more people; which means the wage bill goes up. But the poor reports continue almost annually, meaning so does the recruitment, and so does the spending.
And that impacts the private sector too - in an excruciatingly tight employment market, the heavy-weight prize fight between business and the government for staff forces up wages, which forces up prices to pay them - so the local pound just gets spread ever thinner.
Many people might be happy to pay more, if services were improving. Are they?
Do we get a better health service from the government today, than we did ten or twenty years ago? Technology has improved, treatments have jumped forward, and so have many outcomes. But the critical reports, and negative feedback continue, we hear it daily.
Given the public sector is bigger, and more expensive than it ever has been before - and if the government is truly the servant of the people - is it actually delivering a better service for the people it serves?
And that’s where the very simple covenant at the heart of our relationship with government can fracture. The contract, social or otherwise, is breached. We, willingly (in the most part), pay taxes, charges and fees in return for important, and often essential, services being well delivered, in an efficient way, on our behalf.
But what happens if the perception, continually reinforced by official reviews, is that the service isn’t being delivered as well as it should be?
And that meaningful, positive, change is a slow train coming.
More problems, being resolved with more spending, which drives up more costs, and creates more problems. Repeat.
It does beg the question as to where that journey is leading - and who has the courage and ability to really change the direction.