Even good ideas can go bad

Nor'wester (Springdale) - - EDITORIAL - Rus­sell Wanger­sky

Some­times, I think I’ve had a bril­liant idea — and then, I fall into that huge hole that is the dif­fer­ence be­tween the­ory and prac­tice.

Years ago, I had an idea that would let drivers com­mu­ni­cate with each other – an LED read­out in the wind­shield and the back win­dow of your car that would let you send a mes­sage to drivers be­hind you, but would also send a mes­sage, typed in re­verse, to drivers in front of you. I thought it could send mes­sages like, “Your right rear tire is low,” or “You’re not leav­ing enough space be­tween us.” It could, I thought, help lower frus­tra­tion be­tween drivers, giv­ing an out­let to drivers who might oth­er­wise seethe alone inside their re­spec­tive metal boxes, by al­low­ing them to reach out with a quick sen­tence or two.

This, of course, was be­fore Twit­ter and other so­cial me­dia.

I see now that my plan would have been a prac­ti­cal dis­as­ter: the units would no sooner start to ap­pear in cars be­fore some­one would be send­ing mis­sives like “Learn to drive, dip­stick,” and, “Ever heard of a turn sig­nal, mo­ron?” (I am only us­ing the mildest of lan­guage that would be sure to oc­cur.)

In­stead of my in­ten­tion of de­pres­sur­iz­ing po­ten­tial road rage, it would in­flame it.

And that brings me to the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment’s cur­rent plan for regional gov­er­nance.

On the face of it, the con­cept seems like a good one: there would clearly be economies of scale, prob­a­bly bet­ter prices for goods and ser­vices, bet­ter use of ex­ist­ing re­sources and staff, and the abil­ity for regional coun­cils to hire cheaper, re­gion-wide in-house ex­per­tise in­stead of higher con­sult­ing firms.

That’s not the prob­lem.

The prob­lem isn’t the the­ory. It’s the prac­tice.

We live in a democ­racy, and the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment, in its cur­rent plan for regional gov­ern­ment, is try­ing to thread the vot­ing nee­dle. It’s put out a plan for dis­cus­sion, but at this point, it’s not re­ally look­ing at true re­gion­al­iza­tion, but at a hy­brid.

A regional gov­ern­ment would over­see some facets of ex­pen­di­ture and ser­vices, but the ex­ist­ing broad sys­tem of mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ments would stay in place.

Adding an­other level of regional gov­ern­ment means a whole new set of costs: staff, over­sight, au­dit­ing, as­sets and as­set con­trol, of­fice space, and the list goes on. It’s not hard to imag­ine that the new ex­penses would eas­ily over­reach any ex­pected sav­ings.

And that’s why it’s got to be a lit­tle more dras­tic — towns can prob­a­bly stay as geo­graphic iden­ti­fiers, like Kel­li­grews in­stead Con­cep­tion Bay South, and per­haps for­mer towns could be­come some­thing like elec­toral wards in the new regional sys­tem.

But you don’t get economies of scale if you’re not going to ac­tu­ally change the scale, and sim­ply adding a new layer to the gov­ern­ment cake is not going to gen­er­ate sav­ings.

This prov­ince al­ready has a dis­pro­por­tion­ally large num­ber of gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees ver­sus those work­ing in the pri­vate sec­tor, and grow­ing gov­ern­ments will do noth­ing to re­duce costs in ru­ral ar­eas with shrink­ing and ag­ing pop­u­la­tions.

There are con­cerns that big towns would end up ex­ert­ing their larger size and clout over smaller towns; that’s, un­for­tu­nately, a given. The larger a pop­u­la­tion’s weighted rep­re­sen­ta­tion ex­erted on a regional coun­cil, the bet­ter chance it has of en­forc­ing its will. Just ask towns that sit on regional boards heav­ily weighted with City of St. John’s rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

But small towns are buck­ling un­der the weight of main­tain­ing ser­vices with di­min­ish­ing tax­pay­ers, and that prob­lem is only going to grow with the con­tin­u­ing de­mo­graphic shift in the prov­ince. Many towns have trou­ble col­lect­ing taxes. It’s hard when coun­cils are fac­ing off with their neigh­bours, and a regional gov­ern­ment might be will­ing to be more in­sis­tent.

The pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment can’t de­cide on the best course of ac­tion by try­ing to be all things to all peo­ple — that’s great for po­lit­i­cal par­ties at elec­tion time, but it’s bad gov­er­nance.

And speak­ing of bad ideas, the cur­rent pub­lic con­sul­ta­tion the­ory is great in the­ory, but un­likely to present a bal­anced out­come.

My guess would be that the ma­jor­ity of peo­ple who will pro­vide in­put to the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment on regional gov­er­nance will be those with the most to lose: res­i­dents of lo­cal ser­vice dis­tricts and un­in­cor­po­rated ar­eas who cur­rently pay lower or no tax, and may­ors and coun­cil­lors from in­cor­po­rated mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties who want to keep their roles.

Those who are vo­cal about the sta­tus quo are bound to skew the re­sults.

I’m not writ­ing it across my wind­shield, but the mes­sage is still blunt: regional gov­er­nance is a good plan as a full, cost-ef­fec­tive re­place­ment to the cur­rent sys­tem.

Not as an add-on.

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