Monday, January 04, 2010

Can the Left Be Trusted to Reinvent Government?

This question occurred to me while I was reading a recent newspaper article concerning the federal government's plan to reduce debt by eliminating public service positions when baby-boom civil servants retire. How should a more 'progressive' government approach the same set of issues?

(1) From sunset to sunrise policy areas. One clue comes from the private sector, where the adage from industrial policy is 'protect workers, not jobs'. There is nothing sacred about a position, even when it is one's own. What is sacred is the idea of a public service career that directs resources and bureaucratic talent to where they are most needed. If we are going to expand single-payer medicine and the funding for it into home care and pharmacare, for example, it should not be necessary to raise taxes in order to do so---if the resources can be found inside government.

(2) Vouchers Where Appropriate (i.e. not schools). I have written elsewhere that the voucher concept works well in areas where there are (1) a small number of simple, discrete policy goals; (2) the relevant clients are individuals rather than institutions or complex policy communities; and (3) the relationship between policy means and ends is clear and direct--labour re-training and post-secondary tuition are the two examples I used.

(3) Putting the 'Public' Back in Public Administration , i.e. through Greater Public Sector Accountability. There are examples where corporate modes of governance have failed miserably, particularly in the health care sector---regional health boards in BC and Ontario consisting of members from the corporate sector approving the allocation of swine flu vaccine to private clinics, fo example, or nine executives in an outfit like Infoway paying themselves $3.9 million last year because of their supposed expertise in coordinating healthcare data; or the CEO at E Health Ontario receiving a bonus of $114,000 after only four months on the job. I have heard through the grapevine that similar sums of money are being earned in Alberta by new CEOs simply for making across the board cuts of a given percentage. The bottom line is short-term budgets, not quality or even the intelligent management of long-term costs.

The reasons for this state of affairs are at least twofold: (1) Witless neo-liberal obeisance to the corporate sector; and (2) gutless fear that handling these issues in -house, using line ministries directly accountable to the Minister, will result in --gulp--direct political responsibility for any mistakes that are made. In the words of the former Deputy minister of Health in BC, Lawrie McFarlane, "It is time that we rebuilt healthcare delivery around a more accountable framework. A good way to begin would be axing corporate boards."

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