Wednesday, February 9, 2011

What Balanced Government Looks Like

Now, here's an idea New Brunswick should really look at. In Michigan, Governor Snyder has unveiled the Michigan Dashboard, a web site that identifies the key areas where government will try to improve. It sets out where the state is today, where they rank nationally, and pledges to track progress. This makes the mission for public servants more clear and makes government more accountable.

Looking at the site, one is struck by the fact that Gov. Snyder has a full vision for his state. Tackling the state's indebtedness is a key indicator, but so are social outcomes like infant mortality and wealth-producing measurements like education. Essentially, unlike our government, he recognizes that good policy comes from evaluating the full effect of choices.

This kind of leadership allows for better service to citizens, because front line workers know the game plan, and where the first priority for scarce dollars should be. We can again contrast this with New Brunswick, where front line workers are frustrated because there is no sense from this government what their social priorities should be. Minister Dube has never said what the measure of good health care should be. School leaders are wondering when Minister Carr will tell them what the learning agenda is, instead of simply providing a cutting agenda. And poverty activists are wondering if Minister Stultz will ever share a vision for how she will implement the poverty reduction plan beyond empty platitudes about spending less.

In fact, the Michigan Dashboard approach would make for a better fight against the deficit, because it makes priorities clear. Spending that furthers these priorities should come ahead of spending that doesn't. This would be better than the muddle we have from the Alward government, where one day Minister Higgs tells us we need to distinguish between needs and wants, and the next day suggests through choices that telling school districts to restrict hirings of TAs and training of teachers is an example of luxury, but removing bridge tolls is somehow an urgent need that MUST trump the quality of our schools. (indeed, election gimmicks like freezing power rates and eliminating ambulance fees for even the wealthiest citizens would have a hard time passing muster if they had to be linked to even one policy outcome on the Michigan Dashboard).

Some indicators would be different here than in Michigan, but the approach would be sound. In fact, basing decisions on clear goals and evidence is preferable to what we see in New Brunswick, where the exercise appears to be keeping the end goals unclear so government can make political calculations around the budget. If Premier Alward chose to steal this idea, I would have to commend him for letting his ministers know they will be judged on the good they do, not just the things they cut.

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