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Doing Less with Less

All Things Considered - June 2012


There was a whole lot of “eff”ing going on in the recent federal budget. “Eff”ing in the sense of “efficiency.”
There was also some mention of another “eff” word – effectiveness – but it was put in terms of “cost-effective.” “Streamlining “ was another word that got a lot of play.

A section of the budget papers dedicated to the Agriculture and Agri-Food Portfolio captures all of this very succinctly: “Agriculture and Agri-Food portfolio organizations will streamline their operations and reduce operating costs, while making sure services are provided to farmers and the agriculture industry in the most cost-effective and efficient way.”

Surely no one can be opposed to this. But given the dearth of details, it will be months or perhaps years before the reality of streamlining, efficiency and cost-effectiveness plays out at the barn and kitchen table level.

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But a skeptical or perhaps cynical view of the agriculture portion of the budget is that it proposes doing more – or at least all that is necessary – with less. Having some practical experience in working for a company that after a takeover proudly stated its plan was to do more with less before slashing budgets, it quickly became clear that wasn’t much of a plan. We did less with less, and customers noticed. The company succeeded in bringing operating costs down, but it also devalued its franchise and had to resume hiring and spending in an attempt to rebuild its customer base.

Doing more with less is a bumper sticker with great appeal. Doing less with less doesn’t have the same resonance except perhaps for adherents of Ayn Rand, who seem to believe a return to a form of governance popular in Europe in the late 18th and early 19th centuries is desirable.

Canadians also have some experience in doing less with less. Late in the last century the Liberal government faced chronic deficits. It opted to do less with less and succeeded in eliminating the deficits at the federal level. Much of this was done, more than is commonly appreciated, by reforming the Unemployment Insurance Program and capturing money from the program for general revenues. Another portion of federal spending was eliminated by employing trickle-down responsibility. In effect the federal government did less and the provinces were made responsible for more. The provinces employed their own version of trickle-down by passing responsibility down to municipalities.

This has continued in recent years and I watched some of it play out while covering a local council for a weekly newspaper. I hadn’t reported on a municipal council for several decades, but took on the job because I thought it would be an interesting add-on to my responsibilities at this magazine. It proved more than that.

That council was struggling with its added responsibilities. It faced added health and welfare costs, its property tax base was being eroded as long-established companies closed their doors and its ratepayers would rise en masse at even the hint of anything more than a nominal increase in residential property taxes.

It was juggling live grenades while riding an unstable unicycle. A severe winter blew up its snow-clearing budget. An epidemic of potholes destroyed its road maintenance budget. Police costs kept rising. But those problems were almost normal.

What wasn’t normal was the appearance of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) at council meetings. These NGOs provided health and welfare services to the most disadvantaged in the community. They provided counselling, rudimentary job training and job placement, and operated food banks. They were collapsing. The little bit of money they had received from the federal and provincial governments had dried up. Private donations had slowed.

Volunteers were burning out. The council quickly recognized that if the NGOs folded, some of the tasks they were performing would be passed on to the municipality. It also recognized that it had neither the staff nor the money to do what the NGOs were doing.

The municipality opted for the most humane and rational option and dipped into its shallow pool of funds and started writing fairly substantial cheques. They managed to keep the NGOs afloat. But it did strain the budget.

It is that kind of trickle-down I worry about with the current federal budget. Take, for example, food safety. If the CFIA cuts do affect food safety, the provinces, many of which are also cutting, are unlikely to pick up the slack. It could fall onto the shoulders of local health officers to carry more of the load and they don’t have the resources or, in many cases, the ability.

Streamlining, efficiency and effectiveness are all terrific, and getting rid of ineffective programs and wiping away inefficiency are good things. But if the programs are essential, if streamlining eliminates checks on those trying to game the system for personal profit and if cost effectiveness means passing the buck down to others less well equipped, then it is neither effective nor efficient.