Governments Should Announce Results, Instead of Spending

The carpenters’ mantra — measure twice but cut once — says when you have limited resources move carefully because you have only one chance to get it right. Failure to follow this wisdom can […]
Published on January 15, 2020

The carpenters’ mantra — measure twice but cut once — says when you have limited resources move carefully because you have only one chance to get it right. Failure to follow this wisdom can lead to costly waste.

Outcomes. Results. Value. While governments struggle to understand, act, and then report to taxpayers, unfortunately their targets, if they have any, are too often vague and then missed. This applies particularly to the governments of Manitoba and Winnipeg as they make decisions on adding programs while expanding and maintaining public infrastructure, all funded by precious tax revenue.

Take Bus Rapid Transit for example. Winnipeg, building rapid transit for the sake of saying that we have rapid transit, has committed $2 billion (for a start) without assuring that the results will make transit better, faster, safer, and cheaper. Will this massive financial gamble ensure Winnipeggers will get where they need to go on time with more leaving their cars home and choosing transit? We don’t know, neither does city hall.

If not confident with the plan, then we ought to be considering other, perhaps more effective ways, of improving transit. City hall should never risk throwing good money after bad without demonstrating that the chosen approach will actually improve service.

Downtown bike lanes are yet another example of faith-based spending without carefully considering likely outcomes. Just what is the expected benefit for the expenditure? Will it increase the number of bike commuters per week? Or, reduce the number of cyclist-vehicle collisions? And, how have the recently added lanes affected those numbers?

And, what about the full costs of separate lanes? Also, now unknown. It is not just the upfront cost of infrastructure spending, but also the negative effect on local business through reduced traffic flow and parking. And as it stands now, our city continues to expand the program, exercising not much more than blind faith. We haven’t seen any data indicating that the (largely unknown) goals will be met. 

Politicians are not experts in transit, nor in urban planning, water treatment, health care, education, or in the many other complicated aspects of government. Given that, they should insist on objective measures of success for changes in the various services they are ultimately responsible for. Good governance requires true transparency coming from “hard data.” 

The problem (and budget) is bigger at the provincial level. All the numbers we have, reveal chronically low performance across Manitoba’s public sector. Among the longest waiting lists in the country’s third-most expensive health-care system. The lowest-performing schools on international rankings despite having among the most expensive budgets.

Taxpayers should demand annual report cards for the different levels of government — federal, provincial, municipal. The report cards should provide performance metrics such as cost per road-kilometre-year, dollars per on-time bus ride, and cost per household for curbside pick-up, sorting and landfill. Most high-performing governments measure and publish their results using activity cost-based accounting and other measurement techniques.

Politicians should not make emotional and faddish decisions with taxpayers’ hard-earned money. When our elected officials employ decisions based on true measurement we may finally arrive at the day where we citizens will stop hearing spending” announcements and start hearing results” announcements. 

Wouldn’t that be a welcome change for a brand-new decade?

Jenny Motkaluk is Manitoba Director of Private Partnerships and Engagement at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy

Republished from the Winnipeg Sun

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