Friday, March 05, 2010

Inside the B.C. 2010 budget lockup

For those of you who have never been in a provincial budget lockup, this is how it is: You spend six hours flipping through page after page of financial information, scribbling asterisks in the margins here and there to signal “Important!” and folding down corners to remind yourself to go back and figure something out late.
And then you leave thinking, hey, did I learn anything new at all? Do I really have a clue about how the next year in B.C. is shaping up?
It has always been thus, ever since my first lockup in 1996 or so. I go every time thinking that maybe this once, I’m going to find the nugget, experience the “Aha!”, make somebody squirm in government by ferreting out The Thing, the one they really didn’t want to talk about.
Not so far. In my experience, it’s more like a shell game. I go up to the nice people in suits with my budget in hand and ask some variation of “Where’d the money go?” They always have a prompt and clear answer, but it’s always some variation of, “No worries, its right over here.”
Is it? Who knows? By then it’s been blended into three other funding streams, cut up across eight new programs, given a different name and shifted to another ministry. Good luck following the money.
The lockup is a provincial tradition that gives several hundred media and “stakeholders” an early look at the coming year’s budget, and to ask questions of deputy ministers and assistant deputy ministers who know their stuff. That’s the real attraction of the event, but you also get a lot of documents to browse through, too.
They call it a lockup because that’s what happens: Once you’re in, you can’t leave until the finance minister rises in the legislature around 2:30 p.m. So you’ve got a lot of time to reflect on those numbers if you arrive early enough. I guess that’s why I always think there’s a chance that in an entire six hours, I might unearth some fascinating fact, some deeper understanding of the figures.
But it’s not just because I’m no expert at numbers. The lockup this week was such a stellar example of obfuscation that I got to wondering whether that’s somebody’s job in government. So much changes budget to budget that a genuine comparison is virtually impossible unless you’re a financial analyst, and I imagine even some of them are tripped up in the fog that politics brings to an exercise like this.
One thing that’s very clear in the budget is the Liberals’ misuse of their own “performance measures” initiative. Come on, you guys! I thought it was a great idea when you started establishing measurements for government performance when you first took office, but what’s the point when you keep changing the goal posts year to year?
I keep vowing to myself I’m going to spread out all the service plans from previous budgets one of these days, and count how many times performance measurements have changed, been severely diluted, or just plain vanished since the initiative started a decade or so ago. I think it would be quite an eye-opener.
The measurements have reached the point of ridiculousness now, as a browse through the 2010-13 ministry service plans underlines. Service plans are where the ministries state their priorities for coming years and then list the performance measures they’ll be using to gauge whether they’ve succeeded.
A couple telling examples from the Ministry of Children and Family Development service plan:
The ministry’s number-one priority is to “Place primary focus on preventing vulnerability in children and youth by providing strong supports for individuals, families and community.” Absolutely. But here’s the single performance measurement the ministry will use to determine whether it’s meeting that priority: An increase in the number of single parents receiving a day-care subsidy.
Really. I can only hope that whoever actually put that into the report as the sole measurement of child and family vulnerability was embarrassed to have to do it.
Another priority calls for early intervention. Bravo. But the sole measurement is a reduction in the number of children coming into government care who are instead placed with extended family and friends.
Targets for improvement are often missed budget to budget - things like aboriginal graduate rates (50 per cent), the number of elementary-school students who are reading at expected levels( as low as 68 per cent), children starting kindergarten behind in their development (28 per cent). Who’s actually responsible for making things happen? Who do we hold accountable?
Us, I guess. We’re the ones who put up with it.

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