18 August 2016

The word is "curious" #nlpoli

B'y, it is really hard to call the changes announced on Wednesday as a "shake-up" of the public service or any kind of major change to anything really.

Aside from chucking a very small number of people out the door,  this change to the structure of government didn't do much of anything but leave you wondering what the point was.

There have been rumblings of these changes going back months.  Folks looking for some sort of massive shake-up in the fall might be disappointed to discover this was it.  Most likely the next big news we will get is in the budget next spring.

But let's run through Wednesday's head-shaker-upper-whatever.

In two cases - fire and emergency services and climate change - they just collapsed a separate agency and folded it into the department to which it reported any way.  No biggie.

Combining seniors with child and family services is a head-scratcher. Both departments already reported to the same minister.  But since the seniors department doesn't actually have any programs of its own,  Ball could have wiped it out altogether and replaced it with the seniors advocate.  That's what the Liberals promised in the election and it would be a way of emphasising to all departments that they should be sensitive to the needs of older Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, without the expensive and completely unnecessary trappings of a department.

In another case - forestry and agriculture - they took an agency that Ball had stuffed wackily under business development  back in December and stuffed it equally wackily into another department where half of it doesn't belong.

The food bits make sense together. In the 1990s,  there used to be a department that combined all food production into one place called Fisheries,  Food, and Agriculture.  Made sense to put everything in one spot.  All food production. And basically,  a chicken nugget and a cod nugget are pretty much the same commodity.

The tree folks used to be over in Natural Resources where they had been, basically, since the time of the Commission. The combination of trees, rocks, and oil made sense.  Putting trees with the fish and chips doesn't make any obvious policy sense.  It just seems to be a case of folding an agency into some thing for the sake of folding it all as one.

What's ironic is that the "forestry and agrifoods" combination dates from Brian Tobin's cabinet after the 1996 general election.  A stand-alone fisheries department was a political sop to guys like John Efford who got to be the minister of it.  Beaton Tulk took over forestry.  That trees and potatoes combination hung around until the Conservatives collapsed it into an agency:  something a lot less than a separate department.

For some complete nutty reason known only to the people who came up with it,  Ball's cabinet last December had the labour relations agency reporting to Perry Trimper, in a combination that otherwise included most environmental bits of government.  Putting it with advanced education and skills makes some sense, but it actually would properly belong in something like Service NL or justice for its regulatory functions.  Bit of a head scratcher but at least advanced skills makes more sense than environment.

Rolling the completely made-up and useless department of public engagement into executive council makes sense... but only if they obliterated it from the face of the Earth as part of a massive shake-up of the communications branch of government anyway. Consultation should be part of policy development handled within the line departments anyway.  This is a half step vaguely in the right direction.

Putting ATIPPA under justice sort of makes sense because it involves a law but beyond that it could have stayed in Executive Council.

Better idea would have been to create a new access to information organization with a mandate to improve ATIPPA and make it more responsive and consistent across government.  You could put somebody in charge of it  - like say Doug Letto - with the kind of profile that would emphasise the new government's commitment to public information and accessibility.

A big part of  access to information should be Open Data.  That's got huge potential both to stimulate development and save government money in the process.  It will need some serious influence behind it since most departments will just resist it on principle.  Buried as part of justice won;t give access to information the role such an approach would need and - incidentally - what the Liberal platform said it should play as part of the new administration.

As an editorial point, maybe the list of deputy ministers inexplicably included with this release should have been in order of importance or precedence rather than alphabetically by last name of the department.

And maybe it would have been an idea to actually make Dwight Ball available to explain the rationale behind these changes in his administration.  Even if he was in Labrador, they have telephones ands video and the Internet and stuff.

Without any minister to explain this release,  the media were basically left to their own devices to draw attention erroneously to John Abbott's connection to the breast cancer scandal. And the opposition had full freedom to kick the crap out of the announcements without folks even hearing from any official government spokesperson about why this was a good idea in the first place.  [Update:  Dwight Ball appeared on Thursday to explain Wednesday's news.]

All in all, shake-up isn't the right word for what happened Wednesday in government.

Curious maybe the better one.  They had a chance to score some big points and show a major change in performance to go with the supposedly big changes in people.  None of that happened so you are left wondering just what all of that was about.


Maybe things will get clearer in a few months time.


Fact Check Update:  Ball wasn't available to McLeod at the Telegram on Wednesday but did talk to CBC, VOCM and McLeod on Thursday.  (revised)

CBC says the changes that dribbled out over the past 24 hours mean that Dwight Ball has "shrunk" government by 19%.

There are almost 8,000 people in the core public service.  A 19% reduction in the size of the government would mean 1600 layoffs.  An unknown number of senior public servants lost their jobs with severance totalling less than $900K.  Only five of them were deputy ministers.
1600 layoffs would cause more than a $900K dump of severance.

So that "shrunk" comment isn't even close to true.

As we told you earlier this morning, this is a very small reduction to the over all government operation. The fact that Dwight Ball is calling it an effort to redirect savings to the front line workers everyone wants is a serious misrepresentation of what he's actually up to.

Let's put that in perspective for you.  Ball apparently said that we had a public service that could run the government of Ontario.  There are 27 ministries in the Ontario public service but a number of individuals beyond that would be earning a deputy minister's pay without actually being the DM of a department.  The same is true in this province.

The government news release here said that the five deputies dumped represented 19% of the number of DMs.  A little math tells me that we used to have 25 deputy ministers.  You can see where someone got that comparison for Ball to use.

But five people is point zero zero zero six two five (0.000625) of the total public service.  That would be 0.0625%.

Doesn't even register.

And that 900K?

Well, it represents 0.04% of the current cash deficit, not including Muskrat Falls.

SO when it comes to reducing spending to shift toward other things or deficit fighting, the changes to the public service add up to precisely two thirds of three fifths of fuck all, if you use Dwight Ball's own numbers.

And the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador still spends more per person to deliver public services than every province in the country including Alberta.  

What's Coming Update:  A lot less than it might appear or certainly than Dwight Ball is painting it. Changes to Service NL have been threatened since the spring but need legislative change to implement. As with the announcements over the past 24 hours, everything is pretty small ball/potatoes/beer.

What's curious is why they haven't been making more out of the accomplishments to date, like all-day kindergarten and school board elections.  Maybe it will come, with time.  After all, it seems Dwight has gotten over his tiff with McLeod.  Finally.