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D'Avignon: Why we should keep an eye on BC's core services review
(Vancouver Sun)

There is nothing easy about governing in tough economic times, but it can provide the impetus to assess priorities, focus resources and think more innovatively about the provision of public services.

While governments typically have internal checks and balances to ensure new budget expenditures are done in a systematic manner through the Treasury Board, cabinet and a variety of budget development processes, in Canada more comprehensive reviews of existing expenditures have tended to be done on a more ad hoc basis.

Frequently, these ad hoc reviews have been linked to changes in government and a desire for new approaches that meld political and policy directions to re-shape government. However, in recent times many of these reviews have been driven less by ideology and more by fiscal and technological imperatives.

Labour/democratic governments in the U.S., Britain, Australia, and in Scandinavia have been as active as conservative-leaning governments in the U.S., continental Europe, and elsewhere in launching broad-based reviews that aim to reform government service delivery.

Here in B.C., the 2001-2002 ‘core services review’ undertaken by the newly elected Liberal government was an important step in looking systematically at the structures and methods utilized by government to deliver on defined mandates and budgets. The scope of the review was sweeping, covering every Crown corporation and ministry, literally from top to bottom.

A review of the government service plans that resulted from this process shows just how comprehensive the changes were — from new ways of looking at capital expenditures through P3s, to new quasi-government crown corporations, to re-purposed ministries with revised mandates and budgets. The results of the review put a new foundation in place that shaped much of the policy and program work of the Gordon Campbell administration.

Over the last decade the B.C. government has built on the core service review platform, with an innovative public service that is highly regarded in the areas of alternative service delivery, P3 capital projects, and administrative innovation. However, the world is changing. B.C. is confronted with a new set of challenges and opportunities and many other jurisdictions are also working to deal innovatively with the fiscal and economic challenges coming out of the financial crisis and related recession.

B.C., like many western jurisdictions, is also facing an aging workforce with significant implications for all employers and government services.

Now is an opportune time for B.C. to initiate a fresh review of all aspects of government to assess what is working well, what needs to change and what opportunities are available to accelerate change and deliver service improvements. As the government goes through this important exercise, there are a number of things that can be done to increase the odds of a successful outcome:

First, government should look far and wide for examples of new alternative service-delivery models and other forms of public sector innovation. Much has changed over the last decade in terms of global reform of public administration. While the B.C. civil service has performed well, other jurisdictions have been confronted with even more pressing budget and service challenges — which have stimulated innovation by necessity. Of particular note are recent reforms in Britain in terms of digital strategy and shared services.

Second, it is important to engage British Columbians in the review exercise. If there was an overall challenge with the first core review in the early 2000s, it was that there was simply too much change all at once. While the open government initiatives assisted with transparency and there was some stakeholder consultation, overall there was little real communication with the public. This may have improved core-services review efficiency, but the speed of change may also have had a negative impact on the efficacy and understanding of some initiatives.

Third, be sure to have a mix of inside and outside perspectives on core services. The Business Council of B.C.’s experience with the civil service on service improvement has largely been a positive one, with a high level of openness to new ideas as well as proactive engagement for new policy and program proposals. Given the time constraints that many civil servants face, there is also an opportunity and need to have current service users and policy innovators outside of government actively engaged.

Fourth, there is an overarching need to view this review not simply as a cost-saving measure, but as a service innovation and improvement exercise. Reallocations and cost savings can, and should be found, but B.C. already has a reasonably cost-effective government. With overarching challenges such as an aging population and eroding business competitiveness and new opportunities such as LNG, and the implications of rapidly changing technologies and the speed of adoption by citizens, there is urgency to re-tooling the civil service.

In this regard Bill Bennett’s direction as the minister responsible for the core review from Premier Christy Clark and his initial comments are clearly on the right track — this is an effort to improve and reform government, not to simply try to downsize further.

Finally, the Business Council agrees with a recent release put out by the B.C. Government Employee’s Union, the BCGEU, which states “a genuine review of government services can lead to important improvements.” We share this view — the review is a timely and important exercise that hopefully will bring forward new ideas for improving government services in B.C.

Greg D’Avignon is the president and CEO of the Business Council of British Columbia.

As publichsed in the Vancouver Sun