WINNIPEG — It is a measure of how bad things have gotten elsewhere that the Pallister government’s recent budget was received by many with relief.
In comparison to Twitter tirades and missile launches, it was measured and thoughtful.
Yet, in comparison to what the province needs at a pivotal point in its economic and environmental history, it accomplished little that was positive and confused inefficiency with problems in systems design.
To use a well-worn Titanic analogy, it sorted out the dinner menu in first-class, reorganized the schedule for shovelling coal, ensured the people in steerage had access to some fresh air and polished the brass. It did nothing to deal with icebergs ahead or ongoing misjudgments about speed, course and design.
Trimming expenditures is a poor way of increasing efficiency. Expectations are never reduced, just the resources for accomplishing them, according to the mantra of "doing more with less." Reducing program budgets leaves staff nothing to do, which then justifies eliminating staff for not doing anything — undermining the morale that might inspire people to find creative new ways of doing things.
Of course, these cuts also tend to be made by people who are measuring only bottom lines, following through on mandates to cut expenditures or staff such as "by 15 per cent."
Is there inefficiency in government? Absolutely. Could we get more done by spending less? Certainly. Can it be done by just cutting things? Not a chance — inefficiency is the consequence of poor system design.
Government needs to use its role, its authority and its budget to leverage social and cultural changes. It can’t make those changes by main force, any more than it can control the economy. Out of a long list of potential budget examples, what system efficiencies could be leveraged in other ways?
Post-secondary education is crucial for the future of our society, educating citizens to engage the world around them and to acquire skills to do something useful. That means more students, better teachers and state-of-the-art facilities, but not more and higher-paid managers. Compare the ballooning costs of administration at the University of Manitoba and Red River College with the University of Winnipeg, for example, and you will get a good idea of where inefficiencies lie.
As someone who has taught at all three institutions, I have seen up close the inequities of a system that funds them by lump sum, block operating grants instead of per student. Since I was a student there in the 1970s, the U of W has always been underfunded in comparative terms — this budget widens the gap, while at the same time increasing tuition and eliminating the tax benefit of students staying in Manitoba after graduation. To call this "counter-intuitive" to what post-secondary education requires would be polite.
Want efficiency? Make government funding per capita, depending on enrolment. Offer free tuition to students who get acceptable grades — and, in return, get something back from them. For example, only allow into medical schools students who agree to spend their first five years practising in rural Manitoba.
Most of our provincial budget goes into health care, or rather, into sick care. We should reduce those costs by encouraging people not to get sick as young, as seriously, and as often. For example, the real answer to the explosion of Type 2 diabetes is not more dialysis machines, but better food and exercise for the people who are becoming diabetic. People who don’t get sick don’t need care — and broccoli costs less than dialysis.
The government’s effort to save costs (sorry, increase efficiency) by rearranging emergency services defies physics. Since most emergencies happen at home, anyone who lives in the Winnipeg area east of the Red River or north of the Perimeter just had their life expectancy reduced by the extra 15 minutes (in good weather and no traffic) it will take to get to an emergency room.
Should the system be rationalized? Yes — but include physics (along with geography and weather) in the calculation.
Making sustainability part of the process is not only healthier, but it is also smart business. Decreasing greenhouse gas emissions requires everyone to be accountable for their own carbon footprint. Implement a carbon tax, rebated to the most vulnerable, that generates revenue to fund alternatives in transportation, heating and production instead of doing nothing but make us feel guilty.
Finally, if you really want efficiency, support the organizations that co-ordinate and manage the millions of volunteer hours given by Manitobans to improve the quality of our life together. Civil society groups are the life-blood of a healthy society, doing things government could never afford to provide — and in ways we tend to notice only after these valuable organizations are gone.
» Peter Denton chairs the policy committee of the Green Action Centre. This column was also recently published by the Winnipeg Free Press.