23 June 2008

The disproportionate growth of central agencies

Going through Change and Challenge and working up the slides to accompany it prompted your humble e-scribbler to do a little comparison with the current day situation.

For example, there's a chart in Chapter Three (still in the works because of the slides) which shows each department as a percentage of overall capital and current account spending in the provincial budget.

A quick flip to the current budget showed the same break down of information. Make some minor adjustments for changes in some departments over the past 16 years and - vie-oh-la - there is a chart.

Bear in mind that in 1992, the provincial government's total budget was $3.5 billion. This year the combined capital and current account budget is over $6.5 billion.

For those who don't want to click and see a larger version, the chart shows figures - from left to right for - Education, Health, Justice, Social Services, Consolidated Fund Services (debt management), Executive Council, Finance, House of Assembly, Works, Services and Transportation, Development, Environment and Labour, Fisheries and Natural Resources.

Right away, you can see some fairly obvious things. Education takes up a relatively smaller portion of the budget today than it did 16 years ago. Health, on the other hand is obviously a larger share. Development - which from the current budget includes Business, INTRD and Tourism has dropped as a share of the budget. Natural Resources - mines and energy, forestry and agriculture has a larger share of the budget today than it did 16 years ago. CFS is significantly lower today as a share of the budget than it used to be.

Let's put some values on those numbers. CFS took up 15.3% of the 1992 budget; today it's 8.3%. health has gone from 25% of the budget to 36.2%. Development spending is half what is used to be, as a percentage of total budget spending. Fisheries is about one third what it used to be.

Take a look, though, at the two in the middle: Executive Council and Finance, the latter including Treasury Board. Those two are so-called central agencies. They co-ordinate or oversee the others.

Executive Council has gone from taking up one half of one percent of the 1992 budget to 1.8% today. Finance has gone from 1.5% to 4.0%. The growth in those two agencies dwarfs the relative growth of the others.

At this point, there's no way of determining what this means. It just becomes an interesting artifact; something to provoke further examination.

If the provincial government were following trends supposedly taking place elsewhere, such as in Saskatchewan by one account, one might expect to see something other than a trebling of spending on the Executive Council. Allowing line departments and deputy ministers to manage departments, co-ordinate with other departments on related issues and resolve inter-departmental disputes among themselves would require additional resources than what was available 16 years ago.

By the way, at this point you can pretty much rule out annual inflation as the cause of the growth here. Normal inflation wouldn't account for the change as a percentage over overall spending. Esecially in a situation where the budget has doubled, you'd pretty much have to increase spending on that particular agency to drive the share from 0.5% to 1.8% in 16 years. As a test, consider that the House of Assembly today has more statutory offices reporting to it directly than it did 16 years and yet its share of the budget is virtually the same.

On the face of it, the disproportionate growth of central agencies demonstrated by the table above does conform to Donald Savoie's description of government trends in his most recent book Court government and the collapse of accountability. Savoie contends, among other things, that since the 1970s the size of and influence of central agencies has grown. There are several reasons for the growth including increased centralization of decisionmaking in the first minister's office and the related cabinet office.

Leaving aside Savoie's provocative title, there seems to be some confirmation of his argument. The other point of view, from former Saskatchewan Premier Alan Blakeney (link above), doesn't match with what the table here appears to suggest.