Tak­ing pol­i­tics out of gov­er­nance

The Telegram (St. John’s) - - OPINION - BY ALI­SON COF­FIN

The op­por­tu­nity ex­ists to fun­da­men­tally change how we gov­ern this province. To change how we make de­ci­sions. How we de­velop public pol­icy. How we grow as a so­ci­ety.

Provin­cial public pol­icy can be­come clearer, more for­ward­look­ing, broader in scope, and have greater ac­count­abil­ity to, and in­volve­ment of, the peo­ple. Rad­i­cal re­struc­tur­ing is not re­quired. Many of the re­sources al­ready ex­ist. They can be put to bet­ter use.

We know how much we spent on health care and ed­u­ca­tion but do not know if it made us health­ier or bet­ter ed­u­cated.

Democ­racy in New­found­land and Labrador will im­prove with the cre­ation of a more rig­or­ous frame­work for public pol­icy. This is tan­gi­ble, low-cost and easy to im­ple­ment. It re­quires clear com­mu­ni­ca­tions, longterm plan­ning and a fo­cus on out­comes.

The public ac­counts, the au­di­tor gen­eral’s re­ports on the au­dited fi­nan­cial state­ments, The Econ­omy, and The Eco­nomic Re­view com­bine to give the most com­pre­hen­sive, un­bi­ased, non-par­ti­san and factual rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the provin­cial econ­omy and fis­cal cir­cum­stances. The province’s fi­nan­cial state­ments in­clude a sum­mary of the fi­nan­cial health of New­found­land and Labrador. The au­di­tor gen­eral pro­vides comment on the fi­nan­cial

state­ments and the risks and chal­lenges fac­ing the province. Global eco­nomic con­di­tions, a provin­cial eco­nomic over­view, de­tailed sec­tor-spe­cific ac­tiv­ity, and the most up-to-date eco­nomic in­di­ca­tors are pre­sented in The Econ­omy and The Eco­nomic Re­view.

For a com­plete un­der­stand­ing of the di­rec­tion and health of the provin­cial econ­omy and po­ten­tial ef­fects of public pol­icy, these doc­u­ments should be read to­gether and in con­junc­tion with other gov­ern­ment di­rec­tives.

The re­ports are tech­ni­cal in na­ture, re­leased in­de­pen­dently of one an­other, from dif­fer­ent agen­cies and di­vi­sions, at dif­fer­ent times, and are of­ten buried deep in de­part­men­tal news re­leases. The promi­nence and pro­mo­tion of more par­ti­san pub­li­ca­tions such as bud­get speeches, news re­leases and vi­sion­ing doc­u­ments fur­ther ob­scure per­spec­tives.

Public in­put into the po­lit­i­cal process will im­prove when cit­i­zens have a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of the so­cial, eco­nomic and fis­cal cir­cum­stances of the province. Clar­ity will come with co-or­di­na­tion and sim­pli­fi­ca­tion. The col­lec­tive find­ings of these re­ports can be sum­ma­rized in plain lan­guage, made eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble in video and print and incorporated into gov­ern­ment’s overall com­mu­ni­ca­tions strat­egy in a man­ner that re­flects the im­por­tance of the in­for­ma­tion.

Re­al­is­tic bud­gets span more than one year. Spend­ing on hos­pi­tals, schools, roads, po­lice and most gov­ern­ment ac­tiv­i­ties does not stop ev­ery March 31 and then re­sume on April 1. Con­tin­u­ous or multi-year ex­pen­di­tures are af­fected by core ser­vices, col­lec­tive agree­ments, con­trac­tual ar­range­ments and in­fra­struc­ture in­vest­ments. These ex­pen­di­tures can be pre­dicted years in ad­vance with rea­son­able cer­tainty.

Multi-year bud­gets de­crease the vari­abil­ity and un­cer­tainty as­so­ci­ated with an an­nual bud­get­ing process and im­prove fis­cal health, op­er­a­tional ef­fi­ciency, pri­or­i­ti­za­tion and trans­parency. They dis­tin­guish be­tween nec­es­sary and dis­cre­tionary spend­ing and track changes in both over time. Boards, agen­cies and ad­vo­cacy groups un­der multi-year fund­ing mod­els have greater free­dom to comment on pol­icy and pol­i­tics with­out fear of fund­ing cuts.

Gov­ern­ment pro­duces strate­gic plans, ac­tiv­ity plans, busi­ness plans and an­nual ac­tiv­ity re­ports. All de­scribe out­comes of their pro­grams and ser­vices. Out­comes in­clude mea­sures of a smarter, safer, health­ier, bet­ter-em­ployed, more demo­cratic so­ci­ety. They rep­re­sent the de­sired re­sults of public pol­icy. The com­mu­nity ac­counts are a data­base of provin­cial and com­mu­nity-level in­for­ma­tion on health, em­ploy­ment, com­mu­nity safety and qual­ity of school life, as well as an in­ter­ac­tive mea­sure of well-be­ing called the Bet­ter Life In­dex.

These plans and data are sep­a­rate and dis­tinct from the an­nual bud­get­ing process. At no point are the de­sired out­comes of gov­ern­ment ac­tiv­i­ties linked to gov­ern­ment spend­ing. Bud­gets do not in­clude out­comes and plans do not in­clude bud­gets. We know how much we spent on health care and ed­u­ca­tion but do not know if it made us health­ier or bet­ter ed­u­cated. Out­comes can take years and have long-last­ing ef­fects, whereas bud­gets are an­nual.

The au­di­tor gen­eral does iden­tify po­ten­tial out­comes of pol­icy ac­tion or in­ac­tion that could im­pact provin­cial rev­enue and ex­pen­di­ture plans and the province’s fis­cal cir­cum­stances. Our ag­ing pop­u­la­tion, the volatil­ity of oil and our de­pen­dence on it, un­funded pen­sion li­a­bil­i­ties, and the po­ten­tial neg­a­tive im­pacts of the Lower Churchill de­vel­op­ment on tax­pay­ers and ratepay­ers are con­sis­tently iden­ti­fied as long-term risks to the province.

Con­sider an out­come of low­cost, re­li­able, green en­ergy for ru­ral ar­eas and an out­come of con­tin­ued de­vel­op­ment of en­ergy re­sources to gen­er­ate rev­enue for the province. These out­comes re­quire dif­fer­ent, and some­times com­pet­ing, pol­icy and bud­get de­ci­sions. The im­pli­ca­tions of these de­ci­sions af­fect the en­vi­ron­ment, public health, em­ploy­ment, busi­ness ac­tiv­ity, and long-term fis­cal risk.

Public pol­icy be­comes broader in scope and more rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the peo­ple when ex­pen­di­ture and rev­enue plans in­clude mea­sures of pol­icy out­comes. Multi-year bud­gets can be linked to the de­sired re­sults of pro­grams and ser­vices. Progress can be mea­sured through the com­mu­nity ac­counts and the Bet­ter Liv­ing In­dex.

Demo­cratic re­form hap­pens as po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence on provin­cial gov­er­nance is re­duced. Min­i­miz­ing par­ti­san mes­sag­ing, track­ing dis­cre­tionary spend­ing and ty­ing out­comes to bud­gets are im­prove­ments. Bet­ter-in­formed cit­i­zens, elected of­fi­cials and bu­reau­crats pro­vide more mean­ing­ful in­put. Multi-year bud­gets im­prove clar­ity and con­ti­nu­ity and re­duce eco­nomic un­cer­tainty. Track­ing out­comes makes public pol­icy ac­count­able. This frame­work en­ables demo­cratic re­form.

About the Au­thor

Ali­son Cof­fin (Eco­nom­ics, Memo­rial Univer­sity of New­found­land) is an econ­o­mist. She has taught at Memo­rial Univer­sity, de­vel­oped pol­icy and strate­gic plans for the provin­cial gov­ern­ment, and con­sulted on public pol­icy, pen­sion plans and the provin­cial bud­get. Her sub­mis­sion re­flects a life­time of work ded­i­cated to the de­vel­op­ment of re­spon­si­ble public pol­icy and ex­cel­lence in gov­er­nance.


Ali­son Cof­fin

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