It takes real skill to speak in riddles
“Her inept acrostics, maudlin evasions … Every recollection formed ripples of mysterious meaning. Everything seemed yellowly blurred, illusive, lost.”
― Vladimir Nabokov, “Tyrants Destroyed and Other Stories”
I came up with a new phrase the other day: “verbal pretzelistics.” It refers to the knots politicians can talk themselves into when they’re trying to articulate logic while defying it at the same time.
Advanced Education and Skills Minister Joan Shea is no stranger to it. And it’s a good thing, too. Because recently she’s had to explain why it was so crucial to hire John Noseworthy on a lucrative contract without a proper job competition, to write a report on how to make her department run more smoothly, yet she’s not consulting the report as she goes around downsizing her department.
Find me the logic in that.
Here’s how things unfolded.
In August 2011, Auditor General John Noseworthy announced he was resigning one year short of his 10-year term to run for the Progressive Conservatives in Signal Hill-Quidi Vidi against NDP Leader Lorraine Michael in the October election. He lost.
In the days after the election, the Department of Advanced Education and Skills was created. It combined post-secondary education and most of the now-defunct Department of Human Resources, Labour and Employment.
Shea compared the exercise to her 2009 experience in setting up the new Department of Child, Youth and Family Services, suggesting that Advanced Education and Skills would be an easier merger.
“When we started Child, Youth and Family Services, we had to redo the legislation, we had to develop an organizational chart and it was just the beginning of an entity that didn’t exist,” she told The Telegram at the time.
“This is bringing together existing entities.”
She said a major thrust of the new department would be to get unemployed people capable of work back into the job market.
“I think that it’s important that we also connect them to our employment or career counsellors,” she said. “We can start making sure people who come on income support also have access to that information in case they would also like to pursue some opportunities. So I can see a tie-in there.”
On March 1, 2013, Shea announced she will end the employee assistance services (EAS) program, which is delivered by third-party agencies across the province, thus propelling 226 people who provide career counselling into needing it themselves. The work will be absorbed by Advanced Education and Skills, which is perplexing given the fact that the department has had layoffs since she made the announcement.
And she didn’t base her decision on anything in the Noseworthy report — even though a review of the management of EAS was part of his mandate. Instead, she says she went on “feedback from clients, staff and the public” — a claim that has been disputed by some of the people who provide employment counselling.
Noseworthy’s $148,000 report was commissioned in March 2012 and delivered to Shea in December 2012, but has yet to be made public.
Was it money well spent? How would we know? But its very existence does raise questions which Shea has not answered satisfactorily.
Why wasn’t an integration plan developed before the new department was created?
Why weren’t senior bureaucrats in Advanced Education and Skills asked to come up with their own plan without having to hire an outside consultant?
And, since Noseworthy’s “business transformation report” was delivered in December and recommended streamlining measures, and the cuts didn’t start coming until March 1, couldn’t it have been used to develop a belt-tightening plan?
Not according to Shea.
“I don’t want to confuse the current budget exercise with the business transformation report because they’re separate exercises,” Shea said.
She said she would have needed the report by early fall in order to take it into consideration for budget planning. So why wasn’t it commissioned earlier so that it could have been of real value?
To recap: a report on how to set up a new department is delivered more than a year after the department has been up and running, and recommends efficiencies that cannot be followed during the efficiency-finding process because it was commissioned too late to be of use.
Yes, it’s all perfectly sensible.
All of this prompts me to offer the government a few recommendations of my own, and I won’t charge a cent.
If you’re going to spend thousands of taxpayers’ dollars on a report, have the courtesy of telling us what’s in it. Better yet, don’t commission one at all if you’re not going to use it.
Since Shea has already made cuts to her department, Noseworthy’s report is already essentially outdated.
Oh, and one more thing: governments are quick to tell us how they’re spending money on pavement, fire trucks, school repairs — anything that might win them votes.
So, why can’t they be just as transparent about where they’re pinching pennies — say, by releasing a list of all the jobs they’ve cut so far this year?
Surely we have a right to see that, too.
Pam Frampton is a columnist and The Telegram’s associate managing editor.
She can be reached by email