Strategic Review: What did the government cut?

On Monday morning I wrote to three federal departments asking them about cuts listed, but nowhere explained, in the March version of the 2011 budget. I was certain the cuts would reappear without amendment in the June version of the 2011 budget. Here’s what I wrote to the media people at the department of Public Works and Government Services Canada:

Good morning,

The 2011 budget identifies nearly $173 million in cumulative strategic review savings for PWGSC through 2013-2014. These are identified but not explained in Table A1.12 of the budget document.

Please give me full explanations for how these savings will be realized.

I can be reached by email or at 613-xxx-xxxx.

Thank you,

Paul Wells

Senior Columnist

Maclean’s magazine

Near-identical emails went to two other departments. There followed a bit of email and phone traffic as civil servants inquired about my deadlines. I also wrote to the PMO to let them know I was making these inquiries.

Frequent readers of this infrequent blog will be familiar with the subject of my curiosity. Here is Annex 1 of the 2011 federal budget — the link takes you to Monday’s “updated” version, which for this annex is identical in every way to the same section of the March budget. Here’s what Annex 1 is about:

“In 2010… 12 organizations undertook strategic reviews of their programs and spending. In addition, the Department of National Defence used the strategic review process to [slow its rate of spending growth]. This… has yielded savings of close to $1.6 billion in 2013–14, amounting to 4.9 per cent of the review base on an ongoing basis. As a result of these reviews, departments are streamlining operations, realigning their activities and transforming their organizations to deliver better programs and better results to Canadians.”

What’s important to understand here is that this section describes decisions on spending cuts that were taken in the past. The feds are also promising to come up with further cuts in the future, thanks to a new “Strategic and Operating Review” that will start in a few weeks or months. None of my questions are about those future cuts. I want to know what the government has already decided to stop spending money on.

I honestly thought a government dedicated to spending restraint would be eager to share the fruits of its careful scrutiny of the books. Wrong. At the March budget lockup civil servants told me they had no details of the Annex 1 cuts at all. During the campaign, when I asked finance minister Jim Flaherty, his answers were not great. When I asked John Baird, his answers were also not great.

Fine. I get it. There’s politics here. Some of these cuts may not be perfectly painless, so during a campaign the Conservatives would be skittish about getting into detail. Since no other reporter found these questions as interesting as I did, I didn’t bother to get into a campaign-long crusade on the matter.

Now, of course, we no longer have an election campaign. What we have is a government which has, once again, announced nearly $2.4 billion in cumulative spending reductions over three years. So now I’m asking for details.

This evening just after 5 p.m. I received this email from Michelle Bakos, the communications director for Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose. Neither of the other two departments I wrote to has, so far, given me any answer at all. Here’s what Bakos told me:

“Canadians gave us a clear mandate to keep taxes low and balance the budget by 2014-2015. We have taken a close look at spending across thirteen departments and identified the lowest performing, lowest priority programs. Over the next year, we will continue to find savings by conducting a strategic and operating review of all programs. These savings will provide the room to continue paying down debt and investing in the priorities of Canadians, including lowering taxes for families. Details regarding these decisions will become public once stakeholders and employees have been consulted. “

In my first reply to Bakos, I goofed up, confusing PWGSC with HRSDC, but I soon sent her another note correcting my own confusion. This rows-and-columns stuff really isn’t my stock in trade. The substance of my point, however, stands. As I have taken pains to point out above, I’m asking for explanations of decisions made in the past, not about decisions that are pending for next year. So, as I wrote to Bakos, “What I need to know is what all of this means, in detail and with specifics. What were you spending money on that you will now stop spending money on?”

I promised to be tenacious. I will report to you periodically with updates as I receive them, or if departments and ministers’ offices fail to provide them.