Roses are red, violets are blue, the two most terrifying words for a bureaucrat are ‘project review’

To most of us, the words “program review” are just routine bureaucratic jargon. But to senior officials, they sound a lot like an air raid siren.

To most of us, the words “program review” are just routine bureaucratic jargon.

But to senior officials, they sound a lot like an air raid siren.

The program review by the Liberal government of Jean Chretien and Paul Martin in the 1990s succeeded in reducing program spending from $119 billion in fiscal 1994 to $105 billion two years later, a cut of over 10 per cent. A cut half as big for the Yukon government would equate to over $65 million annually. If half of that was from personnel cuts, and if you assume the average government employee costs $75,000 per year, over 750 government jobs would be affected.

So you can see why officials take program reviews seriously.

And, like generals in old war movies, some bureaucrats think the best response is to throw up all the flak and smokescreens you’ve got to distract the enemy, and to move everything important as deep underground as possible. Canny senior officials will do their best to distract ministers with thick briefing books, invitations to out-of-town conferences and lots of meetings about anything other than the programs being reviewed.

Like the British in the Second World War, strategic deception is important. If possible, such officials want to focus the attention on targets as far away from their programs as possible. The wiliest bureaucratic warriors will start whispering in the corridors, planting information that will lead program-review analysts right to where the least efficient skeletons of rival departments are buried. Senior officials savvy in the dark arts will usually have this information in a handy dossier in their private Gmail accounts. Indeed, they may have already shared it with the Auditor General or the press.

Undoubtedly, senior Yukon government officials are currently thinking through their strategies for the upcoming Yukon Program Review, which was announced in Premier Sandy Silver’s recent throne speech.

News cartoonist Wyatt Tremblay summed up the general response to Silver’s first throne speech in a clever cartoon. This showed a Yukoner at the breakfast table pouring a box of “Throne Speech Lite” cereal into his bowl, but seeing only one lonely policy flake come out.

However, to switch meal metaphors the program review could be beef in a speech that was mostly bun.

In the last 10 years, the Yukon government operations and maintenance (O&M) budget has gone up by a whopping $436 million, which is a 67 per cent increase from the $649 million budgeted in fiscal 2007. No organization in the world could spend this much new money without funding a few programs that didn’t work out as well as planned, and which could be adjusted or reduced to fund other more important government programs.

So Silver’s program review could have a major impact. But program reviews are tricky, and many have failed over the years at governments around the world.

I have been involved in a few such exercises for governments and corporations. There are a few things that are critical to success.

The first is to give citizens and government workers a convincing reason for why the review is necessary. No one ever wants to lose their government job, but it is especially galling if the reason is a vague call for government to be “more efficient.” Sometimes leaders communicate that a financial crisis is forcing the review, or that the savings will be reallocated to popular measures such as tax cuts or green energy.

Second, it’s also important to make sure your target is big enough to be worth the trouble. Stirring up fear and controversy across the public service to save one per cent of your budget isn’t worth it. Inflation will eat up the savings in just a few months and you’ll be left with little to show for the effort.

Many people criticized the “renewal” program of the last Liberal government in 2000-02 on these two fronts.

Leadership is also critical. Jean Chretien backed Paul Martin fully on the painful 1990s program review. In contrast, recall the time former Yukon MP and deputy Prime Minister Erik Nielsen was asked by Brian Mulroney to lead a wide-ranging program review in Ottawa in the 1980s. Nielsen led a rigorous process that produced lots of efficiency ideas, but Mulroney shied away from the political challenges in implementing them. The big deficit Mulroney inherited from Pierre Trudeau was no smaller when he left office.

The third thing is to have a strong team with enough people. You need an active and disciplined secretariat, to make sure the right data and analysis gets collected on time as well as to track the changes all the way to implementation. And you need experts deployed to work with each department. This is important to bring new ideas and fresh perspectives to efficiency, as well as to spot any officials who may be underplaying the opportunities in their bailiwicks.

Finally, it is important to make smart cuts. Instead of across-the-board cuts, programs with weak rationales should be cut more and priority ones reinforced. And you should push departments to make fundamental changes in how they do business. For example, not filling a vacant role in the motor vehicles department and expecting everyone else to do more work is not sustainable. But changing from annual license plate renewals to two-year renewals will halve the number of applications they have to process each week.

If the throne speech was the trailer for Yukon Program Review, then stay tuned along with the rest of the critics for the feature presentation over the coming months.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.

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