Dwight Duncan is more than willing to admit that his government needs to do a better job ensuring that its money is being spent properly, and that he's tired of only learning about waste and inefficiencies in the Auditor-General's annual report.
So in hope of meeting deficit-reduction targets and appeasing credit raters, the Ontario Finance Minister is set to unleash teams of auditors, analysts and outside consultants to conduct top-to-bottom reviews of provincial spending – kick-starting a process that will likely lead to some programs being privatized, and others being cut back or eliminated altogether.
In an interview, Mr. Duncan said that the structure of the so-called "productivity teams" will be hammered out at a Treasury Board meeting this Thursday, and that he hopes to have them out in the field by the end of June.
"I've been on Treasury Board since we were elected, and I've been chair now for five years," he said. "I just never got the feeling that we were systematically looking at things. And every year when the Auditor-General's report comes out, I'd say to myself, 'how is it this stuff doesn't get picked up internally?' "
He hastened to add that he subsequently realized some problems are in fact fixed before they become big enough for the Auditor-General to take notice, and that the coming reviews will be "less about finding horrible scenarios of waste and abuse than about making sure we're maximizing every dollar we're spending, and bringing the kind of discipline that's needed at a time like this."
Mr. Duncan billed the new teams as the "implementation" follow-up to economist Don Drummond's government-commissioned report on the future of public services, which was released to considerable hype earlier this year.
Whereas Mr. Drummond took a relatively broad look at provincial spending habits, the coming reviews are expected to be much more specific. For individual programs, Mr. Duncan said, three questions will be asked: "Are they delivering what they're supposed to be delivering? Are they delivering it as efficiently as possible? And are there some things we can do better?"
With the province already facing major battles with public-sector unions, Mr. Duncan did not deny that the process is likely to lead to some jobs being contracted out or eliminated. But he suggested that an aging work force represents "a pretty good opportunity" to downsize through attrition, rather than layoffs.
Among the familiar challenges the government will face, as it seeks to get a better understanding of its programs, is reticence within the provincial bureaucracy. "People are naturally uneasy about telling you how things could be done better, because they're worried about their own job," Mr. Duncan conceded, echoing a frustration expressed by Mr. Drummond after he had completed his review.
In an apparent effort to get past turf protection, the government is changing the way its auditors function – having them report to Treasury Board, rather than to their own ministries. And Mr. Duncan is hoping that management consultants from outside government will provide fresh sets of eyes where needed.
For the opposition Progressive Conservatives and other critics who have accused the Liberals of stalling since the release of the Drummond report, the launch of yet more reviews – after 8½ years in power – is likely to provide additional ammunition.
So, too, is the fact that unlike Mr. Drummond, the teams will provide internal reports rather than public ones. That will make it even easier for the Liberals to reject recommendations they don't think are politically palatable, at a time when their caucus is known to be divided over how far to go with austerity measures.
At the same time, the new strategy may provide some reassurance that the government is moving toward structural changes aimed at long-term stability, rather than just short-term deficit reduction. With the exception of their recent focus on a two-year public-sector wage freeze, the Liberals have generally followed Mr. Drummond's recommendation not to undertake across-the-board restraint measures with only temporary impact – and Mr. Duncan insists the ongoing series of spending reviews will instead lead to a cultural change within government.
"The old model around here – and this is I think what Drummond was getting at – is that if you have a problem, you spend more money," Mr. Duncan said. "As opposed to saying, if it's not working, do we need to be doing it?"
That Mr. Duncan will even get to try that model assumes that the Liberals will remain in power beyond next April 24, when their budget will be brought to a confidence vote in a minority legislature. If not, he'll undoubtedly regret not starting sooner. In the meanwhile, as negotiations with the provincial New Democrats play out in public, perhaps the most critical aspect of the government's new fiscal plan will be launched behind closed doors.