Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Policy Innovation Equation

I think a political rant is long overdue, so I'd like to comment on a remark by Matthew Mendelsohn, directory of the Mowat Centre for Policy Innovation at the University of Toronto.  I'm sure the Mowat Centre has put forward some very good work, and Mr. Mendelsohn has some thoughtful insights that you can read about elsewhere, and I already confess to taking his remark out of context.  But it's a line I hear repeated ad nauseam and frankly it doesn't wash.

Mr. Mendelsohn's remark went something like this.
The general public often expects the government to promote conflicting interests at the same time.  For example, the general public might want the government to provide a balanced budget, continue public services, and stop raising taxes all at the same time.
I know these things are complicated, and that lots of factors are involved, but the above statement totally ignores perhaps the most obvious variable in the equation, a variable that is paramount in private enterprise, but which seems to be almost non-existent in most parts of our government.  That variable is efficiency, and the government isn't very good at it.

Since moving to Ottawa, I've formed numerous friendships with great people who work in the federal government, and I've lost track of the times I've sat dumbfounded listening to stories of bureaucratic incompetence, waste and inefficiency on a huge scale.  Millions and millions wasted... the familiar sort of cavalier way in which these stories are tossed off, with an air of mixed incredulity, resignation, ambivalence and - dare I say - a hint of smugness.

Yeah, assuming efficiency is a constant (say, near zero), you really don't have much room for improvement towards a balanced budget, continued services, and limited taxation.  But all of those are proportional to efficiency, and if we had systems of accountability in place to measure, monitor and maintain efficiency in our government, it would go a huge distance towards improving all those other simultaneous expectations.

So, no, these aren't conflicting expectations.  They're quite reasonable, if you also consider that one of the expectations of the "general public" is that the government will operate on some scale of efficiency that is at least within an order of magnitude of the private sector's.

So why don't we have that kind of accountability?  I think basically because nobody in government wants it (witness the current mad scramble to cover up unaccounted-for MP expenses).  Measures of, and accountability for, efficiency might cut into perks, expense accounts, and the idea that one friend of mine puts this way... "See, I don't have a job, I have a position.  I really don't have to do anything, I just have to fill the position."

I can't blame him, really... many people would be delighted with such a position.  But it only exists as a result of a lack of accountability and measurability of efficiency.  I'd be very interested to know if there has been any actual work or research into practical systems of efficiency measurement and accountability for diverse operational objectives... I suspect it has been done, primarily in the study of business processes for private enterprises.  Applying some of that science in government policy... now that would be a welcome innovation.

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