Fiscal Reform Needs Political Leadership

Article excerpt

Despite widely-publicized spending cuts, Canada's public sector debt continues to grow, especially the federal debt. Major reform is needed. New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom have shown how it can be done, with spectacular results. Alberta, Saskatchewan, and New Brunswick have demonstrated that it can be politically popular, and Ontario and Quebec are now on the same path. Political leadership is now required for Ottawa to follow suit. Response to recognition reward at the Public Policy Forum testimonial dinner, Toronto, April 17.

From my years in government, I have developed a real respect for those elected, particularly ministers. The expectations of them are high, and too often the esteem is low.

There is a Wizard of Id comic strip that illustrates the impossible nature of their jobs. It shows a rather foppish fellow applying for unemployment insurance. The clerk asks, "What is your occupation?" The dandy replies, "Maker of myths, fables, fantasies and fairy tales." "Why are you unemployed?" persists the clerk. "My candidate lost!"

Back in the seventies, the ministers changed often but the deputy ministers were there forever. A favorite deputy line at that time was, "If the minister calls, get the name!"

I am a great beliver that the elected representatives should make the important policy decisions and that professional, non-partisan public servants should assist the decision-making process and then ensure the implementation of the result, even if it is not their recommended choice.

A deputy minister can't make a minister make a good decision, but the DM can make it more difficult for a minister to make a bad decision by ensuring that the minister is made aware of the probable consequences of possible courses of action.

During my time in government I was amazed at business's lack of understanding of government. Business is often slow to learn that business is not the centre of the universe; in fact, from a government point of view it is just another special interest group whose needs and views have to be assessed and balanced off with those of many other stakeholders.

Think of governments as potential customer, I suggest to my MBA students in their introductory class. If I want to sell a particular account, I better do my homework. I would determine what motivates my prospect, both personally and as a company. I would try and determine what the decisionmaking process was, and who would make the purchase decision.

I would try and determine if there were any other stakeholders who might have some impact on the decision and how they might be co-opted or defended against. And above all, I would be working out a way that I win and the customer wins.

Those simple, common-sense thoughts would improve the government relations of many companies, although in my MBA course I spin it out for another 12 weeks.

My involvement in government stems mainly from my experience with the Committee on Government Productivity, otherwise known as COGP, a group of "insiders" and "outsiders" made up of five [Ontario] deputy minister and five senior Ontario businessmen. Its mandate in 1970 was "to inquire into all matters pertaining to the management of the Government of Ontario and make such recommendations as in its opinion would improve its efficiency and effectivenss." Most of its recommendations were implemented to assist policy making that helped hold annual deficits to moderate levels for 20 years.

The Common Sense Revolution being implemented now in Ontario has a different perspective. The Conservative Party brought a clear agenda and a policy package into government. The challenge for the public service is to provide the structure and processes to implement and refine those policies. …