Strategic Review: the answer is, we can’t answer

You think hide and seek is easy?

by Paul Wells

I had an excellent day giving a speech to the Canadian Club of Kingston and chatting with students at Queen’s University. At 12:20 p.m. this email arrived from an official at Media Relations at the department of Public Works and Government Services Canada. It answers, after a fashion, questions I’ve had for a while about many hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of twice-announced cuts to federal spending.

Here’s the email in its entirety:

Hello Paul,

This information is for you follow-up questions you had last evening.

PWGSC has developed implementation plans for the results of our strategic review. Until we communicate these plans to stakeholders and employees, we are not in a position to provide greater details.

Budget 2011 provides a high-level overview of the strategic review decisions.

Maybe I should translate. Public Works knows what it will stop spending on, but it has not told the people who benefited from those programs (or laboured under the yoke of their inefficiency), nor has the department told, um, itself. So it can’t tell me. The bit about “a high-level overview” means the items in Annex 1 of Budget 2011 weren’t supposed to be comprehensible. And on that front, all I can say is, bang-up job, guys, because there’s no way stakeholders and employees will be able to make any sense of the $170-ish million in cumulative savings “described” in Table A1.12 here.

How, for instance, is “Realign programs to gain efficiencies and improve results” different from “Improve efficiency and the delivery of programs and services?” And how are those two different from “Improve use of internal resources and administrative efficiency”? Because they’re three different categories in the PWGSC “high-level overview.”

Tomorrow I’ll get back to PWGSC and I’ll ask when they’re planning to communicate their implementation plans — why do I suspect that plural ‘s’ will wind up causing me endless hours of fun? — and whether they’ll tell me when they do, or whether I’ll have to make another hundred guesses about what the right question might be and when I should ask it.

Today I also received an email from Fisheries offering me a phone conversation. I have a wild hunch that their answer will closely resemble PWGSC’s. From the third department I contacted, HRSDC, so far there is only decorous silence.

Now here’s the thing, as if you need me to tell you. If the government releases information about its spending cuts in dribs and drabs, and does not announce parts of it ever at all, then there is no way to know whether the cuts it has realized come anywhere close to matching the cuts it has announced. Maybe it has hardly saved a dime, but wants cheap credit among (nerdy, budget-annex-scrutinizing) fiscal conservatives. Maybe its cuts are far greater than advertised, or concentrated in certain kinds of program or certain parts of the country or are in some other way interesting and worth your attention.

The thing is, you can’t know. Not before “stakeholders and employees” find out. If they ever do. Your tax dollars at work: you think hide and seek is easy?




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Strategic Review: the answer is, we can’t answer

  1. “‘The matter is under consideration’ means we have lost the file. ‘The matter is under active consideration’ means we are trying to find the file.” Sir Humphrey

    Without actual job reductions, the size of Government is increasing all the time. Government can’t prove they cut budget because they didn’t. 

    I have feeling Wells will be told that “The matter is under active consideration” for long time yet.

  2. You should also ask them to distinguish those three different categories. What makes them different?

  3. My money-saving idea — replace all ministry/departmental reps with an auto-reply email that says “You will never be answered. Stop caring.”

  4. Congratulations on your Brand New! Sisyphean task. 

    Hopefully your rightfully addressed anti-genu-super-perpiflictions also result in the slow-burn you achieved on R&D. 

    Hard work. Much appreciated.

  5. The author of those three categories went to the Academy of Colossal Cave, where he learned to make these distinctions:
    Little maze of twisting passages
    Little maze of twisty passages
    Little twisty maze of passages
    Maze of little twisting passages
    Maze of little twisty passages
    Maze of twisting little passages
    Maze of twisty little passages
    Twisting little maze of passages
    Twisting maze of little passages
    Twisty little maze of passages
    Twisty maze of little passages

  6. Good work. Don’t stop digging.

  7. Some choice lyrics from Loser by Beck

    Kill the headlights and put it in neutral
    stock car flamin’ with a loser on the cruise control
    baby’s in Reno with the vitamin D
    got a couple of couches, sleep on the love seat

    Someone keeps sayin’ I’m insane to complain about
    a shotgun wedding and a stain on my shirt
    Don’t believe everything that you breathe
    you get a parking violation and a maggot on your sleeve

    So shave your face with some mace in the dark
    savin’ all your food stamps and burnin’ down the trailer park

    Yo, cut it

  8. there are actually two categories–internal administration is actually different from program delivery.  Not surprised that the language is all vague.  On the one hand you would think this government is proud to announce it found something that is a waste and wants to cut it (and there are lots of things to cut).  On the other hand they realize that even when the smallest cuts are announced people get up in arms so it is better to obsfucate

    • Or on the other hand they have no intention of ceasing the huge increases in spending they started five years ago because this is what gets them elected.  And they want to prevent anyone, especially journalists, from discovering any facts that could be used to show otherwise.  It is a grave mistake to underestimate this government’s capacity to decieve.  Paul can next expect to receive a huge pile of paper with 90% of the words redacted.   

  9. there are actually two categories–internal administration is actually different from program delivery.  Not surprised that the language is all vague.  On the one hand you would think this government is proud to announce it found something that is a waste and wants to cut it (and there are lots of things to cut).  On the other hand they realize that even when the smallest cuts are announced people get up in arms so it is better to obsfucate

  10. Oh, for God’s sake.  How would you handle spending cuts? 

    I think I would take the decision to make the cuts (high level), communicate that broadly (i.e. in the budget…which, by the way, should not show department level detail), make micro level decisions (which may or may not have been made yet), communicate them to the immediate stakeholders (i.e. people who might lose their jobs) and then communicate the same more broadly (this is where, with all due respect, a journalist might get plugged in).  Which, as far as I can tell, is the process the government in undertaking.

    There are lots and lots of things governments do very, very poorly.  If you think this is a big deal, you are, in my view, missing a bigger point.

    BTW, I make these comments from the perspective as someone who has had to do similar in the private sector.

    • Yeah but in the private sector, you’re playing with your own cash and you’re not beholding to the entire nation of taxpayers.  Government is beholden to us.  A journalist is asking and I for one expect them to answer, with timeliness and openess and thoroughness.

      So maybe you’re missing the bigger point. 

      • Ok, let’s say governemnt made a wide blast through the media of what specific cuts were to be made (jobs lost, programs cut, etc…).  What would happen to the functioning of government?  How would that imopact efficient spending of tax dollars?

        Sometimes a measured prudence is OK.  Even if that means a journalists quesitons have to be deferred for a little while.

        Also, private sector or no, it’s still somebody elses money. In a public company, do you think we should call up every shareholder and let him/her know these details before telling employees?  I would certainly tell the board (in the political sense, this would be our elected representatives), but the shareholders might have to wait.

    • And that’s all well and good, with the exception of this:
      “In 2010… 12 organizations undertook strategic reviews of their programs and spending. In addition, the Department of National Defence used the strategic review process to [slow its rate of spending growth]. This… has yielded savings of close to $1.6 billion in 2013–14, amounting to 4.9 per cent of the review base on an ongoing basis. As a result of these reviews, departments are streamlining operations, realigning their activities and transforming their organizations…”

      ie, the work in identifying what was going to be cut happened in 2010, and they already know the amount of savings they will see from them.  All the micro level decisions have therefore been made, and they’ve had months to inform “the immediate stakeholders”.

      Of course, this is all assuming that they weren’t simply lying when they wrote that in the budget document.

  11. God help me, but I’m about to write something in support of this government.

    Simply put, I’ve worked for the feds in a number of capacities, and as vague and similar as these headings may seem, they actually refer to very specific things in most cases.

    It’s standard practise to inform stakeholders and staff first because they’re the ones who have to deal with the fallout, the scrutiny and the questions that will inevitably arise.

    While I know it’s frustrating, I see nothing abnormal or out of line here.

    It’s simply the nature of the beast.

  12. I suppose it’s possible the govt is as non plused as most of us on this score. A cartoon of SH standing with a puzzled look on his face having just entered his deficit cutting agenda into a vast amorphous machine that spreads itself for many city blocks, springs to mind…”hmmm, i wonder when this thing is going to spit something useful out?” 
     
    Being an unmitigated [ and likely unreformable] cynic vis a vis this govt, i’m more inclined to believe he’s standing there with the answers already in his hand, impatiently waiting for the gubbins to bring forth the requiste data, tailor made to fit his pre-established “facts”…
     
    ….good luck with this Wells – you’re gonna need it.

  13. Given that this OUR MONEY aren’t ALL OF US stakeholders?

    This answer strikes me as the equivalent of a department head telling the CEO of the company “We’ve decided to slash our departmental budget, by about $200 million, but we can’t tell you (the CEO OF THE COMPANY!!!) what precisely we’re slashing until we tell the employees in the department.

    And how must people in these departments feel today, knowing that the government has already booked billions of dollars in savings, but that they’re unwilling to tell the public who exactly is getting fired until they’ve actually been fired!  I suppose the advantage for the government is that no one can argue that firing person X or firing person Y is lunacy, if they don’t tell us that they plan to fire persons X or Y until after they’re fired, but how must it feel to go to work in one of these departments knowing every day that the sword of Damocles is poised above your head waiting to fall?

    Also, how exactly is the government so certain that these cuts are realistic and achievable if they haven’t yet shared the nature of the cuts with the PEOPLE WHO WILL IMPLEMENT THE CUTS???  Most of these cuts were announced in MARCH.  Do you suppose they plan to tell the people who are actually effected by the cuts what they’re going to be cutting before the school year starts up again?

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