29 August 2016

Zero-based governing #nlpoli

The provincial government has been going through a spell of something called zero-based budgeting as part of its ongoing efforts to cope with the massive government financial problem.

ZBB, as it is known, examines the budget in detail, justifying each expenditure,  not just the changes from year to year that would be considered in the usual way of budgeting.  You started from a base of zero,  as the name implies.  If the government makes any changes in the budget this fall, they will be out of this ZBB approach.

When he chucked a few deputy ministers overboard a week or so ago,  Premier Dwight Ball said that these extremely small changes in the organisation of his administration came out of the realisation they had enough deputy ministers to run the Ontario government.

Quick aside:  This is a common Ball-splanation for his actions.  "We" have learned something.  They ditched Cathy Dornan as a communications advisor because "we" had learned enough so "we" didn't need her services any more.  "We can do it all in-house.  Changes in government organization:  "after seven or eight months in office,  "we" know more now than we "we" did earlier.  Just flag that whole idea in your mind.  There's an SRBP post coming on it just because it is a rather curious  - but revealing - way of looking at the world.

For our purposes, though,  let's just notice that what it obviously means is that Ball and his folks don't have anybody thinking about the basics of government organization.  They have a former ACOA boss running Government Renewal Initiative - called GRIM in-house - but whatever he is doing,  it seems to be largely an out-placement service for recently retired ACOA senior executives.

So if nobody else is doing any big picture thinking about government,  we should give it a try.
We can call it zero-based governing.  Let's take the government back to a clean sheet of paper and draw a picture of it as if we had to start it from scratch.

This would be a useful approach because the way the past couple of administrations have been tackling this,  you assume that everything the government is currently doing, is correct, right, and essential. The truth is that government is like a ship that has been adrift on the ocean for decades. The result is that what was once a small, relatively sleek machine slicing through the water is now a barnacle encrusted monstrosity bumbling along, pushed and pulled by all sorts of things in the environment. There are all sorts of bulges poking out all over the place.  While colours changed and tunnels got built connecting one bit to another,  nothing ever got dismantled or chucked overboard.

When you take that assumption in planning, you put the people looking for change on the defensive. That's the weaker spot.  You will almost inevitably wind up with much the same problem you have before.  Inertia is the most powerful force in government:  the whole thing just keeps going in the direction you set it decades earlier.  You can tell administrations tend to take this extremely cautious approach because of two things:

  1. as with Ball, the changes they make - if any - tend to be really small in relation to the size of the problem and,
  2. the problem continues, virtually unabated.
What this post will do is start with a completely different set of assumptions.  The first step in the process - the one we will actually do - is to go back and figure what does government absolutely have to do, without question, no argument. Government exists to deliver services to the public. That's it. That's the whole job. We need to identify either specifically or in broad terms what the government must do.  That's our starting point.

The next step would be to look at each of the current functions government is doing.  We would then ruthlessly apply a simple set of questions:

  • Is it one of those core functions?
  • If it is, do we need to do this in the way we have been doing it.  Is there is a simpler, more effective, less costly way?
This is actually the tough bit.  It will get a bit complicated as your ZBG team starts looking down individual corridors of government to see what is going on.  It will also get really noisy as people with a vested interest in the current situation start pressing to scuttle your process. People make a lot of money from government.  In Newfoundland and Labrador, the government plays an amazingly important role in so many parts of society and the economy that any suggestion of changes will bring screaming and shouting unlike anything you have ever seen before.  

That's why politicians with weak stomachs and weaker knees   - that is, most of them - won't even dream of doing anything but frigging at the margins, as they are doing and have been doing.  It's easier to keep things going on the same course than it is to change.  That's why even such a simple thing as a really, obviously stupid project like Muskrat Falls continues even though it threatens to bankrupt the government.  Even if it doesn't do that Muskrat Falls - which we don-t need and which is the most expensive solution to a problem that never existed - will add an unacceptable burden on ordinary residents of the province.  People will accept lies and will repeat lies in order to justify keeping Muskrat Falls going  because that is easier in their world than stopping it.

That's what makes our little exercise an exercise and not a map to what government will actually do. Still, it is useful if only because it may help understand why we are in the mess we are in.  It is also an exercise, of course, because we don;t have the space or the time to get into all the details - like the size of the expenditure in a given year and the number of public servants - that would help give shape to this sketch.   

From a Clean Sheet of Paper

All that said, let's get started.

There are three sources we could use to guide our decision about the core functions of government. The key one will be the written constitution.  But before we get to that one, let's look at what the Newfoundland government did before Confederation.  Specifically, let's see what we did during the period of self-government (1855 to 1934) and in the Commission.
Pre-Commission Newfoundland governments consisted of a handful of departments.  Richard Squires' last administration in the late 1920s and early 1930s consisted of  departments for:
  1. Finance and Customs
  2. Justice
  3. Secretary of State (Commonwealth and foreign affairs)
  4. Posts and Telegraphs
  5. Agriculture and Mines
  6. Public Works
  7. Marine and Fisheries
The names of all those departments told you generally what the government did.  One of the things you can notice right off the bat is that government itself was relatively small. The government also voted money for education and for public health, although these things didn't rank as departments in the pre-1934 government.  Many of the services now handled entirely by government employees used to be handled by the private sector in Newfoundland.

The Commission operated with a mere six departments:
  1. Finance
  2. Justice
  3. Public Health and Welfare
  4. Home Affairs and Education
  5. Natural Resources
  6. Public Utilities
Some of the big expenditures - health and education - became departments although the service continued to be delivered through the churches and charities.

All that's fine, but to find out what the government *must* do today, we need to look at the Constitution Act, 1867.  You can find a in section 92 that gives the specific responsibilities the provincial government.   The Terms of Union didn't alter those.
  1. Direct Taxation within the Province in order to the raising of a Revenue for Provincial Purposes. 
  2. The borrowing of Money on the sole Credit of the Province. 
  3. The Establishment and Tenure of Provincial Offices and the Appointment and Payment of Provincial Officers.
  4. The Management and Sale of the Public Lands belonging to the Province and of the Timber and Wood thereon.
  5. The Establishment, Maintenance, and Management of Public and Reformatory Prisons in and for the Province.  
  6. The Establishment, Maintenance, and Management of Hospitals, Asylums, Charities, and Eleemosynary Institutions in and for the Province, other than Marine Hospitals. 
  7. Municipal Institutions in the Province. 
  8. Shop, Saloon, Tavern, Auctioneer, and other Licences in order to the raising of a Revenue for Provincial, Local, or Municipal Purposes. 
  9. Local Works and Undertakings other than such as are of the following Classes:(a)  Lines of Steam or other Ships, Railways, Canals, Telegraphs, and other Works and Undertakings connecting the Province with any other or others of the Provinces, or extending beyond the Limits of the Province:  (b Lines of Steam Ships between the Province and any British or Foreign Country: (c) Such Works as, although wholly situate within the Province, are before or after their Execution declared by the Parliament of Canada to be for the general Advantage of Canada or for the Advantage of Two or more of the Provinces. 
  10.  The Incorporation of Companies with Provincial Objects. 
  11.  The Solemnization of Marriage in the Province. 
  12.  Property and Civil Rights in the Province. 
  13.  The Administration of Justice in the Province, including the Constitution, Maintenance, and Organization of Provincial Courts, both of Civil and of Criminal Jurisdiction, and including Procedure in Civil Matters in those Courts. 
  14.  The Imposition of Punishment by Fine, Penalty, or Imprisonment for enforcing any Law of the Province made in relation to any Matter coming within any of the Classes of Subjects enumerated in this Section. 
  15. Generally all Matters of a merely local or private Nature in the Province.
Section 93 makes education a provincial responsibility.

If we translate that, we get:
  1. Finance 
  2. Natural Resources
  3. Justice 
  4. Health and Public Welfare
  5. Education
  6. Municipal Affairs
  7. Public Works.
Comparing Core Functions

That gives us a good start.  We can actually compare Newfoundland government responsibilities over time if for no other reason than to make sure we haven't missed anything.

s. 92 and  93
Finance and Customs Finance Finance
Justice Justice Justice
Agriculture and Mines
Natural Resources
Natural Resources
Public Works
Public Utilities
Public Works
Posts and Telegraphs
(Public Utilities)
(Public Works)
Marine and Fisheries
(Natural Resources)
(Natural Resources)
Secretary of State
No explicit reference
Home Affairs and Education
(Public Health)
Public Health and Welfare
Health and Public welfare
Secretary of State
(Home Affairs…)
Municipal Affairs

The department titles indicated in brackets under the Commission or sections 92 and 93 show how the functions from an earlier period were/are covered under subsequent ones.  In the case of education and health for the period before 1934,  we've shown them in brackets as a way of identifying that the government funded the function even if it didn't consider the subject a matter for a government department.

tweaking the Model 

As you can see from the table,  we could put pretty well every function of a former government under one of the recent headings. Fisheries, for example, could be managed within the larger department of Natural Resources. It doesn't need to be a stand-alone department.   Natural Resources would cover all of the province's chief economic activities.

In the Step Two exercise, we might change the configuration of some departments for practical reasons. What some recent government organizations have done is grouped agriculture and fisheries under a separate department to look after food production and development.  That recognises there are some differences between trees and rocks on the one hand and vegetables and fish or cattle on the other. It also aligns those departments with federal and provincial counterparts across Canada.  On the other hand, setting out a department of fisheries plays to the sensibilities of people in that industry.  But are people in the industry concerned about appearances or substance, especially when money is tight?

On a practical level, Health and Public Welfare would be an enormous department.  You could split off the Public Welfare portions and combine what we now have in Child, Youth, and Family Services with support for indigent people and others needing similar assistance.  That would give us Health as a department and a department of Family and Social Services.

In other words,  aside from the strictly legal requirements, we might have to adjust our cabinet organization to account for practical questions like the physical size of a department.  Health currently consumes so much of the budget and accounts for the overwhelming majority of public employees. That gives the minister a disproportionate amount of power inside the government.  Such power can distort the way government functions, not to mention creating an organization that a single minister might not be able to control effectively.

We might want to be careful, though, about what extra considerations we want to allow to influence the structure and organization of government.  The provincial fisheries department is chiefly concerned with regulating fish plants and, more recently, aquaculture. That doesn't require a separate minister with a gaggle of senior executives to manage.  And these days we can't really afford to spend money on the old Frankenstein attitudes of some folks who built huge political careers on a myth of what the fishery is.

Cleaning out the hockey bag

That sort of thinking also led to the creation of all sorts of secretariats and special interest bodies in government that don't actually deliver programs to residents.   The seniors ministry or the public engagement office are excellent examples of collections of bureaucrats that existed for show, not function.  The same could be said of the women's policy office or Labrador and aboriginal affairs.

Put them through the simple two step test.  Do we need to deal with whatever these offices deal with? If no, then close them down.  If yes,  then do we need all the bureaucracy that goes with them in order to accomplish our tasks. We have to be careful here that we don't let bureaucracies define their own purpose.  They are very good at self-justification.  They can create a purpose - like running "awareness" campaigns  - and then employ everyone on the payroll to deliver it even though "awareness" campaigns are usually gigantic wastes of resources.  Just like the amount of work will expand to fill the time, so too can even the dimmest of bureaucrats make the most superfluous office in government crucial to the future of human civilization.

What you will probably find is that many of the jobs now handled by scores of bureaucrats are actually best handled by setting a policy for everyone and then following it.  Many of these secretariats and offices are supposed to be responsible for delivering services to residents of the province. Seniors. Women. Aboriginal people.  Residents of Labrador.

None of these offices actually deliver programs directly to residents.  In other words, they aren't core to government.  They are supposed to keep an eye on how the folks actually delivering the service are doing.  They are watch-dogs.  And the dogs do the watching from what is called a central agency because several departments deliver services to the specific "interest" the office represents.

See any overlap there?

There's plenty.

But are elder, aboriginal women living in Labrador materially better off today because a raft of bureaucrats in St. John's collect a tidy paycheque to look after one of their "interests"?

Probably not.

So right away we have a very good pile of candidates for elimination.  We could cut spending and, along the way, create a more effective way of ensuring that the service we get from government is meeting local needs.  People can advocate for themselves.  And if people alone can't do it,  politicians can take up their cause on their behalf.  We have a House of Assembly - after all - that is not doing half the job it could be doing.  Ultimately, we could dramatically change the political culture of Newfoundland and Labrador in a good way just by cutting the size of government.

Our Model Government Organization

Here's what our model government organization would look like:
  1. Finance and Human Resources - responsible for government revenue, including setting and collecting natural resources revenues, as well as internal budgeting, financial control, public tendering, etc
  2. Natural Resources - minerals, oil, forestry. Responsible for setting development policy, regulation of industries etc.,  Parks Service, wildlife protection
  3. Agriculture and Fisheries - regulation and development of fisheries and agricultural production
  4. Public Security and Attorney General - police,  fire,  emergency services,  Corrections Service of Newfoundland and Labrador (new Crown corporation),  Crown Prosecution Service,  with government civil legal services under the AG
  5. Health - Re-organizing the department would be one step to re-organizing how we deliver the services to make it more responsive to local needs.  
  6. Family and Social Services - 
  7. Education and Skills Development - As with health,  changing how we deliver education administratively could improve responsive to local needs.
  8. Community Affairs  and Transportation - includes sports and recreation, historic resources, 
  9. Public Works and Government Services - includes enforcement of  government regulation, external environmental regulation, labour standards, 
  10. Executive Council - co-ordination of departments,  common services,  new policy development unit,  
You'll notice pretty quickly some departments and agencies will vanish altogether.  The biggest one is the economic development ministry in all its various forms over the years.  The provincial government doesn't need to be in the business of using public funds to lure businesses to the province.  The approach doesn't work, anyway.  If the key agencies in finance and the two resource departments are doing their job properly, there isn't a business going that won't have all the incentive they need to set up here.

But hey.  This is Step One.  A detailed functional analysis in Step Two could reveal some room for further changes, making our model either small or larger.  Either way,  you will wind up with an organization that is a lot smaller than the one you have today and can't afford anyway.