By David Zylberberg, PhD Candidate, Department of History, York University
Last week the Commission on the Reform of Ontario’s Public Services, chaired by Don Drummond, released its much anticipated report. Despite the numerous useful suggestions and rethinking of health-care delivery, this report feels like a missed opportunity. Commissions to fundamentally rethink what services governments provide and how they are delivered do not happen every decade. As such, they are unique opportunities to redesign administrative structures and improve services.
The most famous such commission was the Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Social Insurance and Allied Services, commissioned by the British government in 1941 and chaired by William Beveridge. The Beveridge Report was released in December 1942 advocating a comprehensive system of social insurance to protect Britons from want, “disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness” (6). Its proposals included a national program of Social Insurance to help poor people, a National Health Care System, Old Age Pensions and benefits for disabled people.
This was done in trying circumstances as the report was commissioned a year after Britain had been nearly invaded and while it continued to be at war against a much larger power with only its former colonies as allies. The Committee deliberated while German tanks advanced through the Soviet Union and its final report was presented during the Battle of Stalingrad, a point when the defeat of its main ally seemed likely and its own invasion possible.
The Beveridge Report’s proposals were implemented between 1945 and 1950, a point in which the British government’s fiscal situation was much worse than Ontario’s currently is. The government owed a massive debt to the United States that was incurred to fund the war, required exports to be one-third larger than imports to meet its debt payments and had converted most of its consumer manufacturing to military needs during the war. Given what the Beveridge Report proposed and Atlee government did, Drummond could have proposed more.
The Drummond report was commissioned by premier Dalton McGuinty in June 2011 with a mandate to evaluate all of Ontario’s public services and report back upon how they could be improved, while balancing the budget by 2017-18 without proposing tax increases. The Report has been widely discussed across the province, but most of the attention has dealt with either the responses of party leaders or the proposal to charge for parking at commuter train stations in suburban Toronto.
In 2010-2011, the Ontario government ran a budget deficit of $16.7 billion, while forecasting medium-term economic growth that looks overly optimistic given the long-running decline of southern Ontario’s manufacturing sector. This limits the provincial government’s fiscal options and shapes the challenge presented to Drummond and his assistants. Given the mandate of balancing the budget without raising taxes in a period of limited economic growth, this report was always going to produce some controversy.
Its guiding principles of seeking to improve the efficiency and quality of services are admirable and should be generally practiced by governments. By avoiding the following five practices, it has also produced a better set of recommendations than the austerity measures being practiced by most American states and European nations. Drummond seeks to “not simply cut costs” and to “avoid across-the-board cuts,” “avoid setting targets for the size of the civil service,” “not rely unduly on hiring freezes and attrition to reduce the size of the civil service,” “not hang onto public assets or public service delivery when better options exist” and “not resort to traditional short-term fixes” (12).
Most of the specific recommendations are also reasonable and will improve the quality of Ontario government services if implemented. A greater focus on public health and the lifestyles of Ontarians will save the health care system money and improve the quality of life, especially since such factors are much more significant to a person’s health than medical care (155). Similarly, increasing home-based care for elderly Ontarians (recommendation 5-4), sharing of records between health care providers (5-35) and taking advantage of the skills of highly trained nurse practitioners and pharmacists (5-18, 5-21, 5-24) should improve the quality of the health care system while lowering costs. Following the examples of other provinces on successful reforms is also a good step (5-81, 5-100).
There are also good recommendations in other sectors. Closing some facilities for young offenders when all are operating at below capacity following changes in sentencing policy over the last decade is an obvious cost-saving measure (8-16). Other obvious suggestions include reducing the number of departments responsible for environmental and natural resource regulation to prevent inaction from competing jurisdictions (13-2, 13-7), increasing the number of skilled immigrants who arrive in the province (10-1 through 10-7), ending outdated business support grants after 2013 to prevent them becoming perpetual subsidies (11-6), transferring offenders serving sentences over 6 months to federal penitentiaries so they can receive better rehabilitative programs (14-10), as well as measures to clamp down on contraband tobacco (18-3), limit the ability of businesses to hide income in other jurisdictions (18-1) and ensure the collection of fines (18-10 through 18-13).
However, I would like to focus on its recommendations for post-secondary education. The report makes some suggestions to improve the Ontario Student Assistance Program and for ensuring that private career colleges whose students qualify for loans actually teach effectively (7-14, 7-19 through 7-25). Otherwise, it focusses on improving the quality of teaching in universities and through modifying the tenure system to reward excellent teaching. Encouraging better teaching is a noble sentiment and the current promotion system does not always encourage it. However, most professors in Ontario Universities care deeply about their teaching, do a good job of it and the best researchers are also often the best teachers.
Drummond proposes increasing post-secondary funding by 1.5% per year, while noting that “Enrolment is expected to grow by an average of 1.7 per cent per year through 2017–18. Already, such rapid expansion, combined with the lowest funding levels in Canada, has undermined quality — more sessional instructors, larger classes and less contact with professors” (33).Yet the rest of the report does not address those fundamental factors which have a much larger impact on the quality of teaching than the small extent to which the current tenure system may encourage professors to not care about their teaching commitments. When an institution like York University has fewer full-time faculty members in its Arts and Professional Studies faculties than it did 35 years ago, despite enrolment more than doubling and tuition rising substantially faster than inflation or professorial salaries, there are clearly potential areas to substantially improve Ontario’s already good universities. (See York University’s most recent factbook)
Other areas of university budgests are only minimally addressed by Drummond. Recommendation 7-30 calls on the provincial government to “Cease funding for international marketing of Ontario’s universities and integrate it into existing trade mission activities. Universities, colleges and the federal government already invest in these activities.” Yet it does not recommend the elimination of the domestic marketing budgets that have grown while faculty numbers have not. Even one extra professor in a classroom is much more useful to the essential purpose of universities than any number of advertisements on busses.
The other major recommendations for post-secondary education involve better differentiating the roles between institutions. These are mentioned in recommendations 7-4 through 7-7, which emphasize the different roles of colleges and universities. These include colleges not creating any new degree programs and differentiating between universities so that “not every institution needs to become a comprehensive research university” (246-247).Such a differentiation would require faculty having different teaching loads at different types of universities. This may be necessary to improve the quality of education at Ontario universities while restricting the growth of costs. However, it remains part of a focus on the compensation of faculty and the tenure system rather than the areas where increasingly large amounts of university resources are being spent.
Discussing the current administration of universities or whether their large autonomy from each other is conducive to meeting the fundamental objectives of teaching and research would have been more radical. But it might also have led to substantial improvements in the efficiency and quality of our institutions. Given that such reports do not occur frequently, by not dealing with those aspects an opportunity was missed to improve Ontario universities without increasing overall costs.
Your readership may have been better served by an analysis of these cuts to the same degree in which you considered the post-secondary sector. Specifically, your endorsement of recommended cuts at “face value” outside post-secondary is ill-conceived.
The Drummond Report is at best as unbalanced as your assumption that these proposed changes are in fact efficiencies. A number of assumptions are made as the basis of the report that suggests a crisis exists. I would argue that it is manufactured. For example, there is no evidence, and ample to the contrary, that the deficit will balloon to over 30 billion by 2018. The crystal ball rationale for this assumption is flatly rejected by many prominent economists from all sides of the political spectrum. To suggest that government revenues will underperform the growth of the economy over the next six years is unprecedented, and frankly foolish. The whole premise that whatever financial crisis may exist can and should be remedied by public service cuts does not address the cause of said troubles, private corporation bailouts.
Drummond recommends money is diverted to First Nations education, suggesting that such an infusion is an investment that will have economic returns. Bravo! Why does this not apply to primary through tertiary education? By lowering tuition and increasing access to post-secondary Ontario can increase the number of participants in a knowledge economy.
You analysis of the foolishness of these cuts to post-secondary education is sufficiently critical. Consider viewing the other proposals through a similar lens when reading them next.
At some level predictions about economic growth will always include a gut feeling about likely directions. You might be right that Drummond is being overly pessimistic in predicting a $30 billion deficit, but I am inclined to agree with him. Ontario is uniquely poised for lower growth than other provinces as our manufacturing sector has been declining for the last decade with the rising dollar, energy prices rise as we have dammed most of our rivers (the cheapest source), and as the economy of our largest international trading partner is stagnant. Similarly, the structure of federal transfer payments are less favourable than for other provinces. As such, I would rather go with the $30 billion prediction than claiming that the deficit will disappear in 6 years due to greater growth than is likely and without specified changes to spending or taxation.
However, that is not the biggest source of your criticism or where we differ. Whatever the fiscal situation, reasonable Ontarians should desire the most effective possible government services for the money spent. Many disagree over what services should be offered, what the level of taxation should be and who should pay it, but whatever the revenue collected the highest quality services should be desired. To that end, many of the Drummond Report’s suggestions will improve the quality of services, especially in Health Care. In other areas, its suggestions might do some good in delivering better services for the reduced money spent, but there were better ones. I only had the space and expertise to comment on post-secondary education, but others have pointed out that abolishing Catholic schools would reduce busing and administrative expenses (I believe $500 million/year was the estimate) that could better be spent on more infrastructure, assistant teachers or other useful employees. I would support somewhat higher taxes to pay for a provincial child-care program like Quebec’s. That it did not make truly radical suggestions to improve our province’s services for the money being spent is the biggest weakness of the report. That involves discussing it on its own terms, which did include a mandate not to propose tax increases. But as a province, we need to desire the best possible services for the money spent. To do otherwise is to deny fiscal realities and invite polarised American style arguments between the party of spending and that of lower taxes.