Whole-government reviews are dangerous, say York policy experts

Ministers and their senior bureaucrats should not set out to endanger the lives of their citizens, wrote York professors Daniel Cohn, Lorne Foster and Ian Greene of York’s School of Public Policy & Administration in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies in the February edition of Policy Options, Canada’s premier magazine on public affairs and public policy.

Nevertheless, across Canada in provincial capitals and in Ottawa, our top public servants and ministers are setting staff to work, or soon will be, on top-to-bottom and side-to-side redesigns of government that history has shown are too big to undertake without endangering the lives of Canadians. The danger involved is only magnified when such redesigns are done in an attempt to save money, by reducing the role of the state in our daily lives during an atmosphere of crisis.

These exercises are described by a variety of names including strategic reviews, expenditure reviews and core service reviews. We will call them whole-of-government program reviews. The goal is to make sure that the activities of the state advance the priorities of our elected governments in the most cost-effective means possible.

The problem occurs when these goals of cutting spending and making the state less invasive are approached on a government-wide basis. Such projects are too large to be properly monitored; so big that they become synonymous with the success or failure of the governing party, causing insularity to set in, and so time consuming that public servants are diverted from their ordinary tasks that protect the public.

Program reviews should be done not on a whole-of-government basis but at known periodic intervals in individual ministries or program areas. This would allow political leaders to carefully monitor progress, reduce the political consequences and associated insularity that develops and allow additional staff to be drafted into the ministries and programs engaged in review. As noted at the outset of this article, Canada faces an important challenge in terms of our public spending. However, our situation is not so severe that we lack time to take a deliberate and rational approach to the challenge. If protecting the lives of citizens is a priority, then a whole-of-government program review is not the correct process for meeting this challenge.

Daniel Cohn is director of the School of Public Policy & Administration at York University; Lorne Foster is professor and director of the York’s masters program in Public Policy Administration & Law; Ian Greene is University professor at the School of Public Policy & Administration.

Abandoned in a harsh new world

Generations of historians – English and French, Catholic and Protestant, left and right – have sorted and re-sorted the same select trove of facts in accordance with constantly changing notions of historical truth [about New France], wrote John Barber in a review for The Globe and Mail Feb. 12 of York grad Suzanne Desrochers’ book Bride of New France.

In light of this never-ending contest, it seems only appropriate that the next major work on New France to be published in English would be a wholly original example of social history at its best. Never has such familiar lint been picked to greater effect than in Bride of New France, by Desrochers [BA Hons. ’00, MA ’07], a trained historian who has boldly appropriated fiction to expand a vision of life gleaned from painstaking study of often overlooked evidence. Following the example of Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre, which began as a screenplay and only later became a groundbreaking study of medieval France, Desrochers paints a picture of daily life in New France that is strikingly new – and not pretty.

As a graduate student at Toronto’s York University, Desrochers chose to study the well-known but little-investigated story of the filles du roi, women of uncertain origin exported by royal decree into the faltering, almost wholly male colony in the late 17th century to serve as breeding stock for a new European population. Over the course of some virtuous process, her thesis blossomed into a fully imagined but deeply grounded novel about Laure Beausejour, the fictionalized daughter of Parisian street people who is swept up by police and incarcerated for years in the nightmarish Salpêtrière Hospital, a prison housing thousands of indigent, ill and insane women, before resigning herself to an even more appalling fate: exile in Canada.

In the hands of a more conventional author of historical novels, the detailed exposition Desrochers packs into Bride of New France would probably be more neatly integrated into the personal story of Laure’s life and loves in the new land. But the same sort of author would just as likely ruin the story by having the heroine find true love and triumph over adversity. Desrochers is too good a historian to be such a bad novelist. As much as her feeling for Laure and her companions gives the book heart, professional discipline keeps it real. It is a powerful combination.

Bride of New France will not silence critics of the new social history, nor is it meant to. But if they do want to bring the past alive for a new generation, as they typically claim, they could never find a text more likely to engage the minds and imaginations of young people, especially girls, who have grown immune to the conventional narratives.

Privatization no panacea

Now that the garbage has hit the fan again in Toronto, so to speak, it would have been nice to have seen some serious investigative journalism before an editorial rushing to endorse privatization, wrote Leo Panitch, Canada Research Chair in Comparative Political Economy and Distinguished Research Professor of Political Science in York’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, in a letter to the Toronto Star Feb. 12. At the very least, it would be good to have been reassured that the bad old days when the business of garbage was so commonly associated with organized crime in many North American cities – not for nothing was Tony Soprano’s calling card that of a “waste management consultant” – is truly a thing of the past.

But even assuming that is so, just as there are questions properly being raised today, everywhere from Washington to Cairo, about the cozy relationships between businessmen and politicians, I am sure your readers would be grateful for a careful, balanced and objective analysis of just who owns the companies that are already profiting from the taxes people pay to have their garbage collected, and whether they have any personal, financial and political relationships with politicians, here or elsewhere.

We could use some investigation of the ecological implications too. As Heather Rodgers showed in her widely acclaimed important book Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage (New Press) an alignment of manufacturing and marketing forces have used environmental laws to help the US mega-“waste management” corporations make mega-profits, while often using Third World countries, or poorer regions of our own society, as our garbage dump. Will privatizing Toronto’s garbage collection further contribute to this?

Finally, dare I suggest that some interviews with the workers of these companies would be worth doing to see what they have to say about their conditions and whether they consider themselves exploited or fairly treated?

Investors’ needs overlooked in securities regulator spat

Patrick Monahan, [vice-president academic & provost] of York University, said the question of whether the Toronto-London [stock] exchange merger should be approved casts Canada in a poor light for foreign investors, wrote the Toronto Star Feb. 11. “If we have a situation where we’re not able to speak with one voice in a focused way, I think is not going to encourage investment,” he said. “It will be relevant to major transactions if we’re not able to show that we can speak in a coherent way.”

Impact of TTC union’s no-strike pledge still in play

A seasoned labour leader like TTC workers’ Bob Kinnear never expected Toronto would rescind its position on “essential service” legislation, said David Doorey, a labour law professor at York University [School of Human Resource Management, Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies], wrote the Toronto Star Feb. 11. “It is a gesture. It suggests to the public, ‘we’re being the reasonable ones here, we’re giving you what you want (no transit strikes) and all we want is for everyone to take a breath,’” Doorey said. Kinnear deliberately addressed his no-strike pledge to the province, not the city.

Bashing transit workers may be popular in the city, but come the October election, it’s the Liberals who will have to defend the legislation. “They have lots of labour support and they are at risk of alienating that,” Doorey said.

If the labour movement is looking for a test case to challenge essential service designations at the Supreme Court, this could be it – especially if the Liberals intend to ram through the legislation before March 31, when the TTC workers’ contracts expire.

“Each time the city politicians or the Liberal minister of labour says, ‘We need to do this quickly, we don’t have time for consultation,’ that’s useful to a Charter challenge,” Doorey said.

Share and share alike

Faculty at UCLA, Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona and York University in Canada have also engaged in ownership tug of wars, wrote eLearn Magazine online Feb. 13, [in a story about intellectual property rights surrounding professors’ work]. Battle lines have been drawn even at an official level: The American Association of University Professors argues that faculty should own their course materials, whereas the American Association of Universities claims universities deserve them. It’s a situation screaming for adult intervention.

Both sides have valid reasons for clutching intellectual property to their chests. Institutions creating online courses spend enormous sums on computers, software, server time, and staff. They want to ensure that their investment benefits them and not the competition. Faculty members have their own concerns. [The late] York University Professor David Noble [wrote] extensively about his fear that professors’ creative efforts will be usurped and processed into cookie-cutter online courses that eliminate the need for flesh-and-bone faculty. Noble’s views are extreme, but he taps into already existing concerns.

Markham hospice needs funding: director

Evergreen Hospice has enlisted York University graduate students to gather data to convince the provincial government of its worth, wrote YorkRegion.com Feb. 14.

Postgraduate students in the University’s School of Health Policy & Management will collect statistics that demonstrate how using the hospice’s services can save the health care system money..

Grad student works at city hall

Denisa Gavan-Koop is another newcomer to city hall, though she has a degree in political science from Simon Fraser University and is one semester from completing her master’s in urban planning at York University, wrote InsideToronto.com Feb. 15.

For the latter, she is looking at the importance of collaborative planning in neighbourhood renewal projects, an invaluable wellspring of knowledge for someone serving the residents of the downtown core. "Municipal government’s a good fit for me because it’s grassroots and it gives us the chance to talk to people and see what the needs are in the community," she said.

Jobs not indicative of economy: prof

Statistics Canada’s latest job numbers may suggest the economy is in a state of post-recession recovery. But don’t be fooled, wrote YorkRegion.com Feb. 15. Not all jobs are created equal [and] a celebration may be a tad premature, says York University sociology Professor Norene Pupo [of York’s Centre for Research on Work & Society and the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies]. While the numbers may look good on paper, they don’t tell you much about what types of jobs have been created, she says. “(Governments) look at it in sheer numbers,” Pupo says. “Whether you have a $10-per-hour job at Walmart or a $35-per-hour job in a unionized factory, to the government, a job is a job.”

A closer look at figures indicates part-time employment in January rose 2.8 per cent, compared to the month before, while full-time work was up by just 1.7 per cent. That’s further evidence of a trend that’s becoming all-too-familiar in communities across Canada, Pupo says. The higher-paying positions in sectors, such as manufacturing, dry up and leave lower-paying part-time opportunities in sectors such as retail in their wake.

Corporate tax reductions may have a positive impact in the short-term, Pupo says, but there’s no guarantee they will have the desired effect of bolstering prosperity and creating decent new employment opportunities.

In fact, cutting taxes for businesses could simply put greater pressure on individuals who are already struggling to keep up with rising prices and seemingly endless layers of taxation, she says. “Unfortunately, there aren’t any easy answers,” Pupo says, adding, the best thing government can do right now is listen to its citizens and chart a course of action accordingly.