By Charles Cirtwill

I have always thought that the “public” in “public services” referred to the people paying for or receiving those services. That would be you and me. Apparently, there is an alternative definition of “public”.

Just the other day, a senior public servant here in Nova Scotia informed me that a public service could only be considered a public service if it was delivered by public employees, managed by public employees, and in a facility owned by the public and operated by public employees. That is, without public servants you cannot deliver services to the public.

That is ridiculous.

Think of waste and snow removal. These are undoubtedly public services and both are delivered, in many cases, by private employees of for-profit companies. These very public services are delivered, barring an exception here and there, at a high standard for a reasonable cost. But, according to this alternative definition, because these services are not delivered by unionized public servants they are not public services.

Think of our paramedics and volunteer firefighters. In one case they work for a private company, in the other they work for no one – they are volunteers. Yet I dare say that all of us consider both of these endeavours as not only public services, but essential public services. Under the definition put forward by my partner in conversation, however, neither of these services would be public services.

The rub is that I suspect many people would agree with him. You see he was not talking about garbage collection, or snow removal, or even about paramedics or firemen, he was talking about education, public education. His definition of public education is education delivered to the public by public servants. He could just as easily have said public health care should be delivered in public hospitals run by public health professionals.

Why is it that when stated in this manner, his assertion seems more plausible to some? Is there some reason why we can accept that garbage collection, recyclables and snow removal can be delivered by the private sector, but not public services like health care and education?

Perhaps … until you remember that a large portion of our public health care is delivered by the private sector. Paramedics, as I already mentioned, are privately supplied. Home care is generally provided by private or not-for-profit companies. Family doctors are almost all private entrepreneurs, not salaried employees of the province.

Public services are delivered by private suppliers and no one notices because the services are what matter to the public, not the servants. It isn’t that public servants as individuals don’t have value. We value quite highly our nurses, doctors, volunteer firefighters, paramedics, snow plough drivers and garbage collectors. We just don’t care whom they work for.  If the unthinkable happens and firefighters ever arrive at our door, I don’t think we will be standing outside differentiating between those who work for the city and those who do not.

Yet we continue to do so in education. This places the servant ahead of the service. It assumes that either the system is more important than the people it serves or that the people can only be served by maintaining the system. It also, by the way, assumes that public servants cannot compete with alternative suppliers.

Both of these assumptions are dead wrong.

The only region of the country without some generally available, publicly funded alternative option for education is Atlantic Canada. The region of the country that routinely lags behind the rest in national and international testing, in adult literacy, and any number of other measures is Atlantic Canada. The rest of the country has figured out that where public services are concerned, it is the service, not the servant that matters and their performance certainly has not suffered as a result.

All that alternative delivery has not killed traditional public schools either. In fact, in at least one case, it has made them better. In Edmonton, private school enrolment is actually in decline – the richest families send their kids to public schools.

So this isn’t about privatizing at all costs, that would be just as wrong as arguing that public funding should never go to private suppliers. As with most good public policy, the solution is to be found somewhere between the extremes.

Charles Cirtwill is the acting President of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a non-partisan public policy think tank based in Halifax.