Monday, January 23, 2012

Considering Consultations

In the coming weeks, the Harper government will table Budget 2012 - a budget which is expected to lay out those areas where the government will look to reduce spending in order to eventually eliminate the deficit. For politics watchers in Canada, this budget could be a big deal.

Ongoing discussions in the U.S. and the EU regarding austerity and the affordability of public services have once again put the topic of deficits near the top of the political agenda. That, coupled with the sense that a long-term objective of the Harper government is to re-shape the role (and size) of the federal government, is resulting in growing speculation about what we can expect.

With so much speculation out there, it is worth taking a moment to consider how budgets are "built", and in particular the role of consultations.

Governments, regardless of their stripe, do not build budgets in a vacuum. They consult - internally across departments, and externally through discussions with leading economists and key stakeholder groups. One element of this dialogue are the on-line pre-budget consultations initiated by the Department of Finance, found here.

A parallel set of consultations are conducted by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance; consultations which draw heavily on input from an extremely diverse range of stakeholders. You can view the briefs submitted over 2011 here, and the final report here.

These consultations can be interesting for two reasons. First, for the wide range of views that are expressed. Stakeholders representing a range of interests provide their views on how government should tax, spend, regulate and more generally provide stewardship over the economy.

Second, because majority governments have often used the Committee report as something of a trial balloon, floating ideas in order to gauge reaction. In some cases, a report may be more radical, thereby allowing the government to position itself as the reasonable compromise.

I have no issue with any of this, and in fact feel that the process does allow one to get greater perspective of the multiple views that exist in relation to the challenges and opportunities we face. However, I do think the process could be improved in one major way.

Right now, we have a one-way street. Government (through the Finance department) or Parliament (through the Committee) asks for views, and stakeholders oblige. However, at no point in the process does the government table any meaningful information about what it is considering.

Imagine a process whereby the government tabled a white paper, or series of broad options or policy objectives under consideration. In other words, showed us what at a high-level they were thinking and solicited our reaction and input to that thought process.

That would be a true consultation. And it would be a consultation which would promote more of a dialogue about the choices we are facing, and the difficult job a government has in balancing between competing interests.

Perhaps most importantly, it would provide a degree of transparency which would open up the policy process and hopefully lead to greater engagement by a broader cross-section of the voting public.


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