On Tooth To Tail Spending

The math is inescapable. Cutting public servants means less work will be done, argues Steve Saideman.
By: /
December 8, 2014
Harper-and-Lawson.png

A common complaint about the modern military is that far more money and personnel are part of the “tail” that supports the “teeth” — that the resources spent on those who support those in combat greatly outweigh the resources spent on those actually in combat. The Canadian mission in Iraq involves six CF-18s, two Auroras, one refueling aircraft, 69 or so Special Forces troops doing training with a total of 600 personnel. This means, roughly, that 500 members of the CF are deployed to support about 100 personnel who are actually doing stuff that is at or near the “tip of the spear.”

Despite much talk, this reality of modern warfare is not going to change. Why? Advanced weaponry needs many people dedicated to maintenance; logistics (which tends to be the thing that helps to win wars) in terms of food, water, ammunition, spare parts and all the rest involves significant numbers of personnel; staff to plan and run the effort, and on and on. When Canada sent nearly 3,000 troops to Kandahar, only a small portion went “beyond the wire.” The rest were there to support the Canadian and NATO effort, so the mythical math of the number of counter-insurgents to the population of Kandahar was always just a bit off.

Professors whine more than anyone else about the bloat of administration in universities. That more and more resources go to people who are not in the classroom and not engaged in research. The reality of modern academia is that we need more people behind the scenes than before. It used to be that instructional technology meant that few folks were dedicated to keeping the mainframe computer running. Now it means maintaining the desktops and laptops of the professors, the equipment in nearly every classroom (computer, projector, etc.), the software licenses, and on and on. Other parts of university life have also required more admin. Is there bloat? Have there been a proliferation of Vice Presidents and Vice Provosts and Associate Deans and all the rest? Certainly. But most of these people are actually doing something that is needed in a 21st century university.

Why am I going on about this? Because the focus on bureaucrats and government waste in today’s politics is very deceptive and deliberately so. The Harper government has been determined to cut the deficit (despite it being much less problematic than most modern democracies) and the size of government. This might be fine except that there are many people working in government doing stuff that the citizens want to be done.

Indeed, in pretty much any survey, the people will say: I want government to cut services but not the services that benefit me. Oh and cut taxes. How do political parties square that circle? By promising to cut waste and reduce the number of bureaucrats in government.

The problem? These people actually do stuff — like process the claims of veterans. If you cut the number of people administering those claims, then you get more delays. How do you explain that to the people? Deny, deny, deny. The math is ultimately inescapable — there might be some waste in the system, but if you significantly reduce the number of people doing government work, you have less government work being done. Which would be fine if you tell the public that the government will be doing less. This would require backtracking on promises…. And politicians hate to do that … visibly.

Today’s crisis in the Department of Veterans Affairs is not an accident, not a one-time thing, but the product of fairly deep cuts in staff. And it is not alone — other government agencies are facing significant shortages in personnel because this government is committed to a specific priority. It is fine that they have this priority — ruling parties can choose what they care about, but they have to deal with the consequences. Alienating key constituencies who are now under-served is one such consequence. The government can try to dodge the blame by referring to those administrating government programs as wasteful bureaucrats. With stories like the Department of Veteran Affairs, people may be catching on — that government workers are not simply faceless bureaucrats who can easily be cut but public servants who actually do work that the citizens value.