Comment: We do not need more program review. We need program execution.

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At the end of the competitive 2010 election campaign, at a time when the total financial impacts of numerous new spending commitments were still being assessed, the new government was presented, for the first time, with an introduction to the demographic and economic reality of our province, prepared by the civil service. At that time, the deficit for 2010/11 was forecasted to be $820.4 million, and trending higher.
 
By contrast, today's government entered office with a 2014/15 deficit forecasted to be $377 million, and trending downward - a $443 million improvement. This demonstrates a reduction in expense growth over the previous four years, from an average rate of 5.9% to 0.8%. This was a direct result of strong expenditure management practices that was a daily focus.
 
We started our Government Renewal process by engaging experienced, professional civil servants in an intense review of all government services and programs. We identified over 300 initiatives within the first 12 months of our mandate.  The government of today will now repeat this exercise, over another 12 months, but is calling it Program Review.
 
Traditionally, roadblocks - political and otherwise - along with a highly bureaucratic process make timely implementation of government initiatives extremely difficult. To address this reality, a Project Management team was formed, with 2 experienced business executives, 2 senior civil servants, and myself as Finance Minister. We reported directly to the Premier's Office, and had detailed scorecards to measure performance.
 
Eleven initiatives across various departments were targeted to achieve the best return on investment.  This was successful; using this approach, we reduced expenses in 2013/14 by more than the targeted $326 million, and we were on track to achieve a further reduction this year of $218 million.
 
We had scratched only the surface to execute the many improvement opportunities within government, and information relating to all these initiatives is still available to the new government.  Unfortunately, it disbanded the project management team immediately disbanded upon its arrival.
 
Public input is certainly required as part of the budget preparation process. This is why we undertook extensive consultations - some of the most frank and open discussions many New Brunswickers have seen in a generation. We created the "Taxpayers First" website to provide a forum for citizens to communicate directly with government, which received over 35,000 visits and over 500 individual comments or suggestions. Many direct letters were also received and ideas recorded by the Department of Finance. We kept records of the priority themes and discussion points put forward, which is also available to the new government. But now it will do the same thing, under the name "Engage NB". Perhaps it should be called "Recycle NB" instead.
 
Here is the reality. Changes in government make it difficult to build on past successes.  Continuous improvement is hard to achieve when targets and objectives shift, and projects are abandoned, on the swearing in of a new government. Too often, ill-conceived and poorly thought out ideas are generated on the campaign trail to curry favour, and the civil service is left to devise a creative way to make them happen. The basic political instinct is to oppose or promise to undo what the last government has done.
 
Given this reality, our goal to move the province forward was:
 
1)                 To establish and strengthen the legislative and policy guidelines to encourage and enforce better behaviour;
 
2)                 To establish a long-term vision for success and to develop realistic and measurable targets that are well understood and communicated; and
 
3)                 To develop leadership within the civil service to take ownership for continuously improving service delivery to the citizens of this province, while at the same time living within our means.
 
We passed the 2014 Fiscal Transparency and Accountability Act to encourage better accountability on an ongoing basis, but most particularly at election time. It requires the release of a complete provincial fiscal and economic outlook 60 days prior to an election, to avoid a new government encountering surprises. Further, election promises must now include an assessment of their cost implications, or an admission that none has been prepared, all of which must be published prior to Election Day.
 
The Act also calls for the deficit to be reduced by a minimum of $125 million each year, or each cabinet minister must pay a personal penalty of $2,500. Bond rating agencies have challenged the 2003 Taxpayer Protection Act as restricting government's ability to raise revenue when necessary, so the new Act allows the suspension of that limit when the deficit exceeds $400 million. We were confident that we could stay well below the threshold, and we were doing just that. We had a robust fiscal plan, spending restraint, and positive trends in that regard.
 
Given the extensive spending commitments that were made by the new government during the 2014 election, I am not surprised their savings and revenue targets are on the rise. With their promises, the deficit likely will not be controlled below $400 million, making increased taxation necessary and imminent. I am concerned, however, the new government will simply amend the legislation to suit its needs, and avoid the consequences of being accountable for its actions.
 
Having said this, I am encouraged by the new government's expressed willingness to understand what we accomplished, and to build upon it. We had only just begun down the trail of continuous improvement, with over $700 million identified in savings.  But this requires frank discussion and more than just tough talk to accomplish even a portion of the opportunities.
 
The American Academy of Actuaries recently awarded New Brunswick's pension reform initiative with the highest grade in meeting the needs of participants, sponsors, and other stakeholders. It is the type of resolve we had when implementing these changes that is now required of the government, and the willingness of the public and the civil service to face challenges head on to build a better and more sustainable New Brunswick. Fairness and equitable implementation of improvement initiatives throughout the province can ensure real engagement and harmonious support.
 
If the goal is to "Move New Brunswick Forward", as is clearly stated by the Liberal election platform, it will not be accomplished by relaxing accountability rules and reducing discipline. It will not be accomplished by undoing what the last government did simply because it is politically easy, even if the wrong thing to. It will not be accomplished by repeating the same studies and program reviews that have already been completed, and it will not be accomplished by finding convenient but faulty measurement tools to support desired outcomes.
 
Premier Gallant has stated many times that he wants to do government differently, and I believe that he is sincere. The winds will blow hard, however, from all political corners, to prevent any break from traditional practices - practices that are well represented by many of Premier Gallant's closest confidantes. I have come to appreciate just how much time and effort can be spent on rethinking, rebranding, and justifying that the only decision to be made is not to make a decision. This is not sustainable.
 
There is a sense of urgency in this province - like never before in my lifetime. The government must share this concern, and act with the sense of urgency that is both warranted and necessary. It is not about looking to be busy. It is about getting results. We do not need more program review - we need program execution.
 
Blaine Higgs is the MLA for Quispamsis and served as the Minister of Finance in the David Alward government.  He is the Official Opposition Program Review critic.
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