The new BC government is clearly dedicated to so-called "smaller government". On one major front, the premier has appointed a Minister of Deregulation to spearhead a 1/3 reduction in government regulations. On another, a far-reaching "core-review" has been initiated to "re-think" the nature of government. All government programs, activities, and business units are being evaluated with an eye to determining which services should remain in the core of government and which should be deemed "non-essential" and eliminated or transferred to the voluntary or private sector.
A periodic review of government operations is a good idea. But if the goal is to ensure that government operations serve the public interest, we need to ask the right questions and involve the right people. While the deregulation initiatives and core review process cast a wide net, their goals are both short-sighted and narrow, and their process is disturbingly exclusionary.
The deregulation initiative is the most obviously misguided. The initiative is based on the assumption that government regulations create "red tape" and hamper economic activity. Accordingly, the Minister of Deregulation, Kevin Falcon, has decreed that all Ministers must cut regulations by one third. Some regulations may well be outdated or harmful, but regulations are also crucial for our protection and for meeting various social and environmental goals. Are one third of our environmental and health and safety regulations really unnecessary? There was no prior review or evaluation to suggest this was the case-the goal of cutting a third of regulations is entirely arbitrary. What will be the consequences of forcing ministers to cut regulations to satisfy an arbitrary quota? Will we see another Walkerton?
A review of regulations identified by the community as problematic could be extremely valuable. But it is important that the views of those who feel harmed by particular regulations be balanced against those who see them as beneficial. Unfortunately, the committee that Minister Falcon has formed to advise him only includes representatives of the business community. Business leaders no doubt have clear ideas about which regulations are costly, but they may have a conflict of interest when it comes to the broader public good.
Broad community input is also conspicuously absent from the core review. If the government was serious about organizing services to best reflect the public interest, it would consult with those who have an intimate knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of government programs: those actually using government services, and front-line workers. Instead, with stakeholder consultation at the discretion of Ministers, community input has been avoided, and the entire process has taken place behind closed doors. This is somewhat ironic in light of the review's stated goal of ensuring that accountability mechanisms are in place for government programs and activities.
The lack of community involvement leaves the distinct impression that the conclusions of the core review are pre-set. The scenarios explicitly envisioned include elimination, reduction, consolidation, or transfer to the voluntary or private sector. Programs may only be reaffirmed or improved if they first pass the test of "affordability in the current fiscal environment". Given the huge deficit resulting from the government's tax cuts, such "affordability" criteria will be extremely difficult to meet. Notably, the possibility that the public interest might be best served by expanding or adding programs is entirely absent.
The focus on current "affordability" enforces a short-term perspective and sets the stage for decisions that may ultimately be counter-productive in both economic and human terms. Much social spending, such as expenditures on education or childcare, represents investments in "human capital" that more than pays for itself, but only in the long run.
While efficiency, affordability and accountability are important, we must also consider issues of equity, justice, safety and citizenship when evaluating government activity. The preamble to the core review guidelines pays lip service to these concerns, but they are conspicuously missing from the "tests" to which programs must be put. Service quality and accessibility, equality of treatment or environmental prudence may not take pride of place in private sector strategic calculations, but this is precisely why we ask government to take responsibility for certain activities in the first place. Any evaluation and re-organization process that fails to adequately account for these broader values is ultimately destined to do more harm than good.
Sylvia Fuller is the Public Interest Researcher with the BC office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.