Monday, 16 May 2016

Brian Pallister's Efficiency Fairies

Spending be gone painlessly,
no cuts to services, no
job losses, everyone wins
with the efficiency

Image Source:

(Obtained from Wikipedia)
People like public services but also like low taxes. Conservative parties and right of centre politicians tend to campaign on the later. Given self-styled "fiscal conservatives" tend to make much of deficits and the accumulated stock of debt it stands to reason that something has got to give. Taxes (and other public revenue sources) have to equal spending or else debt financing measures have to be used. Since debt is often (and not always with warrant) regarded as bad, that means service cuts, right?

While people may loath "big government" or "government interference" in the abstract, actual public programs (especially the ones soaking up the largest share of spending) are usually quite popular. This is where one of the cheapest, most effective tricks of rightwing populists comes into play: blaming "waste" for large program spending.

The idea is that we can preserve or even increase services if we eliminate completely useless, unambiguously awful spending. In the 2016 provincial election campaign Pallister equated bargain hungry Manitobans doing comparison shopping to finding savings worth 1% of public spending. Apparently going over to the Dollarama instead of the Hudson's Bay Company is all it takes to painlessly cut the deficit 1.

Toronto's former rightwing populist Mayor the late Rob Ford took this line of thinking to comical conclusions. In the 2010 Toronto Mayoral Election he assured citizens that "services will not be cut, guaranteed" and instead promised to "end the gravy train". A big part of the public messaging (read: propaganda) on the cuts were that it would involve ending such "gravy" as zoo passes for certain city workers. Once in office this no service cut guarantee became a plan to close down five pools, among other things.

As Dan at Autonomy for All noted in 2013, with respect to Ontario provincial politics (Hudak was the Ontario Conservative leader at the time):

How often will voters fall for this deeply dishonest tactic? Try and take seriously the idea that Hudak knows of billions of dollars of true "inefficiencies" in the current government, as I joked on twitter, perhaps there is a Ministry of Burning Cash that can be shut down. If so, wouldn't he be bragging about this specifically? Embarassing the government day after day over the waste in Question Period?

Even as a matter of good public service, if the leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition knows of significant areas of taxpayer waste, is he going to sit quietly on them waiting for an election which might be years in coming, letting the government keep wasting money which could be saved?

On the other hand, maybe the claim is true that he plans to "find" these efficiencies, but only once in government. If so, how can he promise they are there? He can't know this. It's a hope, maybe an educated one, but still a gamble. Even if you think say, 5% of all government spending is true waste (like leaving unused buildings lit at night or whatever example of clear out and out waste you can think up, not talking here about spending you just don't like, which still has a purpose) - it will tend to be a thousand or more little spots of waste. [Emphasis added] There isn't really going to be a Minister of Burning Cash that accounts for 80% of the waste. Finding those unnecessarily lit buildings or other duplication, overpayment & such is going to be tough. Maybe the process for getting someone a driver's license take 14 steps and can be shaved to 13 steps with months of work by the Ministry of Transporation and this saves like $5M a year. I'm sure such inefficiencies exist in government as they do in every large organization, but wringing them out is tough work. Complex multi-deparment processes have dozens of stakeholders and usually no one person fully undertands the purpose of everything in there, so spotting the "waste" takes weeks of stakeholder interviews to find the steps that no longer serve useful purposes or are duplicated elsewhere.

("Hudak Promises To Incur Massive Project Cancellation Costs As Premier". Autonomy For All. Daniel (Oct. 28, 2013))
While there were some concrete, policy specific criticisms from the Manitoba Conservatives (particularly when it came to Provincial Crown Corporation Manitoba Hydro's - politically or otherwise motivated - investment decisions) over a third of the spending cuts they outlined at the end of the campaign came from "value for money" efficiences. Over 8% of the Pallsiter CONs savings came from undercutting labour unions, which I guess is at least outlining specific policy, leaving aside empirical and moral questions on whether workers can bargain a fair wage as solo individuals against large employers.

Some on the centre-right think nothing drastic is in store. The Pallister CON Government will just cut through attrition (which the NDP had started to do in it's last years with departmental hiring freezes) and workers will "prioritize, eliminate redundant reports, and generally find ways to get the work done".

The idea that there's endless (or at least great) slack in the public service such that staffing could go down without service effects seems like a nice idea, but it's probably too good to be true. The Manitoba Government has already been whittling down staffing levels through selective attrition under NDP rule. There's only so much "fat" you can scalp off. As Curtis Brown and Paul G. Thomas have documented 2, the Manitoba Public Service has went through some serious capacity reduction in the past, modest renewal in the Doer days, and currently has an aging workforce. They further noted that "by 2016, almost 75 percent of senior leaders in the civil service will be eligible to retire. By the same year, almost 50 percent of the entire civil service will be in a position to retire. These statistics have profound significance for government-wide policy memory and the in-house capacity to formulate policy under more complex conditions." (Brown & Thomas, 2010, p. 246)

Factoring in that there has been some replacement since the six years ago, when the book was published, it is still an aging workforce with many members set to retire. There won't be limitless slack to exploit and many upcoming challenges Manitoba faces, like an aging overall population more dependent on the healthcare system and the need to transition to a low carbon economy, will require significant policy development and expertise.

 And from the standpoint of keeping service levels constant with less staff, some of the Pallister CON Government's recent announcements seem weird. For instance, there is a memo directing deputy ministers to "refrain from new spending on office relocations, furniture and information technology projects [emphasis added]". Now, you would imagine increasing IT investments to make individual workers more productive as well as investments aimed at getting more government services online, faster would be exactly the way you keep services constant with less staff. Yet here be freezes.

All of this seems to be pointing to a situation where, yes, the Cassandras will be proved right. There will not be unlimited slack to exploit. Even if workers aren't fired, they simply retire and aren't replaced, we'll still face declining service levels.Comparison shopping and efficiency fairies, in the end, will not painlessly cut spending without cutting service.

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1 Pallister's actual savings plan had specifics like merging agencies like the East Side Road Authority and reducing union contracts in government alongside the unspecified "efficiencies" that accounted for over a third of his savings. Pallister, however, consistently argued in public for all his savings along the lines that they'd be just like comparison shopping done by Manitoba consumers.

2 Curtis Brown and Paul G. Thomas, “The Past, Present and Future of Manitoba’s Civil Service,” in Manitoba Politics and Government: Issues, Institutions, Traditions, ed. P.G. Thomas and Curtis Brown, 227-256 (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2012).


  1. Note that IT is often an "efficiency fairy" on its own. Anthony King and Ivor Crewe's "The Blunders of Our Governments" documents many examples of how UK governments IT contracts were massively expensive and often didn't end up with a system fit for purpose. Saying "IT makes people more productive" is like saying "private enterprise is more efficient than government". Both phrases sound true, but aren't always--the devil is in the details, and one is likely to make errors by believing either phrase.

    1. Good points. The blanket freeze on new IT spending still seems weird (granted it isn't always 100% effective, it still is one of the main methods of doing more work with less staff).