Collaboration best course for public service efficiency, delivery

Each month, the Ontario government writes a cheque for $1 billion. It doesn’t go to classrooms, hospitals, or roads. The money is paid as interest to those who invested in the Province. It’s out of control, yet for years, those tasked with minding the budget just kept spending and spending. Without attention, the amount will grow larger. There’s a choice, then, to pay now or to pay more later.

Ontario residents, weary of high hydro bills and taxes voted for a change and thrust Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives into a majority position at Queen’s Park. If they felt it was time to bench the Liberals — and it was probably past time — there was a distinct choice between the NDP, which was offering continued high spending and the austerity supporting PCs. A choice was made.

It’s not surprising, then, that Ford and his team have shown great zeal in getting down to business and making decisions they believe will help to balance the books. It’s also not surprising that in some corners, particularly in public sector unions who hold long memories of abrasive relationships with Mike Harris and Tim Hudak view the direction government will take less enthusiastically.

The toxic nature of that relationship is starting to show itself as the Ontario Public Service Employees Union is advertising for a “storm ahead,” while teachers’ unions have vociferously opposed the government’s proposal to increase class sizes and decrease funding to some supports currently in place. Labour disruption can be difficult for everyone involved including employees, clients, and those in management, but that also makes them an effective tool to influence policy decisions.

While reform is never easy for anyone — particularly when it may impact rights earned through collective bargaining and negotiation — there must be a realization that changes are needed and a willingness within the public sector to have earnest discussions about where and how to hold the line and create savings. Unfortunately, the previous government didn’t seem to want to have those difficult discussions and it has made the task more monumental. Public service salaries and positions grew steadily, while many in the private sector were going without raises while trying to pay their bills. Innocent workers and clients shouldn’t be made to pay concessions for the previous government’s lack of foresight, but one would hope they’re willing to lead a charge to innovate and provide options for savings that would have less of a negative impact on their workforce.

Of course, it takes two to tango, too. While the current group at Queen’s Park sees a mandate and a will to move forward, it needs to truly engage its citizens and provide fulsome information for informed decision making. On education alone, for example, data comparing class sizes in other jurisdictions and outcomes for student success would create more trust and ground for discussion. Perhaps, a fully engaged public might see the case for savings though attrition if they’re convinced the model can be improved in other ways. The government must be sure that it has support for another four years or any change it proposes could be short-lived.

It’s our collective duty to hold the line on those billions of dollars and eventually reduce the bill for future generations while providing the best, most cost-effective services for today. Everyone needs to roll up their sleeves and work collaboratively to produce the most effective solutions.

– Adam Bramburger