02 February 2010

Delusion or Disconnect? Overtime

“The Williams Government has been unwavering in its commitment to managing provincial programs, services and financial resources in a responsible and prudent manner.”


“Sound governance and responsible management have been the cornerstones of how our government runs the affairs of the province and administers programs and services to meet the needs of our residents."


That’s easy enough to write in a release, but it sure doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. 

Take, for example, the issue of overtime which led off pretty well every conventional news story on the Auditor General’s report released last week.

The coverage and commentary thus far took cues from the Auditor general and focused on some fairly simple and obvious points. Overtime both in its paid and time-off varieties has mushroomed  - up 55% - since 2001.

That’s despite the work of a committee struck in 2001 to come up with ways of controlling overtime. The climb has been steepest since 2004 when the current crowd of sound fiscal managers took over and started spending public cash in what Paul Oram and other cabinet ministers have described since as an unsustainable manner. 

The official response: these people are making way more money than before, there may be problems recruiting in some cases and the work demands for public safety all may make it necessary to run up the over-time bill.

That first one would matter if the amount was the concern. 

It really isn’t, though, if you look beyond the simplistic stuff the AG fixated on and look at the rates of change for specific departments.  It’s easy to focus on  Works and Transportation but the change in overtime paid out has actually been relatively modest.  It’s gone from $9.3 million to about $11.9 million in a little less than a decade.

But what about Executive Council and Finance?


The numbers there show stunning increases:  from $74,000 to $602,000 in Finance and comparable jumps – on the order of nine or 10 percent  - in Executive Council. The explanations offered for the transportation or Justice departments’ overtime expenses just don’t apply here.

They also don’t fit with the pattern for most of the departments listed on page 12 of that section of the AG report.  The changes, over time, just don’t match that rate of increase.  Even in Justice, the overtime paid out in 2008 is only slightly less than three times higher than that paid in 2000. That’s bigger than it should be but the amount is potentially justified – pardon the pun – if there are issues of staffing or public safety involved in some years.

The sort of comparison done here – as relatively unsophisticated as it is – just can’t be found in the AG report.  There is much talk of amounts and the shares of the total held by one department or another.  But at no point does the AG zero in on the departments which seem to have some fairly obvious problems and ones that have – on the face of it – much more significant implications for management or the manageability of the problem.

If a department has a fairly consistent amount of overtime, then that’s one thing.  But if the amount starts small and then grows exponentially?  Well, that suggests there are people problems or an organizational problem that needs to be addressed with something more substantial than the “keep an eye on things” advice coming from the AG report.

You might forgive the Auditor General for the simplistic approach to this issue taken in the report if the amount of overtime accumulated through the “time-off in lieu of” system  - called TOIL - wasn’t equally as dramatic as the paid overtime in a couple of cases as well.


That chart isn’t distorted.  Finance went from a TOIL of $68,000 in Fiscal Year 2000 to almost $1.1 million in FY 2008. Justice numbers are about the same.  TOIL is time off in lieu of overtime.

What makes these numbers stand out all the more is the comparison with departments where you might expect the overtime bill to be huge. 

Take Health, for example.  Big department.  Plenty of demands.  However, both the TOIL and paid overtime costs in the study period remained about what they were before.  Now the paid overtime numbers for Health fluctuated wildly over time, but they did not experience the sort of dramatic sweep upward seen with the departments noted here.  And in the case of TOIL, the Health tally was about $27,000 for 2008 compared to $25,000 about a decade ago.

It would take way more information that the AG makes available to figure out why these three departments are experiencing the rather dramatic changes in overtime over time.  As a result, it would be hard to say what is causing the problems and therefore make some useful suggestions on how to fix things. 

One thing that is for certain, the AG report makes some pretty lame recommendations that don’t really amount to much.  Tracking the overtime and making sure it is warranted both count as penetrating insights into the managerially obvious and they are about as useless an exercise as faking your own recommendations.