12 April 2018

The Stunnel report and public policy in Newfoundland and Labrador politics #nlpoli

The "pre-feasibility study update" released on Wednesday into a fixed link across the Straits to Labrador (a.k.a The Stunnel) is a really good example of how the provincial government in Newfoundland and Labrador tackles policy problems and why it keeps making bad decisions.

One way to think about "policy" is problem-solving. We have a problem and the policy is how we are going to solve it. We can look at it as the way of changing a situation that is causing an issue or may cause an issue.

There are some sensible steps to figuring out the right "policy" and they all start with figuring out what the problem is. Once you know what the problem is, you can figure out what your goal is. Now that you have a start point and an end point, you can figure out the policy, which is the way you get from where you are to where you want to be.

After you get the start and the goal, usually, it's a good idea to look for alternatives. Slap 'em all on the page, no matter how crazy.

Figure out what resources you have.

Then you start evaluating the options you have come up with. You can cross some off because they would take too long, create other problems, take more resources than you have, and so on.

Once you have taken off the obviously unattainable ones, you can start looking more closely at the ones you have left. That's when you would look at which of them is feasible.

If you wrote the steps down they might look like this. This list doesn't cover all the steps and other people may have better ones. At step seven you'd actually have a bunch of other bits since this is the part where the other 90% of the work is to go with the 90% you have already done. There are eight steps in the list we are using here.
  1. Current Situation (where we are now/what is wrong)
  2. Options
  3. Assess resources (some might suggest to do this before thinking of options)
  4. Narrow list (toss out the obviously unworkable ideas)
  5. Detailed review of viable ideas
  6. Select Option
  7. Act - that is, implement the choice
  8. Reach the goal

So where does this pre-feasibility study go? 

Arguably at Stage 6 since government has apparently already decided to spend more money (20-30 million) on a "feasibility" study.

But what problem are we trying to solve? Is it about the Gulf ferry? Is it about the STraits ferry? 

Maybe the solution is to change the ferry system. After all, we didn't seem to have as many problems with the old fleet as the new one. Maybe we need to get the feds to buy new ships. Maybe we need to turn the Gulf service to the private sector.

Is the fixed link about making it easier for people to get from the southeast coast of Labrador to the island and vice versa? Maybe we need a new ferry for that run.

Leaving aside the enormous problems with the "pre-feasibility" study itself, we are actually way ahead of ourselves. Government is spending money and getting people both excited and frightened without even considering the Stunnel itself might well be the last thing we need to do because there are cheaper options to fix a problem we aren't even sure we have or what it looks like.

Muskrat Falls came out of the same way of thinking. Nalcor never evaluated options to provide domestic supply cheaply and effectively. They decided (with lots of political backing) to build the dams (initially) and then proceeded from there. Everything after that was a rationalization to the goal of building the dam, no matter what.

The Stunnel is a goal in itself. Everything else has just been a rationalization for building it. We have no idea why we need to build it, what other choices there are, or if any of them make sense, let alone whether they are affordable.

And yet the government is now looking to Ottawa for cash, apparently.

Muskrat Falls isn't the only thing the government has done this way.

It was just the most recent thing in a long line of things, large and small, done the same way that have gone off the rails and yet we never seem to have learned from our mistakes.

That's what the Stunnel seems to show, more than anything else.