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Yukonomist: Accountability theatre

Premier Silver has published fresh mandate letters to his ministers.

Premier Silver has published fresh mandate letters to his ministers.

Mandate letters are supposed to give direction to ministers and allow the premier and voters to hold them accountable.

The premier set the tone in the letter he wrote to himself, assigning himself the task of reviewing the effectiveness of his own government’s pandemic response.

Sadly, I fear your boss is not going to allow you to evaluate your own work or set your own Christmas bonus.

We can now picture the premier leaning back in his swivel chair, asking himself tough questions such as “Was it helpful of me to distract my ministers and officials by calling an early election in the middle of the pandemic?”

He could get his staff to bring transcripts of the press conference where the chief medical officer explained how public health decisions were delayed while the government was in caretaker mode.

If you were really interested in learning what worked and what didn’t to be better prepared for the next crisis, you would ask someone independent to lead the review.

The letter also instructs the premier to “consider the recommendations” of the new committee on electoral reform.

You’ll note how easy that is. “Considering” something only takes a moment. That box can be ticked within 30 seconds of the committee’s report arriving in the premier’s inbox. The letter does not say anything like “recommend an option to the legislature by the end of 2022” or “hold a referendum so Yukoners can choose a new system in time for the next election.”

He also directs himself to “support the work of the [YESAB] Oversight Group in proceeding with recommendations” to support a more streamlined assessment process. Again, 30 seconds of work sending a supportive email is all you need to do to tick that box. Will he pull together a package of concrete recommendations and share them with the feds and First Nations by the end of the year? We don’t know.

Meanwhile, Yukoners with job-creating projects tied up in regulatory processes are groaning.

The premier is also the minister of finance, so there is a section on financial matters too. Remarkably, this section doesn’t mention the deficit, debt or the recommendations of the premier’s own Financial Advisory Panel. By comparison, the mandate letter of the federal finance minister includes a specific mandate to reduce the national debt as a share of the economy.

One thing notably absent from the premier’s letter is reflection on how Yukoners responded to the results of the last batch of mandate letters. That is, that the Liberals lost the popular vote in the last election by seven points.

The language in the letters reminded me of George Orwell’s quip in Politics and the English Language that political language is often designed to “give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Well-managed teams often use something called SMART goals. These are goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely.

Consider the minister of education’s mandate letter. It has lots of fine language about the need to “work to create successful learning outcomes,” “improve educational programs” and “implement a student outcomes strategy.”

But it is not specific. Improve which programs? How? What is the measure of improvement? There is not a single number in the whole section, and not a reference to metrics such as graduation rates, attendance rates or student test results. And the premier sets no deadlines.

So, instead of SMART goals, the minister of education has VA goals: Vague but easily Achievable, all the better to avoid political embarrassment.

The letter is also unclear on prioritization. Creating a varsity sports program at Yukon University appears in the letter at the same level of priority as improving educational programs and developing a First Nations School Board Framework.

When prime ministers and premiers first started publishing mandate letters, there was a freshness to the practice. While always political documents, I have seen many that have most of the SMART letters in them.

Current federal mandate letters include things like “plant two billion incremental trees over the next 10 years” or “install up to 5,000 additional charging stations.”

The mandate letters of the previous Yukon Party government were also vague and lacking measurable goals. This means the mandate letter exercise in the Yukon has devolved to a kind of accountability theatre by an amateur drama troupe.

The premier of the day writes some long letters filled with big words and lots of acronyms. Then the rest of the actors play out their roles. The play ends during the next election campaign, when the whole troupe comes out on stage and declares they have achieved their goals on your behalf.

We’ll see how the audience — you, the voters — review the play during the next election.

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 and received the bronze for Outstanding Columnist in the 2019 Canadian Community Newspaper Awards.