Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Liberals have bungled the children and families ministry

VICTORIA - The Walls' audit got the headlines, not surprisingly.
It was a bleak recap of government mismanagement. The audit confirmed that failed Prince George car dealer Doug Walls - a long-time advocate for the disabled - pushed his Liberal connections in advancing his personal interests, his vision for the children and families ministry and the career of his pal and ally Chris Haynes.
It worked pretty well. Walls was handed more than $500,000 worth of government contracts, often in violation of the rules. The government improperly wrote off more than $500,000 worth of debts owed by a company with tight ties to Walls. (The total loss to taxpayers when it went broke was more than $2 million.) Haynes got the deputy minister's job. And the ministry committed to the kind of services for the mentally disabled that Walls was pushing.
The audit didn't find any wrongdoing by politicians, although it all still looked bad. Walls is a relative by marriage of Premier Gordon Campbell, a confidante of Advanced Education Minister Shirley Bond and was a wheel in the Liberal party. He traded on all those things, lobbying Campbell and top strategist Martyn Brown on Haynes behalf (a move he said drew a rebuke from Campbell), name-dropping shamelessly and confirming Bond's appointment ot cabinet before it was public.
But it's all no one's fault, according to the Liberals.
Haynes, fired over the affair, leaves with more than $500,000 in severance and deferred vacation pay, despite the auditors' report. Former children's minister Gordon Hogg says he feels vindicated. No one is fired or disciplined. (The severance issue will be a problem for the Liberals. Anyone in private business who was found to have improperly written off a $500,000 debt to a friend would not be collecting a big cash payout.)
But the Walls' audit, ugly as it was, wasn't even the worst news released by the ministry.
Rather cynically, the government chose the same day to release an assessment of their efforts to restructure the ministry.
The "readiness report" revealed that after more than two years and tens of millions of dollars, remarkably little progess has been made.
The ministry unveiled its big plans in January 2002. The government would slash spending on children and families, and save money by moving to 11 new semi-independent authorities. Ten regional authorities - five aboriginal, and five non-aboriginal - would take over children's services. A Community Living Authority with a $600-million budget would provide services to mentally disabled British Columbians and their families.
The transition work was always going great, according to Hogg, ahead of schedule even. A year ago he said the Community Living Authority and the first two regional child protection authorities would be up and running by last fall.
He was wrong. The regional authorities won't be ready until 2006. After the bleak readiness report on the Community Living Authority new minister Christy Clark said the target start date for it is now late 2005, two years later than Hogg promised.
The report reveals that the most basic questions haven't been answered. The ministry doesn't know how services will be delivered. It hasn't developed the organization, systems or management team to make the authority work. It doesn't know how it will cope with transition costs, or even rising demand given its current reduced budget. It hasn't figured out what's going to happen to staff.
It's shocking that so much time and money could have spent so ineffectually without anyone in government noticing - not MLAs, government caucus committees, the premier, cabinet, the top bureaucrats. It's a grimly incompetent performance.
It's also a betrayal. The Liberal promised an end to endless bureaucratic restructuring in the ministry during the campaign. Campbell spoke passionately of the need for more money.
But what they have actually been delivered is arbitrary budget cuts and a botched and mismanaged re-organization.
Footnote: The failure is hardly a surprise. The Liberals were warned repeatedly that the idea of simultaneously restructuring the ministry while cutting the budget by more than 10 per cent was reckless. They chose to ignore the warnings, and apparently also chose to ignore the fumbling in the ministry's restructuring plans. Now the spending cuts are going ahead while the changes that were supposed to make them possible without hurting children and familes are stalled.

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