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The Buru: Trading bureaucrats and budgets

Taking ideas to Ottawa is sort of like planting healthy seeds in Chernobyl. They grow, but not exactly like they do in other places.

Taking ideas to Ottawa is sort of like planting healthy seeds in Chernobyl. They grow, but not exactly like they do in other places.

This week reports emerged of a federal scheme called the “Buru,” in which federal managers will be able buy and sell the time of government workers to each other. The idea is that, say, when a team of economic development officials finishes its work on the Shania Twain Centre in Timmons and has some downtime, they can be quickly redeployed to another department to work on the Celine Dion Centre in Montreal.

This could be good for the taxpayer for two reasons: expertise and capacity utilization. Officials working on the Celine Dion Centre wouldn’t need to “re-invent the wheel” (as bureaucrats like to say) if their team included Timmons colleagues with experience in regional celebrity-based tourist attractions. The Timmons officials could also be moved quickly to the new project, instead of having slack time until another scheme in their region got the green light from Ottawa.

The capacity benefits work for seasonal work as well. The income tax call centre probably receives the most calls in April just before the deadline, while the GST centre probably gets a lot of calls when businesses with calendar year-ends have to file. You could move people between these roles to improve service to taxpayers.

The scheme remains a proposal, and full details have not been released, but presumably the assistant deputy minister of economic development in Quebec would transfer some of her budget to her counterpart in Ontario. Everyone would be happy. The Ontario boss would have some extra budget to invest in other initiatives, such as perhaps an Alex Trebek Centre in Sudbury. Meanwhile, the Quebec manager can create the Celine Dion Centre with a smaller budget.

The idea presents images of hard-nosed federal managers shouting into phones like Wall Street traders.

Cut to the director general in Whitehorse, standing, holding phone with furrowed brow, looking out fourth floor window over Main Street: “We need to close the tax office here. I’m in the market for one analyst plus two PR flacks, one for us and one to write lines for the local MP so he looks like he’s doing something.”

Senior Ottawa official, leaning back in leather swivel chair, puffing on electronic cigarette (sorry, it’s 2014): “You can have the team that closed the veterans’ hospital in Truro. But it’ll cost you 5,000 Buros plus expenses.”

DG in Whitehorse: “You think you can take me to the cleaners like some Yukon cabinet minister? You need to sharpen that pencil.”

Senior Ottawa official: “Well, there is a strike at the abattoir in Lethbridge. How about three bacon inspectors for 2,000? And I’ll throw in a crate of staplers.”

DG in Whitehorse: “Done! Put them on the bus.”

Senior Ottawa official: “Will do. And you can take me to Hy’s for steaks next time you’re in Ottawa.”

Or something like that.

The seed of the idea is not terrible. Most consulting firms work on similar principles. You hire a consultant for a specific skill set and a temporary period, then let them move on to another project. The consultant develops expertise and moves from project to project, trying to avoid time “on the beach” as much as possible.

But, implemented in a government setting, the idea starts to transmogrify.

First, what are the incentives for managers? In a consulting firm, they make more money if they sell more projects and increase capacity utilization. Will federal managers be encouraged to “sell” their staff? If so, how does this incentive relate to their incentive to have their staff do their core job well?

If the Buro incentive is too high, then officials will start treating their core task as the second priority. If it is too low, then the scheme won’t get be used. After all, building a mini-empire is part of the Ottawa game, and who would want to give up their staff for prolonged periods for no benefit?

Savvy managers will also be wary about advertising to their deputy ministers that they don’t really “need” their staff year-round. In future cuts, it might be remembered that you were able to rent out a few of your staff for prolonged periods without it hurting your core deliverables.

Second, how are the benefits distributed? In a successful consulting firm, the owners get more profits and the consultants bigger bonuses. In the Buro scheme, I am guessing that giving raises to officials is not part of the Conservative plan. And will the capacity utilization benefits be used to do more projects, or to lay off staff since there is less downtime in the system overall?

Third, will the expertise benefits really materialize? Will the right skill-sets really be transferred between departments? Or will something akin to the bacon inspector example above start happening? Will performance feedback be painfully transparent, with some kind of eBay star system for “buyers” to compare, or will it be whispered conversations in executive corridors as it is today?

I also wonder how much the scheme will cost to administer. It is essentially a competitor to today’s world of seasonal positions, contractors and consultants.

Finally, there is the deeper question about whether some federal activities need to be more efficient or if it would be better if they were simply not done at all. The Shania Twain Centre was a real economic development project that turned into a multi-million dollar sinkhole for taxpayers at the federal, provincial and municipal levels. Did it need to be created more efficiently, or not created at all?

We shall see if Ottawa proceeds with the scheme. If they do, I hope they make the trading website accessible to the public. When you check the markets, instead of just seeing the mining stocks in your RRSP continue to go down, you could also check in on the market price of your friend who works for the federal government.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. You can follow him on Channel 9’s Yukonomist show or Twitter @hallidaykeith