Strategic Review: the answer is, we can’t answer

You think hide and seek is easy?

I had an excellent day giving a speech to the Canadian Club of Kingston and chatting with students at Queen’s University. At 12:20 p.m. this email arrived from an official at Media Relations at the department of Public Works and Government Services Canada. It answers, after a fashion, questions I’ve had for a while about many hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of twice-announced cuts to federal spending.

Here’s the email in its entirety:

Hello Paul,

This information is for you follow-up questions you had last evening.

PWGSC has developed implementation plans for the results of our strategic review. Until we communicate these plans to stakeholders and employees, we are not in a position to provide greater details.

Budget 2011 provides a high-level overview of the strategic review decisions.

Maybe I should translate. Public Works knows what it will stop spending on, but it has not told the people who benefited from those programs (or laboured under the yoke of their inefficiency), nor has the department told, um, itself. So it can’t tell me. The bit about “a high-level overview” means the items in Annex 1 of Budget 2011 weren’t supposed to be comprehensible. And on that front, all I can say is, bang-up job, guys, because there’s no way stakeholders and employees will be able to make any sense of the $170-ish million in cumulative savings “described” in Table A1.12 here.

How, for instance, is “Realign programs to gain efficiencies and improve results” different from “Improve efficiency and the delivery of programs and services?” And how are those two different from “Improve use of internal resources and administrative efficiency”? Because they’re three different categories in the PWGSC “high-level overview.”

Tomorrow I’ll get back to PWGSC and I’ll ask when they’re planning to communicate their implementation plans — why do I suspect that plural ‘s’ will wind up causing me endless hours of fun? — and whether they’ll tell me when they do, or whether I’ll have to make another hundred guesses about what the right question might be and when I should ask it.

Today I also received an email from Fisheries offering me a phone conversation. I have a wild hunch that their answer will closely resemble PWGSC’s. From the third department I contacted, HRSDC, so far there is only decorous silence.

Now here’s the thing, as if you need me to tell you. If the government releases information about its spending cuts in dribs and drabs, and does not announce parts of it ever at all, then there is no way to know whether the cuts it has realized come anywhere close to matching the cuts it has announced. Maybe it has hardly saved a dime, but wants cheap credit among (nerdy, budget-annex-scrutinizing) fiscal conservatives. Maybe its cuts are far greater than advertised, or concentrated in certain kinds of program or certain parts of the country or are in some other way interesting and worth your attention.

The thing is, you can’t know. Not before “stakeholders and employees” find out. If they ever do. Your tax dollars at work: you think hide and seek is easy?