Strategic Review: In which the "Follow that car!" strategy doesn't quite work - Macleans.ca
 

Strategic Review: In which the “Follow that car!” strategy doesn’t quite work

Paul Wells on the government’s reluctance to detail its spending cuts


 

The story so far:

I’ve been trying to find out what the government is cutting from spending over the next three years under the “Strategic Review” rubric. There’s a whole annex in the budget that was introduced in March, and again after the election in May, bragging about these excellent cuts. And they sound excellent. “As a result of these reviews, departments are streamlining operations, realigning their activities and transforming their organizations to deliver better programs and better results to Canadians,” Annex 1 of the budget says.

Well, great. This is a good-news story I want to help spread to all Canadians. Fiscal discipline and smart program design, bundled together in a perfect ball of caring. Help me tell this story, I said to the government! Streamlining operations how? Realigning which activities? Transforming in what way? Programs that will be better how?

Sadly my many efforts have led to seriously mixed results.

So I was glad last Tuesday to read this paragraph in Tim Naumetz’s Hill Times article:

“The secretariat that supports the Treasury Board Cabinet Committee provided The Hill Times with a breakout summary of the total reduction in spending due to program cuts or reductions, separate from the spending reductions that will be due to the lapse of infrastructure programs.”

This breakout summary apparently detailed ” $720-million worth of program and operating cuts over the next year.” Damn. Where can I get some of that? So I sent an email to the press shop at the Treasury Board Secretariat. Here’s what I asked:

Hello,

The Hill Times reports that your office furnished them with “a breakout summary of the total reduction in spending due to program cuts or reductions, separate from the spending reductions that will be due to the lapse of infrastructure programs.”

Can I get a copy of the same thing?

Also, can you confirm that this is the same as the “Strategic Review” spending reductions detailed in Annex 1 of Budget 2011 — or explain to me the difference, if it’s not the same?

Thanks very much. I’m reachable by email or at 613-…

I was employing a fairly common technique that’s a bit like a runner or bicyclist slipstreaming behind a truck. Material has already been released — now just give me the same material. The hope here is that all the usual excuses have been exhausted on the first guy, and I can just skip to getting the answer.

It wasn’t quite that easy. A week went by. Well, six days. Every once in a while I checked in to make sure I was being remembered, and the lady at the TBS press shop assured me I was. Finally on Friday I asked whether it really takes a week to cough up what’s already been offered to another reporter. The answer I got was that I had bunged up the system by asking my “Also” question. Asking an “Also” question makes it a whole new question, you see.

Anyway, today shortly after 4 p.m. I got this reply from Treasury Board. I’ll throw in a few explanatory notes in [square brackets]:

Please find below what we had provided Tim Naumetz as well as clarification regarding strategic review.

[these are Tim’s questions in bold, followed by TBS’s answers to Tim in plain text -pw]1. On page 175 of the March 4 Budget, the budget forecast expenses are of $241.4 billion for 2011-2012, compared to $249.2 billion in 2010-2011. Can anyone explain the difference between that and the Main Estimates tabled last Friday?

Expenditures included in the 2011–12 Main Estimates are in line with decisions from Budget 2010 and previous budgets. (See the Backgrounder appended to Friday’s news release.)

Every year, the proximity of the tabling of the Budget and the Main Estimates means that new Budget initiatives and priorities are not reflected in the Main Estimates.

Funding needed for new budget initiatives and priorities have to undergo approval processes through Cabinet committees and the Treasury Board before they can be presented to Parliament in the supplementary estimates over the fiscal year.

2. Are the supplementary estimates included in the by sector expenditure forecasts on page 12 of the Main Estimates?

The supplementary estimates are not included in the Main Estimates.

Supplementary estimates are part of the normal parliamentary approval process to ensure that previously planned Government initiatives receive the necessary funding to move forward and meet the needs of Canadians.

Supplementary estimates are also required to transfer funds, approved in the Main Estimates, from one organization to another or within organizations.

The Government typically tables supplementary estimates three times a year, in May or June, in November and toward the end of the fiscal year in February.

The supplementary estimates are also used to inform Parliament of changes in the estimated cost of programs that are authorized by existing legislation.

For more information on the reporting cycle, please visit the TBS Tools and Resources site.

3. Is there a line-by-line table of all the line spending reductions indicated in the Main Estimates that are a result of program review or other spending reductions, except for end of infrastructure spending?

The Main Estimates present levels of planned spending for activities approved by Government. They do not provide information on those activities or programs that have not been approved. However, as noted in the 2011–12 Main Estimates, program and operating votes have decreased by about $720 million (1.5%) compared to the 2010–11 Main Estimates.

For an overview of actual expenditures, please consult the Public Accounts of Canada. The Public Accounts report for 2010–11 will be available in the fall.

4. Is there a similar line-by-line table for spending reductions that are the result of the end of stimulus infrastructure spending, such as with Natural Resources and Industry, as well as regional development agencies?

The Government has reported regularly to Canadians on the implementation of the Economic Action Plan. The most recent report was tabled on January 31, 2011.

Please contact individual departments or agencies for any questions regarding their respective Main Estimates.

[So that’s TBS’s exchange with the Hill Times. Now my “Also” question – pw]Can you confirm that this is the same as the “Strategic Review” spending reductions detailed in Annex 1 of Budget 2011 — or explain to me the difference, if it’s not the same?

In his article titled $720-million of programs and operations on chopping block this fiscal year, Tim Naumetz stated that: “The secretariat that supports the Treasury Board Cabinet Committee provided The Hill Times with a breakout summary of the total reduction in spending due to program cuts or reductions, separate from the spending reductions that will be due to the lapse of infrastructure programs.”

With regard to the above statement, see below the question sent to us by Mr. Naumetz and the response we provided:

[Now here they repeat themselves a bit to show where that line in the Hill Times story came from. First Tim’s question, then their answer – pw]3. Is there a line-by-line table of all the line spending reductions indicated in the Main Estimates that are a result of program review or other spending reductions, except for end of infrastructure spending?

The Main Estimates present levels of planned spending for activities approved by Government. They do not provide information on those activities or programs that have not been approved. However, as noted in the 2011–12 Main Estimates, program and operating votes have decreased by about $720 million (1.5%) compared to the 2010–11 Main Estimates.

For an overview of actual expenditures, please consult the Public Accounts of Canada. The Public Accounts report for 2010–11 will be available in the fall.

[And, having re-quoted that part of their correspondence with The Hill Times, the Treasury Board people add this final note to me – pw] Adding to the response provided to Mr. Naumetz, please note that strategic reviews are designed to ensure every Government program is achieving results for Canadians.

Through this process, all programs must demonstrate that they:
— are effective and efficient;
— focus on core federal roles; and
— meet the needs of Canadians.
Budget 2011 indicates that the 2010 round of strategic reviews will result in about $1.6 billion in annual ongoing savings as of 2013–14 to help reduce the deficit and return to balanced budgets. Budget 2011 provides a high-level overview of the strategic review decisions.

For additional information we invite you to consult the Budget documentation: http://www.budget.gc.ca/2011/home-accueil-eng.html.

So. what have we learned?

First, it may be a bit ambitious for The Hill Times to put the name “breakout summary of the total reduction in spending” on the information Treasury Board actually provided, because what TBS actually provided was the number “$720 million.” Then they say, if you want to know more, “please” consult the Public Accounts “in the fall.” Handy reminder: it’s June.

But that’s only my third-favourite part. My second-favourite part is where they invite reporters to “contact individual departments or agencies” for more information on their Strategic Review cuts, because boy howdy, that sure has been working well for me so far.

And my first-most-favourite part of this whole email is the little note to me at the bottom where, “for additional information,” they “invite” me “to consult the Budget documentation.” Which made me laugh a long time, because it was the Budget documentation that got me asking these questions in the first place. In March.

Meanwhile Bill Curry at the Globe has been doing excellent work chronicling the real scope and effect of the cuts. He’s not getting a stitch of information from the government, of course; he’s getting it from the public-sector unions, in dribs and drabs as the layoff notices are handed out.

Duly noted. Real information on these cuts will not be coming from the government, at least not before fall. Stakeholders and employees are invited to contact me directly with news as it affects them. Or just keep telling Bill at the Globe. I’m not picky. I’ll continue to report, link, update and comment as news dribbles out.


 
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Strategic Review: In which the “Follow that car!” strategy doesn’t quite work

  1. I hope you’re wearing a helmet when you’re bashing your head against the government’s stonewall.  Or perhaps it’s a maze of stonewalls.  With a greased floor.  And lots of mirrors.

  2. Question:
    “1. On page 175 of the March 4 Budget, the budget
    forecast expenses are of $241.4 billion for 2011-2012, compared to
    $249.2 billion in 2010-2011. Can anyone explain the difference between
    that and the Main Estimates tabled last Friday”

    Does he mean the March 22 budget?

  3. Accountability: Can’t you count?

    Transparency: You can’t see what were doing.

    Responsibility: You don’t get one.

    Democracy: You voted. Get over it.

  4. Keep it up Paul. You may feel frustrated, but we appreciate the efforts. :)

  5. “Duly noted. Real information on these cuts will not be coming from the government, at least not before fall.”

    Which fall would that be – 2012? Once they’ve laid off all those auditors you may find yourself dealing with a new excuse – pressure of work…we’re simply swamped…figure it out for yourself…or go ask Tony – he should know now shouldn’t he?

  6. I forget: is this matter “Orwellian”, “Byzantine”, or “Kafka-esque”?

  7. Everyone in Ottawa knows exactly how the government is saving money in the public service. They are laying people off, encouraging early retirement, and have put a serious damper on new hiring. That is the real answer to your questions. 

    Maybe you should just ask these departments how many staff they have cut, or plan to cut, moving forward. Maybe I am naive, but a more specific question might get a more insightful response.

    • The real answer is that nobody in the government has any idea how to reduce government spending.  They either have no plan at all and are making things up as they go along, or they have no intention of reducing government spending and hope to obfuscate for the next four years while continuing to buy votes with taxpayer money.  The only staff cuts will be folks that supply information to the public that conflicts with government propaganda, such as auditors, scientists, statisticians, researchers, etc.  You can bet there will be NO reductions in polsters, communications experts, public relations or advertising agencies.  The resulting confusion will extend beyond public employees to the corporate sector where managers won’t know whether the government intends to keep its promises to allow unfettered market activity, or will set up a centrally controlled economy by making corporate decisions in the PMO like is now being done for Canada Post and Air Canada and was previously done for the potash industry in Saskatchewan.  .