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Most people want value for money from their governments. We’re outraged at waste – whether on a $16 glass of orange juice or billions on a megaproject. Public administrators wrestle with new and better ways to measure results. But sometimes money is saved by not trying to save money.

Expenditures are made within a political context. If politicians were elected to close a plant, open one or invigorate a regional economy, don’t blame them if it wasn’t efficient – that’s what voters wanted and they can change their minds at the next election.

We also need coherent measurement criteria. Our economy is too dynamic to determine if last month’s public policy created jobs. That measurement is a waste.

We also need to separate outputs from outcomes. An output might show increased usage of more public services. Is that good? What if it’s welfare? An outcome could be more training, more employment and less welfare.

We need to think of the real value of results. If it costs $10 to find out we wasted $1, what’s the point?

Recognizing these principles might really save money.

Savings could result from trying to evaluate government spending before the money is spent.

Georgia governor and later U.S. president Jimmy Carter put zero-based budgeting in the news by using the system in Georgia in the 1970s. Massachusetts and other states experimented with the system by other names and Saskatchewan adopted a version. This budgeting begins with a question about the consequences of not engaging in an activity, quantifying these consequences and reacting accordingly. This is opposed to line-item increases or global increases year over year. It might actually eliminate some spending that’s only politically motivated, or has no known need or outcome.

As for coherent criteria, certain publicly administered activities don’t need certain types of measurement, or perhaps any measurement.

An example might be policing. Police services often measure themselves on response time. They take pride in cutting response times by a few seconds to show swift action after citizens’ calls. However, when the vast majority of calls aren’t time sensitive, this metric is irrelevant. Rapid response at high speed with sirens blaring to a false alarm or death by natural causes is both irrelevant and dangerous to public safety.

Consider also the time taken to deliver letters and parcels by the post office. Since the proliferation of couriers, the post office’s share of time-sensitive business mail has shrunk. The measurement of time taken to deliver discretionary, ordinary mail seems irrelevant. Do consumers even know or care if it’s two, three, five or more days? They may, but this should be determined. Moreover, should public administrators take pride in and be judged on the swift delivery of passports, drivers’ licences, health cards and such to average citizens?  Is 24 hours for a passport appropriate? Or should the administrator be judged favourably for a slower delivery time but a more thorough background check?

Given that just one Canadian province, Ontario, may have up to one million more health cards in existence than there are residents, wouldn’t slower delivery times, more thorough checks and fewer cards issued be appropriate?

Let’s manage what’s a problem. If citizens aren’t complaining about the time it takes to send a postcard to relatives across the country, and if the postcards arrive, there seems little point in studying something that no one is clambering to know more about.

Should we study because we can or because we should?

Citizens aren’t anxious customers at a fast-food restaurant. Public administrators should slow down and get budgeting right – and save money on evaluation after the fact.

Troy Media columnist Dr. Allan Bonner has consulted on some of the major planning and public policy issues of our time on five continents over 25 years. He is the author of Safer Cities. His forthcoming book is Cyber City Safe. 

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