Strategic Review: What did the government cut?

by Paul Wells

On Monday morning I wrote to three federal departments asking them about cuts listed, but nowhere explained, in the March version of the 2011 budget. I was certain the cuts would reappear without amendment in the June version of the 2011 budget. Here’s what I wrote to the media people at the department of Public Works and Government Services Canada:

Good morning,

The 2011 budget identifies nearly $173 million in cumulative strategic review savings for PWGSC through 2013-2014. These are identified but not explained in Table A1.12 of the budget document.

Please give me full explanations for how these savings will be realized.

I can be reached by email or at 613-xxx-xxxx.

Thank you,

Paul Wells

Senior Columnist

Maclean’s magazine

Near-identical emails went to two other departments. There followed a bit of email and phone traffic as civil servants inquired about my deadlines. I also wrote to the PMO to let them know I was making these inquiries.

Frequent readers of this infrequent blog will be familiar with the subject of my curiosity. Here is Annex 1 of the 2011 federal budget – the link takes you to Monday’s “updated” version, which for this annex is identical in every way to the same section of the March budget. Here’s what Annex 1 is about:

“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 to deliver better programs and better results to Canadians.”

What’s important to understand here is that this section describes decisions on spending cuts that were taken in the past. The feds are also promising to come up with further cuts in the future, thanks to a new “Strategic and Operating Review” that will start in a few weeks or months. None of my questions are about those future cuts. I want to know what the government has already decided to stop spending money on.

I honestly thought a government dedicated to spending restraint would be eager to share the fruits of its careful scrutiny of the books. Wrong. At the March budget lockup civil servants told me they had no details of the Annex 1 cuts at all. During the campaign, when I asked finance minister Jim Flaherty, his answers were not great. When I asked John Baird, his answers were also not great.

Fine. I get it. There’s politics here. Some of these cuts may not be perfectly painless, so during a campaign the Conservatives would be skittish about getting into detail. Since no other reporter found these questions as interesting as I did, I didn’t bother to get into a campaign-long crusade on the matter.

Now, of course, we no longer have an election campaign. What we have is a government which has, once again, announced nearly $2.4 billion in cumulative spending reductions over three years. So now I’m asking for details.

This evening just after 5 p.m. I received this email from Michelle Bakos, the communications director for Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose. Neither of the other two departments I wrote to has, so far, given me any answer at all. Here’s what Bakos told me:

“Canadians gave us a clear mandate to keep taxes low and balance the budget by 2014-2015. We have taken a close look at spending across thirteen departments and identified the lowest performing, lowest priority programs. Over the next year, we will continue to find savings by conducting a strategic and operating review of all programs. These savings will provide the room to continue paying down debt and investing in the priorities of Canadians, including lowering taxes for families. Details regarding these decisions will become public once stakeholders and employees have been consulted. “

In my first reply to Bakos, I goofed up, confusing PWGSC with HRSDC, but I soon sent her another note correcting my own confusion. This rows-and-columns stuff really isn’t my stock in trade. The substance of my point, however, stands. As I have taken pains to point out above, I’m asking for explanations of decisions made in the past, not about decisions that are pending for next year. So, as I wrote to Bakos, “What I need to know is what all of this means, in detail and with specifics. What were you spending money on that you will now stop spending money on?”

I promised to be tenacious. I will report to you periodically with updates as I receive them, or if departments and ministers’ offices fail to provide them.




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Strategic Review: What did the government cut?

  1. I suspect you’re going to continue to receive KFO letters.

  2. Thank you for your continued questions, Paul.  Just when I’m starting to wonder if journalists in Canada have completely forgotten how to persistently ask tough questions, I’m treated to a breath of fresh air.

  3. Keep at it Paul. There should be answers…

  4. My only regret is that you stopped asking this during the campaign. Shame on all of us for not wanting these answers.

  5. “I promised to be tenacious. I will report to you periodically with updates as I receive them, or if departments and ministers’ offices fail to provide them”

    As we speak the word is going forth in Harpeland: ” He’s back! That $%&*ing pain in the ass who wouldn’t take no for an answer over that Rights and Democracy ^%$#@ up…for godsake someone get ahold of his owners! Hack him!Tap his phone! Whatever it takes..”
     Ok, maybe i took that Russel Crowe journalists/thriller a bit too seriously[ bad film anyway. Pity i love Crowe's work ordinarily.]
    Good to see you back Paul – go get em.

  6. ‘I also wrote to the PMO to let them know I was making these inquiries.’
    Good idea. Once Stephen Harper knows you’re looking for answers, good answers, he’ll rattle the cages of his underlings to ensure the information flows freely. Give it a few days and you’ll have more information than you’ll know what to do with.

    • Yes, if they react in their usual fashion a truckload of binders will arriving at Paul’s office soon.  Amanda Lang interviewed Flaherty today and when asked about cuts the only thing he offered is that they would be targeted, very targeted.  But of course, no specifics, not even a hint.  I can’t figure out if what they’re planning on cutting is so draconian they are keeping it to themselves, or they just don’t have any plan at all.  It’s not as if they just formed government and need time to get a feel for things.

    • gottabeasked: is this meant to be serious or sarcastic?

      • What do you mean sarcastic? Are you suggesting that Stephen Harper would sit by and watch while government officials stonewall attempts by the media to access information? That’s not the Stephen Harper I know, sir. He’s all about transparency.

        (Yes, I am being very, very sarcastic.)

        • :-) Guess my sarcasm detector was out of order; it sounded like a serious comment when I read it yesterday, which puzzled me as it didn’t seem like a position you’d take.

  7. Excellent work, Mr. Wells – do keep plugging away. I suspect it’s a futile quest, though; this government has succeeded by ignoring or violating every norm of our political system, and it can only be expected to extend the practice by making substantial cuts without announcing, specifying, or explaining them. What better way than to pre-empt all opposition? It’s brilliant strategy, and since Harper at al. don’t care a fig for basic democratic principles, there’s no reason at all not to do it.

  8. This really is something that should have been a addressed a long time ago, along with the 2006 electoral fraud, lack of freedom of information, general lack of concern from the PM about white collar crime while focusing resources into more failed American policy.

  9. Good job Paul. My opinion of you keeps growing. I would ask that you keep at it, and let us know what you find. I would imagine that it will come eventually, as they did promise cuts.

    You are right about the oddness in them not wanting to shout it at the top of their lungs. I suspect people are going to be laid off, and they are trying to do it as quietly/painlessly as possible.

    I only hope that they start picking up the axe. . .  :)

    • Yes, it makes great sense to fire thousands of working people, and put them on pogey….so they can no longer buy houses, or furniture or groceries or cars or gas…..

      It will do wonders for the economy

      • That would be true, if their taxpayer funded jobs added value to the economy. If not, yes, better to fire them.

        Using your logic, shouldn’t the gov’t hire everyone who is currently unemployed? That would be great for the economy.

        • What part of BUYING HOUSES, AND FURNITURE AND GROCERIES AND CARS AND GAS didn’t you understand?

          The govt…and Canadians ….need a public service. So we have one. If you don’t wish to be in the public service, you can work elsewhere.

          Hire everyone who is currently unemployed?  Do you think people are plug-in parts that you can just move from place to place and they can do the job??

        • It’s your logic that’s twisted. These people already have jobs – big difference. And to characterize people who do a necessary job as simply being of no value in economic terms is idealogical clap trap.
          Why not simply argue we have to find a way to do more with less. Unfortunately this will cost some people their jobs? The bitter irony is that many will simply lose their jobs due to the galactically stupid political decision to cut the GST. The opposition will push this message hard, if they have any politcal smarts. 

          • His statement was ‘if they don’t add value’. 

          • Thanks Andrew. It seems that some people only read what they want to read. If he had read it, he would see that we almost agree. :)

            Emily is just a lost cause.

          • “…if they don’t add value.”

            …being of no value in economic terms…

            An inelegant bit of parsing i grant you – hardly reading what i want to read…one of Andrew’s rare cases of misreading. But you simply don’t seem to be able to stick by what you’ve wriiten. It’s perfectly clear you have an idealogical bias against the public service. That’s your right, but you should at least state so openly, or develope your thoughts more transparently.

          • I don’t do this often, but I laughed after I read your post. But then I realized you were serious.

            It was one sentence, and it was very clear. That you ‘read in’ some ‘ideological bias’ is your doing.

            To quote you:
            ” to characterize people who do a necessary job as simply being of no value in economic terms is idealogical clap trap.”
            I never said that. If they do a necessary job, then they provide value. You are the one who seems to think that a job that is necessary has no economic value. If a job is necessary, it is necessary.

            To quote you again:
            “Why not simply argue we have to find a way to do more with less. Unfortunately this will cost some people their jobs?”
            I agree. We need to streamline the system, and that will probably mean layoffs. You seem to be intend on twisting my words to mean that every public servant should be fired. Not true or fair. Did you miss the part where I said that we almost agree? Did you bother to think about what that meant?

            My thoughts and opinions were stated clearly and transparently. If you ‘read in’ anything, it was probably due to your own bias. This reminds me of listening to the ‘left’ station on satellite radio (states). There constantly is some nut calling in about the ‘war on the working class’. No truth – just spin and bias.

            Andrew misread nothing – you did. I stick by what I write, and in this case, it is clear and easy. Can’t you just say ‘sorry’, and leave it at that?

          • “Emily is just a lost cause.”

            Assuming, of course, that there was even a cause in the first place.

          • Back when there were rotary phones. :)

  10. “What were you spending money on that you will now stop spending money on?”
    I promised to be tenacious. I will report to you periodically with updates as I receive them”

    I agree with others. I am glad you are asking questions. Msm too much navel gazing with poll speculation and the like. I wonder if msm will start reporting differently now we have two ideologue parties going back and forth.

    Paradox to me that Government can claim to cut budget when we are running massive deficits and expanding State. Money is fungible, there aren’t multiple streams of revenue.

    Comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.

  11. Wow. Isn’t that weird? I mean, it’s like they’re exactly same as they were *before* they got a majority! 

  12. Well this PM has got the political cover now to implement cuts to the size of govt, something that has long been part of his core philosophy. What better excuse could there be then a deficit that has been promised to be eliminated. This PM never does anything without cover of some kind.[ except when he makes an occasional major error eg., 2008] Expect to hear lots of stressing the positive – we wont cut a penny of transfers or essential services, pensions etc. Expect to see a big push to go over the heads of the opposition to the hurting people. Expect NOT to hear much in the way of how far reaching the effects of the cuts will be to individuals, or the way we’re governed. Or how they target in particular environmental and other luxury agencies. Expect to hear lots about attrition, cost effectiveness and other painless deficit cutting exercises Expect to hear lots about ineffcient and politically motivated, selfish greedy unions. Most of all expect NOT to have any sort of meaningful debate or time to rally  against these absolutely necessary cuts.

  13. Do they honestly think they can cut federal services by 5% and not explain or have anyone notice?

    • In a word… yes.

  14. On the one hand, way to go, try to make them answer.

    On the other, does it really matter? The Conservatives can’t even admit the GST cut created a structural deficit, they fail to account for the full cost of their foreign misadventures or the predicted costs of their military procurement, some of it destined to fight a war we are already withdrawing from, and they blithely create costs and future infrastucture commitments with crime bills in the absence of any evaluation or evidence. Really what difference does it make what they are cutting or planning to cut since the only rationale is a flip flop between stimulation and so-called smaller government?

  15. Efficiency is efficient. What kind of an efficiency? It’s an efficient efficiency. An efficiency is an efficiency. And when you have good efficiency, it’s because it’s efficient.

    • Real efficiency gains usually require a significant upfront investment, and don’t accrue savings until quite a bit later (once the investment has been paid back).  The idea that the government is going to realize billions in efficiency gains within the next few years, to say nothing of the past few years, is utterly laughable. 

      What they’re going to do is cut people and services.  There really is no two ways around it, and it’s not really something they need to be afraid of.  It’s not like their base of support is expecting something else.

      • Efficiencies optimized and performance enhanced. Fat will be cut while making substantial productivity gains. An integrated management structure facilitating new value-tested procedures will enable improved client-focused services and added value for all stakeholders. 

        We are taking about billions in savings! This is what Canadians expect. To oppose this agenda you must be a pirate.

        • September 19.  Never forget.

    • I’m telling you, the transformation is COMPLETE.

      Every day I wait for Harper to accidentally slip into a Shawinigan accent.

      • I was reminded of that scene at or near the end of Animal Farm, when the pigs learn to walk on two legs.

        • Which one of us gets to play the part of Boxer?

  16. I’m guessing that no one below the Deputy Minister level would even know what’s to be cut yet.

    • Hell, I’d be impressed if there are any cabinet ministers who know. 

      When no one seems capable of answering a simple question, it rather suggests that they don’t have an answer at all.

      Also, Wells would no doubt want me to reiterate that he’s not asking about cuts that are going to be made, he’s asking about savings that have been booked in the budget based on cuts that have supposedly ALREADY BEEN MADE.  The question isn’t “what cuts are you going to make to achieve these savings” the question is “You claim these savings are supposedly from cuts you’ve already made… so WHAT DID YOU CUT???”. 

      The Tories have several projections for unspecified cuts they plan to make in the future in order to achieve their deficit reduction goals, which is bad enough, but Wells isn’t even asking them to explain the  billions in mysterious cuts they plan to find in the future, all he wants to know about is the cuts the government claims to have ALREADY IMPLEMENTED.  I’d be much more confident in the government’s assertions that they’ll be able to find additional savings going forward if anyone, anywhere could explain the nature of the savings they claim to have ALREADY FOUND.

      • “When no one seems capable of answering a simple question, it rather suggests that they don’t have an answer at all.”

        Money is fungible – government can’t prove to have reduced size of government when running massive deficits, and added more bureaucracy, because it hasn’t. 

        If bureaucrats ever do get back to Wells, I expect nothing more than some vague numbers about supposed savings from efficiencies but nothing concrete because Government is getting larger. 

        Government is not efficient, not in any sense of the word, so drive to become more efficient is quixotic.

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