Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Children and families' ministry plans a mess

By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - The Liberals have made at least a great a mess of the ministry of children and families as their predecessors.
And that is saying something.
After thousands of hours of work by volunteers across the province - and millions of dollars - the Liberals have slammed the brakes on plans to hand responsibility for child and family services over to new regional authorities.
It's an admission of massive and damaging mismanagement.
Here's what was supposed to happen. The LIberals wanted to create 10 new regional authorities, semi-independent boards like the health authorities. There would be five non-aboriginal authorities, and five aboriginal. As well, a new community living authority would take over province-wide services for the mentally disabled.
Decision-making would be returned to involved communities, producing better results. (And saving money. The Liberals' hopes of slashing the ministry budget were based on cheaper service delivery as a result of the restructuring.)
Now it's fallen apart.
All five non-aboriginal authorities and the community living authority should have been operating now, according to the plan affirmed by former minister Gordon Hogg a year ago.
They aren't. And deputy minister Alison MacPhail, brought in after Hogg's resignation, has just emailed staff and told them the changes are put off until late 2006 or 2007. The regional committees which have worked tremendously hard on the change for two years have been shut down.
The future for the community living authority also remains uncertain. Preparations became tangled up in the Doug Walls scandal. A "readiness report" on when - or if - the transition can go ahead was supposed to be ready Feb. 27. Six weeks later, it remains outstanding.
Meanwhile, the Liberals are chopping $185 million from the ministry budget over two years, with the final $65 million coming this year. (In opposition both Gordon Campbell and current minister Christy Clark said the ministry was under-funded and should get more money. Who knew they didn't mean it?)
Hogg had justified the cuts in part by pointing to the savings from regionalization. But while that's not happening, the cuts still are.
The government has also betrayed thousands of people who have volunteered to make these changes happen. They worked their way through about $7.5 million in planning money, and devoted a huge amount of energy and time. Service clubs, churches, agencies - they all pitched in.
Those people don't understand this decision. The government says it has belatedly decided that the aboriginal and non-aboriginal authorities should start operating at the same time. The aboriginal authorities won't be ready until well into 2006. So everyone waits.
But the regions say they are ready to move forward, and note the plan was always to have the non-aboriginal authorities come on-line as they are ready. They fear the government is backing away from the whole shift. They feel abused and tricked.
It's reasonable for the government to be cautious. The Liberal track record with the ministry does not inspire confidence.
But the word from the field is that the regions are ready. Joyce Preston, the province's Child, Youth and Family Advocate for six years, has worked with transition committees in the Island and Interior regions. They are on track, she says, and the change should go ahead. (Preston also wonders how aboriginal communities are supposed to develop the needed capacity when funding for that purpose is being cut.)
The government has mishandled the ministry since the election, ignoring the obvious risk of slashing budgets while trying to push forward on a major restructuring. It ha squandered money, and time.
And with that, it has lost the right to our confidence or trust.
Before the transition is put off for another three years, the people who have worked so hard on the change - and the people who depend on the services - deserve an independent review of the decision, and a full public report.
Footnote: The Liberals' handling of the ministry also raises critical questions of basic competence - the ability to develop and execute a sensible plan. The Liberals' budget plans for the ministry have been wildly over-optimistic, virtually every deadline in its restructuring has been missed, the people who signed on to support the policy changes feel betrayed and action has been pushed off past the next election.

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