The Commission on the Reform of Ontario’s Public Services, or the Drummond Report, provides a comprehensive blueprint for public sector reform in the province. Included in the recommendations are proposals on how government can become more efficient. Don Drummond spoke to editor-in-chief Toby Fyfe.
A theme of the report is that we must administer government better based on managing risk, creating efficiencies and ensuring accountability. This has been going on for years: why hasn’t it worked?
There’s an unfortunate cycle of efficiency in governments. In the good years they tend not to be very concerned about efficiency and become sloppy. Then about every 10 years – and we’re in the cycle right now at the federal and provincial levels and in most of the municipalities – they put a premium on efficiency. Sadly, history suggests that as soon as they get back out of their fiscal hole they start increasing the spending wildly and not being very conscious of efficiency.
I’m quite confident we’re going to see a focus on driving efficiency gains in governments across the land in the next couple of years. The tougher question is: if and when they do get back to balanced budgets will that kind of discipline stay in place? That’s the toughest thing, and that’s where all jurisdictions in Canada seem to have failed.
Are you saying conditions are so serious governments have to make it work this time?
I don’t think there’s a reasonable expectation of a substantial reprieve from the fiscal discipline. If we do get a period in Ontario where recovery is only about 2% real growth with 2% inflation, we get about 4% nominal growth which is about the pace of revenues. You can’t keep running your expenses up by 6.5%, which has been the average over the last 10 years in almost every jurisdiction in Canada. That doesn’t work. So not only the short-term and the initial fiscal restraint period have to be different, but also they have to be different on a sustainable basis as well.
You say service delivery needs to move from reactive to proactive. What do you mean?
Our whole model of policy, particularly in the social and healthcare fields, is to wait until a problem is very apparent and then throw some resources to try to patch it up. Yet we know with fair accuracy which individuals in society will likely run into problems, and can predict with a fair degree of accuracy what kind of problems they will be.
There are different public policy models: you can try to deal with it at the onset and prevent it from spreading or you can do what we typically do right now, which is wait until there’s a severe problem. Health is an example. One of the Senate reports indicated that the issue of heath is only about 25 percent healthcare; the rest is about social and economic conditions. And yet you never hear any discussion about that and have hardly any policies designed to address the 75 percent of the problem.
In your report you write that the government should “let service delivery outcomes adjust the size of the public service.” Explain.
There are certain fixed formulas governments try to follow when downsizing, typically looking for the glaring headline that says we’re going to cut x percent of the public service or we’re going to cut thousands of jobs. Those are inputs and you shouldn’t start off trying to control your inputs. You should decide what objectives you want, what are the financial parameters and operate them in the most efficient manner. The number of employees required for the program will follow from that, but you’ll end up with huge inefficiencies if you start with the number of employees, as you do now in Ontario.
You call on ServiceOntario to use the telephone and the Internet more when delivering services. Is this a cost-saving measure that could badly affect certain people?
It’s not really a cost-saving measure, although it could be. Social assistance and welfare are classic cases. It was put to us that as many as 70 percent of the interactions between welfare case workers and the clientele are over matter-of-fact issues: when is my cheque going to come? Many of these questions could be answered on the Internet or by phone. By doing that you would save money but it would also allow you to divert the resources of the welfare caseworkers to people who need extraordinary intervention. Right now the people are so busy dealing with matter-of-fact issues they don’t have time to do the proper stuff. Not all the people have the literacy to deal with the Internet and the like, but when people do, many prefer to do it that way.
What about managing risk if your proposals were implemented?
You have to have a scientific approach to risk: all it takes is a two-dollar muffin to be claimed and huge troubles occur. Here’s a perfect example: as Commissioners, we didn’t get a per diem. We had to claim for everything. I can’t submit an airline online receipt, which is all I ever receive: I have to submit a boarding card. Why do I have to do that? Well, I guess there’s an infinitesimal possibility I could have booked and received compensation for my flight and not taken it. It would be quite a feat to pull that off since I did show up for all the meetings in Toronto, so you would think you’d have a ready way of capturing that.
It’s a classic example of the enormous amount of effort and taxpayer money devoted to avoid one possibility that maybe I might have taken a meal that I didn’t actually incur. We need the right balance between an audit type of process and an extraordinarily heavy handed administrative and compliance process, which is what we have now, which costs an enormous amount of time for the recipient and for the government.
You want ministers and officials to have “a great deal of discretion” in deciding how to implement reforms. Isn’t this a recipe for slippage?
It’s a leash but it’s not that long a leash. The model I was very taken with was the one we followed in Program Review with the federal government. If your department was given a 15 percent target you could come before the Program Review Committee to say how you were going to get there. In most cases that sounded fine and you were sent on your way, and in some cases it didn’t and you were told to go back.
Previously, central agencies had decided not only how much the department should cut, but also exactly how it should cut. Smart as central agencies may be they don’t know the programs as well as the departments who are actually running them. The flip side of that is we have recommended a strong central oversight process in Ontario so we have it covered both ways. It has to go both ways and by being strong in the beginning I think you create some bad feelings and lack of support from departments if you’re too overbearing.
Overall, you are proposing real change in how business is done by government. Are you optimistic that the message will get through?
I’m very mindful that the report was a bit naive and fanciful; it’s not like these ideas wouldn’t have occurred to anybody before but they’ve never been successfully executed, so we’re calling for something quite different. I guess at the heart of it it’s about creating a completely different culture of government. In the ’70s and ’80s it was more prestigious to be working in government, but the prestige was that people largely went there to implement new and expensive programs. Can there be that kind of prestige and pride of working in the government by going and operating programs efficiently as opposed to creating new, bigger and more expensive ones? I think