06 March 2013

Budgeting Control and Resources #nlpoli

Shortly after the 2003 general election, the newly elected Conservative politicians accepted a proposal to cut down the number of health boards and education boards across the province.

Save money, they said.

Save money, the politicians repeated.

And so it happened.

As it turned out, the consolidation didn’t save any money.  It certainly didn’t reduce the public service payroll, a goal the Conservatives set out in their election platform.

labradore has done the province one of his usual fine jobs of reminding everyone just how the consolidation of education boards didn’t live up to the claims made for it. “To gain efficiencies in administration” is how the education minister  at the time - John Ottenheimer  - put it in March 2004. Fewer students, projected decline in enrolment by 2011 and all that, you know. 

Now here we are about 10 years later. 

The government is in a financial crisis.

This time it is real.

This time it is entirely of their own making.

And  - poof! – there is the talk of amalgamating school boards again.  Education minister Clyde Jackman told the central Newfoundland CBC Morning Show that his officials have spoken to the boards to find “efficiencies.”  Jackman talked about it but stressed that the cabinet hadn’t made any final decision yet.  He did acknowledge that officials had held some discussions about the idea. Jackman also talked about declining enrolment and the chance to save some money in one spot and put it toward the “front line.”

There’s no surprise that the earlier amalgamation didn’t save any money.  Nor is it surprising that the politicians and bureaucrats use the very same words as they did in 2004 to talk about pushing together more bits of the system.

In case you haven’t seen the pattern yet, take a look at a quiet announcement last Friday that the advanced education department would change how it spends about $14 million to help people find jobs.  According to the official news release, the department was using a “new model” in a “re-investment”.

As it turns out, all that language means that potentially several hundred people working in communities across the provincial will be out of work themselves.  In some parts of the province, the local not-for-profit was the only organization doing the work.

The provincial government decided to stop using not-for-profit organizations.  In future, they’ll use only people who work directly for the provincial government.

Now before you go any further just think about the claims for efficiency and consider why many of these not-for-profits got government cash in the first place.  A good example is the John Howard Society.  They help ex-convicts find jobs once they’ve left prison.  The John Howard Society is especially good at dealing with a specific group of people who have some pretty specific issues in finding work.  The government decided to fund the Society years ago because it was the best way to help people.  As a not-for-profit, the Society could accomplish more with a given amount of cash than just about any other organization could including government itself.  That’s a model of efficiency and effectiveness if ever you wanted one.

What the advanced skills department will now do is treat all job-seekers the same.  One stop shopping is how the department has described it.  Normally that means different services are offered in one spot for the convenience of customers.  In this case, one-stop shopping isn’t about the shopping at all.  It’s about the “selling” part of that retail metaphor.  In future, the department will treat all potential job seekers are the same with the same issues and the same needs.

At a speech on the west coast of the island on Tuesday,  advanced skills minister Joan Shea told a business audience that she was confident the people in her department could handle the extra work.  That was never really a factor in the decision but it gives you a good clue as to the way people like the minister approached this decision. 

This decision about job centres was never about providing service to people in a way that works for them.  It was about doing things in a way the department wanted, and more particularly about who controlled everything.  In advanced skills as in education as in other departments, the 2013 budget decisions will concentrate more and more control of resources in the hands of departmental bureaucrats.

That’s really all the 2013 budget will be about.