Easy to say, hard to do

Brian Gallant, the dewy-eyed dragon slayer running to lead the provincial Libs, wrote an op/ed recently where he elegantly called for ‘real’ consultation of the people and for government that goes beyond four year cycles.

I wonder if Bernard Lord’s 10 year Prosperity Plan was long enough?  How about Shawn Graham’s 20 year Self-Sufficiency Plan?

There are two problems with the idea of long term government plans.  One, when they are launched with great fanfare, there is never any real effort to achieve them.  Let’s be honest, the prosperity plan became a slogan used in government press releases.  Everyone would include the line “as part of our Prosperity Plan”, but beyond that there was little effort to measure progress and very little actually done within the machinery of government.   Not to reopen old wounds, but as I have said before, the problem with the PP was that it didn’t say how the government was planning to implement it other than vague generalities.

The Self-Sufficiency on its face was a grand vision – 100,000 increase in the population, elimination of the need for Equalization, a salmon in every pot.  Beyond the fact it people immediately criticized its ambition, it also didn’t lead to a fundamental change in the way government was done – to line up with this grand vision.  I asked several Deputy Ministers about how the Self-Sufficiency plan guided their departments – the answer was “It didn’t”.    Note to politicians: If you want your grand plan to be realized,  you should bring along the people tasked with implementing it.

As for the long term view, why not set a bipartisan set of principles up front that are mostly agreed upon by your opponents?  Then, when they take the reins of power – nowadays every four years? – they won’t change direction.  Otherwise, as we saw with Lord, Graham and Alward, when in Opposition they campaign to repudiate the long term vision.    There must be a set of guiding principles that could be agreed upon that wouldn’t fundamentally change every four years.  I understand that bipartisan (multipartisan?) politics has no tradition in a place like New Brunswick but now might be a good time to start.  If the NDP were to gain traction, it could be forced upon us via minority governments.

Finally, on this issue of ‘consultation’s, I hope Gallant et. al. understand what this really should mean.  If not, read, Savoie’s work on effective political governance.  Consultation is all the rage but do we really want the general public to tell government what to do?    First, there would rarely be a consensus about what to do and when there is (i.e. everyone likes lower taxes) it doesn’t necessarily jive with reality.

Second, as a member of the aforementioned general public, do I want my ideas about health care or nursing homes or workers’ compensation programmes to guide the government?  Given that I know very little about them – beyond my personal observations – the answer is no.   Elected officials listen to their constituents and then set broad strategic direction for government.  Then they rely on professional, talented civil service to implement that strategic direction.  When the elected layer of government – gets too embedded in the machinery of the public service it is bound to be problematic.  That is why we are supposed to hire highly talented leaders for government departments and agencies.  The Premier and his elected colleagues set direction and then rely on their professional bureaucracy to implement.


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2 Responses to Easy to say, hard to do

  1. Don Dennison says:

    Interesting analysis, but the model falls short. In the best traditions of a professional bureaucracy, much of the direction or ideas should be coming from within the ranks. They have access to knowledge and experience, and have the luxury of being able to analyse, synthesize, and take the longer view. The Premier and his elected colleagues can be part of that process, but their role is also to generate sufficient consensus to allow strategies to be implemented and sustained. The construction in Canada in the post war period of a modern economy and social security network would not have been possible without the input of a dedicated and talented bureaucracy. In recent years we have wandered too far from this model toward the notion of watertight compartments between elected and appointed public servants.

  2. mikel says:

    Are you sure you understood the article? Because when he talks about public consultation BEYOND ‘four year election cycles’, that doesn’t sound to me like he’s talking about ten year plans. Most governments bring in contracts and plans that already go beyond their four year cycle. So I think the first half of your blog is misplaced. But I can’t read the article so don’t know.

    As for direct democracy, I would oppose you and answer ‘yes’. Partly for the ‘vision’ reason you argue about in the top half. People don’t change their minds NEARLY as often as governments.

    But let’s be specific. People like lower taxes, true. They also like health care and education. But as for public policy, PEOPLE want higher taxes on those who can afford it-wealthy people and wealthy corporations, particularly ones which are wealthy due to public resources. So whats wrong with that? Those who DON”T love it, are obviously the wealthy people and the corporations.

    On the last paragraph, its ludicrous to talk about direct democracy on intricate issues in a province where you have NO say in government policy. Thats like saying “do I want a piece of cake, because if I have a piece of cake I will eat until I die”. Bad analogy, but its morning. The point is, start with something small. However, given that this guy is in the liberal party, I SERIOUSLY doubt his idea of consultation is direct democracy.

    Actually, for, say, nursing homes, the point would be that IF we had a functional media system we WOULD know something about these issues. However, just from the few CBC articles I’ve read, we know a fair bit. We know that NB has the most privatized system, we know that there are funding problems with it. More importantly, we at least know HOW to address it as public policy-ask the people involved. That makes for a pretty short video clip, so we can learn what we need pretty quickly, quicker than we can, say, learn all we need about the dozens of public policy issues that we are supposed to in order to vote for a party.

    But again I’ll point out that Switzerland operates under a model where the people DO ‘run the government’. And compared to most countries of the world, I think they do a pretty good job. And I am not about to admit that somehow there is a ‘swiss gene’ that makes them smarter.

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