Race to the bottom

Who says I'm not happy?

Who says I’m not happy?

In his forthcoming book, What is Government Good At?, the University of Moncton’s Donald Savoie – one of New Brunswick’s leading public intellectuals – properly laments the erosion in Canada’s public services.

“Government is now a big whale that can’t swim, that can’t keep up with the fast-changing global economy,” he writes in a recent commentary for the Globe and Mail. “It has too many management layers, too many oversight bodies and too many public servants generating performance reports that feed a fabricated bottom line that has no footing.”

Dr. Savoie, the Canada Research Chair in Public Administration and Government at UdeM, adds, “government is now also home to too many conflicting goals and has piled on too many activities on top of one another. In the process, it has lost sight of its core responsibilities, including managing effectively a regulatory regime that not only is able to set standards, but also to make sure that they are respected, as Lac-Mégantic so clearly demonstrated. Notwithstanding high-profile program reviews, the government still relies on across-the-board cuts to control spending.”

Apart from this, and probably more troubling, “When it comes to managing operations, the Canadian government has lost ground. Contrary to the private sector and given the centralization of power around the Prime Minister, government managers have learned the art of delegating up rather than down. Too many decisions, including purely management ones, end up with the Prime Minister and his courtiers.”

None of which is especially new to veteran watchers of the politics-as-crowd-control shenanigans on Parliament Hillywood in recent years. But Dr. Savoie raises points that need to be screamed, repeatedly, from the rooftops of every outpost of democracy that can be located in the Canadian hinterland.

On the other hand, observing what the federal government – indeed, most, if not all, governments – are good at these days might serve the thesis just as well.

If, for example, they are becoming less-than-skilled managers of their own policies and programs, they remain extraordinarily competent manipulators of their public image, especially in years when an election looms.

“Canada’s Economic Action Plan (EAP) is working,” the government web site blares. “Since the recession, over 1.2 million net new jobs have been created. EAP 15 builds on this record of achievement with positive measures to create jobs, growth and long-term prosperity.”

What’s more, “EAP 2015 continues the Government’s focus on lowering taxes for Canadian families. New measures in EAP 2015 will help Canadians save more, make it easier for seniors to preserve more of their retirement savings, and give families greater peace of mind. . .(It) will lower taxes for businesses even further and encourage job-creating investment in Canada by encouraging investment in manufacturing. . .and supporting business innovation in key sectors.”

Never mind that associating job recovery with a specific government program is the oldest trick in the political playbook. Never mind that slapping a brand on what amounts to standard nuts-and-bolts economic planning is spin-doctoring at its least artful.

The only important question is whether Canadians are more or less satisfied with the government they last elected. According to the polling firm, Ipsos Reid last week, “If the election were held tomorrow, the NDP under Thomas Mulcair would receive 35 per cent of the decided vote, up 5 points since last month, largely on gains made in Ontario and in the west. In contrast, Justin Trudeau and the Liberals (29 per cent, down 2 points) and Stephen Harper’s Conservatives (28 per cent, down 3 points) are losing ground.”

Perhaps, lately, we’ve been reading a bit too much of Donald Savoie.

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