14 July 2005

Doug House's nail clippings: new business DM a waste of provincial cash

While it has been on the books since last year, with one full-time senior employee and an acting deputy minister (until yesterday), try and find some information about the Department of Business, headed by Premier Danny Williams.

I dare you.

On the government website, in the departments and agencies section, isn't a single mention of the department.

Not one.

If you go to the front page and click on the Premier's link, you'll find his smiling mug staring back at you but nary a word about the department he heads.

Here's what the department does, according to the release announcing Leslie Galway's plum new job:

"The Premier said the Department of Business, in close collaboration with the Department of Innovation, Trade and Rural Development, will take a leadership role in building a competitive economy that is driven by private sector firms operating in all regions of the province. Reporting to the Premier, the deputy minister provides executive leadership and advice regarding governments agenda and its policies and programs, in order to foster business success in the province."


Now go back to the release, take a look at Galway's bio and see if you can match the two up.

When you have taken the two seconds to spot the big gaps, go back to hunting for information on the department.

There isn't much.

My favourite place for government information is the budget. Let's see what cash has been allocated, since there must be approval from the House before money gets spent.

The title page of the budget entry for the Department of Business says this:

"The Department of Business is responsible for providing leadership and coordination across Government departments and Crown agencies to promote business development and good business relations. This includes overseeing the design and coordination of broad business development policies and the coordination of common business-related and marketing activities, particularly at the national and international level.

The Department has a particular focus on working with the private and public sectors to develop strategic plans and policies for creating a competitive investment climate in the Province and for leading targeted business attraction and investment prospecting initiatives in key sectors of the economy."

Notice the difference between what Liz Matthews put in the Galway release and what the House of Assembly was told last year. We aren't talking about national and international level marketing activities any more. Maybe the role of the department has been shifting with the sands of fortune. Maybe the government priorities have been shifting.

But anyway, we are finally starting to hit some solid information.

Turn to the next page of Budget 2005 and you start to see some curious things:

The Minister's Office is funded with $45, 000 in transportation and communications and $5,000 in pens, paper and stationery. The Premier is the Minister. He already has a big office and a big budget.

So what's the 45K for travel doing parked over here? Accountability you say? Piffle says me. The Premier can easily account for his travel allocations without having to set aside a specific amount of cash. When his budget is presented to the House, his Clerk can tell the members how the cash is split up. Case closed.

Slide across with your finger and notice that out of last year's allocation, the Prem spent all of $10, 000 last year from this allocation. If we are still in hard times why did he allocate the same amount again? Cut it back I say to the amount needed.

Next item is executive support (the bit where Leslie goes). There's $381, 100 for everything from salaries to travel to pens. But the whole executive group: deputy minister, assistant deputy etc, only get $26, 000 for travel compared to double that for The Boss. Hmmmmm.

Then we get to the biggest line item so far: something called "strategic planning and communications" with a budget of $493, 900. That's funding the so-called branding piece that has been whispered about all over town but few people know about.

The initial market research to support it was done last year by Noel O'Dea and Target Marketing. There was no tender for the contract; Treasury Board exempted it from the usual process. The contract was worth about $98, 000.

In the meantime, the province's senior communications officer - assistant secretary to cabinet Denis Abbott - was the point-of-contact for the ad soliciting bids on actually running the ad campaign. No word on who submitted a bid or where the process is, but it will likely be a major piece. I'd expect to see upwards of several million dollars spent on "branding" the province over the next few years.

The natural choice for the work would be Target, which is so good that to call it world-class (the favourite claim of posers) would be an insult to the team Noel leads. McCain. Air Canada. The Irvings. North Atlantic refining. All Target stuff.

There may be some pressure to give the job to Craig Tucker and the bunch at M5. Tucker helped Danny get elected and M5 has done a fine job with the New Brunswick tourism account, one of their major pieces of business.

Last thing in the budget is the half million in cash allocated for business attraction. I gather this is the actual campaign that will be mapped out in strategic planning bit.

This little rump of a department is basically all cash, with very little in the way of management and staff. Lean is the way to go, after all, especially compared to other government departments.

But, our little stroll through the government website in search of what Leslie Galway will be doing to fill up her days, has yielded very little of consequence. We can't even find a definitive statement of the department's purpose.

I am still wondering why there is a separate department at all whose sole job seems to be the same business promotion that was done extremely effectively in the old Industry department. It needed to be refreshed and renewed, but that wouldn't need a whole new department. As part of InTRD, there would be another $400,000 going to project delivery instead of salaries in the new department. That's lean and efficient.

Consider too that when it comes to "a leadership role in building a competitive economy that is driven by private sector firms operating in all regions of the province", there's no better person for the job than Doug House who literally wrote the book on the subject and then put the book to practice as head of the Economic Recovery Commission.

There's more knowledge of the province's business sector and business development in sociologist Doug House's nail clippings than in every inch of most accountants I know.

He's already working for Kathy Dunderdale over at Innovation, Trade and Rural Development, the department that used to own Leslie's budget.

Why not just give Doug two jobs?

I am open to suggestions.