Shifting the Policy Emphasis from Inputs to Results

Commentary, Role of Government, David Seymour

Last week’s “shorter than normal” Speech from the Throne offered little for political commentators or the Opposition. Nothing in the speech jumped out and said, “Wow, the NDP would not have done this.” Even the Saskatchewan Party’s most ardent critics are struggling to make hay from speculation that a vast right-wing conspiracy is rearing its head. It may be disappointing that the Royal address of the new government is so bland, but there is a more subtle theme in the speech that is non-partisan but very important to the way this province is governed.

Quite simply, the speech is based on increasing the inputs given to government departments. It reads like Santa’s Christmas list, promising resources to departments here and there but without the good behavior clause. Four examples are promises of 150 more police officers, 800 more nurses, a 20% increase in K-12 funding and 100 more long-term addiction treatment beds. On the other hand, the total number of public servants is set to be capped in line with population growth (presumably, if the population shrank, people would have to be fired).

This column may seem mean-spirited because it is criticizing promises that are obviously popular, given the election result. Let us be clear that inputs in themselves are not a bad thing; the issue is that they should be a way of achieving goals, not the goals themselves. We do not necessarily want more police officers or nurses, or flusher schools. We certainly do not want an extra 100 people in long-term addiction treatment beds, and why would anyone think we happen to have the ideal ratio of public servants to citizens right now? All these input promises appear in bold type on the official Throne Speech document, but they are poor substitutes for actual results.

The real goal of policing is public safety, and it should not matter if the police department puts everyone in Saskatchewan on the payroll or hires Robocop to do the job all by himself. The same can be said for more nurses when more treatment is the real goal or for more addiction beds when we really want less drug abuse, and so on. Results are what should count, but politically popular inputs are not always the best way to achieve them.

More nurses will certainly help health care, but the question is how much, and why 800? To pick up the police example, one of the police force’s key objectives must now be to hire more police officers. This is probably not the best strategy for the real goal of making citizens safer, but the question is now closed for four years. What if a creative police chief believed he or she could catch a lot more criminals with a helicopter? No matter, hiring more officers is now the priority.

When elected officials stipulate more inputs for old models rather than focus on achieving outcomes and goals, flexibility is lost and accountability follows shortly after. Whatever happens with actual crime, the provincial government will be judged by whether or not more police uniforms were filled. Whom does the voter hold accountable for safer streets when there was never such a goal anyway? As for flexibility, the police already have their strategic options pre-limited by the highest speech in the land.

A paradigm shift to an outputs-based model is needed. Instead of promising to hire more police and to create more beds for addicts, the provincial government should be promising to reduce burglaries by X per cent and to get drug harm to Y level with overall taxes rising by no more than Z or whatever else the voters might demand.

The policy models required to do this are not new. Twenty years ago, some Commonwealth countries started moving to this paradigm. There is a wealth of experience for Saskatchewan to learn from, whether it is the Core Public Sector reforms of New Zealand or the output-based goals of British municipalities. Instead of meddling in the way departments do their jobs, governments request a service for a price and then give the department heads the freedom to achieve it however they see fit within their budgets.

While the usual haggling of partisan politics is relatively quiet for a new government, it is time for a new policy model that shifts what parties promise and how they expect it to be delivered. The goal should be departments delivering results, period, not making the best of their politically motivated resource allocations.