Government processes are the perfect example of how to make something simple and straightforward into something convoluted, costly, and time consuming. At least, that’s how it seems much of the time, and I hear the same from residents pretty regularly. I also hear the same from (typically conservative) politicians, often as a good reason to cut processes in order to get things done faster. We also hear from entrepreneurs and big businesses about how much more efficient the private sphere is, and some politicians take that as a reason to privatize services.
But why are our processes so complex and slow, and what do we lose if we skip the public process for the sake of efficiency? There are three main principles of public processes that add complexity: transparency, fairness, and the ideological position that governments should not, themselves, do much of anything.
There are a few different views of what a government is, but whether you believe (as I do) that government is us working together, or that government is an entity external to us that belongs to us, or that government is an entity external to us that’s funded by us…either way, we have an interest in seeing how it spends our money and makes decisions on our behalf.
That means that we need the chance to see what governments do. We see this in public consultations and townhalls, open and accessible meetings, public advertising periods, and more. Our clerks have the task of ensuring that every Council, Committee, and Planning meeting is held in a public place, preferably also streamed online, and has either minute-taking or recording or both. This impacts where, when, and who can attend meetings, making scheduling a committee meeting a serious challenge.
Our Planners have to advertise every planning matter in the paper, and send a letter to every property owner within a certain distance of the subject property, and carry out public consultations and special planning meetings to give residents a chance to weigh in on planning matters. Every one of those meetings must be advertised for a certain period of time before the meeting can occur.
Our councillors need to write a Notice of Motion, which reads the motion without debate so that it can be addressed at the following meeting, giving the public a chance to comment in the intervening weeks. Getting a matter on the agenda means getting it submitted by a Wednesday deadline so that the agenda can be finalized on Thursday and published on Friday before the Monday meeting, giving everyone the weekend to see what’s coming up. Delegation requests might take weeks to resolve, depending on the council schedule and when the request comes in.
All of this means that no matter how simple a matter is, if it requires a decision by Council it will take months to get approval: the time to advertise the public consultation, have the public meeting, and then have a council decision at the following meeting. The wait can be incredibly frustrating.
But why do we do this? In the absence of these rules, councils would be able to make decisions more or less in secret, having meetings in private places or making decisions on important matters suddenly and without notice. You could suddenly discover that your council has made major changes that affect you, without you even knowing they were going to consider the matter. Even with these rules, I frequently hear from residents that they’re very frustrated that they’ve missed the chance to comment on an issue before it goes to council; not many people follow council matters closely enough to pay attention to every matter that comes before us, but at least this way anyone who wants to follow that closely has the ability to.
When a government wants to procure products or services, it can’t just hire the first person it thinks of; there’s a procurement process that requires a Request for Proposals for major purchases or services, so that any company can compete for the work/sale. Even for relatively small matters, staff are often required to get multiple quotes. Doing so takes time.
In theory, this saves us money; getting competitive quotes often leads to lower prices. But the time involved can sometimes lead to missed opportunities: the product we needed is no longer available, or the price has gone up since the process began, etc.
Without these rules, though, and the transparency requirements that include disclosing these processes to the public, we could end up with just a few companies holding monopolies for public work/purchases, costing us more money for less value. It’s a situation that’s prone to corruption.
There is a view that holds that anything government can do, the private sector can do it better (and more efficiently). This view has been dominant in the West since the 1980’s, and has led to the privatization of many services, processes, and capacities that used to be handled by governments in-house.
When I toured our Public Works facilities, we talked about the capacities of our facilities and staff. We have a large enough vehicle fleet that it makes sense to have an in-house mechanic; but how specialized should our in-house capacities be? Do we need a welder on staff? Or should all mechanical needs be outsourced to local businesses?
When someone submits a Planning Application, it usually includes several reports prepared by consultants, things like Environmental Impact Studies and Geotechnical Reports. We have Planners who are familiar with the requirements that each of those reports speak to; should we also have staff who have the expertise to review those reports in-house? We used to rely on the Conservation Authority to provide that expertise, but the province recently prohibited the CA from offering that service (as part of their More Homes Built Faster Act), ostensibly to speed up the process (they seem to believe that, like governments, CAs are slow and inefficient; that is NOT the case of ours). Because of that, we now either need to hire staff to perform that function in-house, or hire consultants to do it. That takes more time, and is more expensive than what the CA used to charge us.
There’s definitely a time and place for privatization: if a local business offers a service, there’s probably no need for the local government to duplicate that service. But the desire to have a small government, for whatever reason, results in a government incapable of doing much of anything without hiring someone else to do it for us. That takes more time, often costs more money, and invokes the complex transparency and fairness rules I mentioned above. Those transparency and fairness rules are complex enough that they need staff to administer them effectively, which adds cost as well. So getting the government out of the business of doing stuff often just means that government is more heavily invested in the bureaucratic frameworks that guide how government pays other people to do stuff. It’s a cycle: the more that we complain about bureaucratic inefficiency and demand smaller government, the more we outsource expertise, the more bureaucratic processes we need to invoke to ensure transparency and fairness in government expenditure.
Bringing it Together
There are other processes, and reasons for processes, that also slow us down. I brought these three together here because they have a somewhat contradictory relationship, and yet coexist in the logic of small government.
There are two main reasons to want government transparency and fairness: because you want to be informed and participate in government processes in order to exercise your rights of citizenship, or because you feel that government is not trustworthy and requires your supervision. I’ll be blunt, I don’t hear a lot of the former.
The small-government bias in our culture, exemplified in the conservative movement (a quick search for “small government canada” will bring up papers by the Fraser Institute written by Preston Manning, or references to Stephen Harper’s decade in office) is oriented around the notion that government is inept, inherently inefficient, and slow to act. That pairs very nicely with the also common view that government is untrustworthy, a view exemplified in fringe movements that peddle conspiracy theories about the World Economic Forum, “elites”, and “the deep state.” Combined, there’s an antipathy and even hostility toward governments in general, and there has been a concerted effort over the last 40 years to reduce the size of government. But has it worked?
Stephen Harper famously said “you won’t recognize Canada when I get through with it.” He said it to fellow small-government devotees, but the Liberals got a hold of the tape and turned it into an attack ad. Both sides were making the same point: Harper wanted a smaller government, and he lowered taxes enough during his tenure as Prime Minister that government services shrunk considerably. Some analysis in 2013 showed that “by 2015, Harper will have shrunk government to smallest size in 50 years.” But other analysis that same year showed that, despite much lower taxes and reduced services, “Budget watchdog data shows bureaucracy grew under Harper.” And while the Fraser Institute is often incredibly inept in their analysis, at least they’re consistent: they pointed out in 2019 that both Harper and Trudeau have increased the size of government. Trudeau was open about it, pumping up services; Harper had small government almost as a mantra, and grew the size of government in spite of himself.
My point here is that if we don’t trust our government to do anything OR to spend money, we end up with a lot of bureaucracy. The savings in time and money that we might get from hiring contractors and consultants to do things we used to do in-house are balanced by the processes we need in order to maintain public engagement and proper oversight. Prominent politicians get a lot of political points from complaining about the very bureaucracies they’ve built through systematic defunding and stripping away internal capacities from our governments. Then they propose the answer to the bureaucracy: do away with it altogether.
“Cutting the red tape” is not the solution: it’s worth some time and money to have transparency and fairness as a core feature of our governments. But let’s also be very clear: no bureaucratic process can correct for a lack of public engagement and trust. There will never be enough checks on the government for those who don’t trust it, and no amount of advertising public meetings will get the attention of a disengaged public. The solution to our bureaucracy problem is not to have more or less bureaucracy; the solution is to have more and better quality engagement from citizens and residents. That’s the path to better quality accountability, more trust, and increased capacity.