18 February 2016

Evidence-based decision-making #nlpoli

James McLeod had a tidy piece in Wednesday’s Telegram on the government’s effort to find a way of out of the financial mess. it's well worth your time.

The document McLeod got through an access to information request shows the extent to which the cabinet wants to cover all the bases in finding a way out of the province’s current mess.  The document, which we already knew about,  tells government officials to look not only at what they are currently doing but also how they are doing it.

What comes back to cabinet for discussion should be as wide a range of options as possible.  It’s precisely how the government should be tackling the problem it faces, despite what the Premier’s out-to-lunch messaging has suggested.

A couple of weeks ago, SRBP talked about some of the bad ideas that have come forward.  Centralisation was supposed to save money and improve the way government delivers services. It didn’t work, as labradore noted a couple of years ago.

The concept was right.  The idea was that as the number of school-aged children declined, we could reduce the number of teachers, the number of schools and the overall cost of education.  What went wrong was the execution.  People pressured politicians not to close schools for every reason other than ones that had to do with the education of their children. 

More recently,  the politicians found that having lots of people working in education, despite the declines in enrolment,  meant more votes in the ballot box. All those people spending money made the economy in many parts of the province look much healthier than it was.

A lot of what happened over the past decade was about illusions and inflated government spending played a big role in making things appear to be much better than they actually were.  Not surprisingly, the province’s auditor general didn’t have a lot to say about how we got into the current mess when he spoke to a crowd over at the university’s economics department. 

That’s because before he was auditor general, Terry Paddon was the deputy minister of finance during the period of massive spending growth.  Now that he’s the AG, the best Paddon can do is offer a few penetrating insights into the obvious. The government has a big financial problem now that the oil money and the Ottawa hand-outs are gone.  It needs to take some dramatic action. Blah.  Blah.  Blah.

If the current crowd of politicians and bureaucrats can get it right,  there’s a good chance they can undo the mess the former crowd, including Paddon, managed to make of things.  They might be able to make decisions based on evidence.  Health minister John Haggie gave a good sign of that on Wednesday during an interview with CBC Radio.  he said he’d told his officials to focus on what it takes to deliver care to patients.  That’s the kind of focus needed.

The current crowd would also do well to heed their requirement for evidence to support decisions.  One of the best sources of evidence would be the population changes. The most recent numbers show declines in every census division except St. John’s.

The stark reality of the near future is that many communities on the island likely won’t exist 10 years from now. Demographic change plus the financial bind means we need to change a whole range of services we deliver in rural Newfoundland and Labrador.  We cannot afford to nurse delusions any more.  In some areas, we will have to consolidate schools,  change transportation like ferries,  or look at delivering other services differently from the way we do know.

We also don’t have to cut equally everywhere.  We can safely eliminate some departments,  secretariats, and offices without adversely affecting government services.  Public Engagement is a good example, but we could also ditch Labrador and aboriginal affairs and the Research and Development Corporation without a problem.

In other examples, government agencies could radically alter their current operations.  College of the North Atlantic exists largely as an economic prop in many communities.  CNA could close many of its campuses and consolidate in major centres, with the possibility of offering distance education where necessary.  The result would be better service, likely at a significantly lower cost.

There are plenty of ways the government can deal with its  financial problems while not only preserving but, in some instances, enhancing the quality of public service. We actually don’t need to eliminate services as the government “engagement” process supposes.  We also should not give the hysterical screaming from the public sector unions a moment’s notice.

What we should do is notice that the document James McLeod obtained suggests that the cabinet has taken a very practical approach to a very difficult problem.  That bodes us all very well for the province in the future.