The Liberal government is asking bureaucrats to look at every program and service with an eye to potentially cutting or converting public services into public-private partnerships (P3s), according to documents obtained by The Telegram through access to information legislation.
Guidelines sent to all departments, agencies, boards and commissions (ABCs) in government in January give a sense of what kind of proposals Premier Dwight Ball’s new government is looking for to deal with the $2-billion deficit facing the province.
The guidelines from the Government Renewal Initiative offer a series of “tests” that various arms of government are directed to apply to all government operations, including a “partnership test.”
“This test will address whether the program or service is a candidate for delivery by the federal government, municipalities, the community sector or the private sector or a combination thereof,” the guidelines say.
“Departments and ABCs must explore whether other jurisdictions have had success with alternative partnering models.”
The next test — an “efficiency test” — also suggests departments look at privatization options.
“As part of this test, departments and ABCs must consider whether the level of resources currently allocated to the delivery of the program is greater than required to achieve the desired outcome and whether innovative delivery mechanisms could be employed (e.g. technology, third-party delivery, public-private partnerships etc.)” the document says.
The guidelines also specifically ask for options regarding cutting civil servants.
For each potential cut or change to a program, bureaucrats are asked to identify how it will affect government workers.
“This assessment should include impact as a result of attrition and how impacts would change if a method other than attrition were chosen to effect change,” the document says. “Attrition must be the preferred and primary human resource method used to implement Governmen Renewal proposals; however, proposals must include other options that could be utilized to effect change more quickly.”
During the November general election, the incumbent Progressive Conservative party defended a plan for public-private partnerships in long-term care, and the Liberals heavily criticized the PCs.
Ball also catagorically promised during the campaign that there would be no civil service layoffs.
“I do have concerns that they’re stepping back from what they said — and a very short time ago,” said Jerry Earle, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees (NAPE), the province’s largest public-sector union.
“We’re not talking a year ago, we’re talking literally two months ago.”
Earle said that on a variety of election promises — notably a promise not to lay off workers — the Liberals are now backing down.
When it comes to P3s, Earle said NAPE is already planning a public-awareness campaign to make it clear to people that the union believes privatization of services won’t save money for the government.
Tory MHA Keith Hutchings said it all looks like the Liberals really have no plan.
“Whether it’s taxation policy, whether it’s reduction in the public service and how you do it, the reference that everything is on the table, it’s just always been a moving target for the past couple of months in terms of what their intent is,” Hutchings said.
“It just clearly indicates to me, and I think to the general public more and more, that there’s a lack of plan and a lack of clear direction on where they want to take the province and how they’re going to do it.”
NDP Leader Earle McCurdy had concerns, too. On top of the P3s, which his party has long opposed, he said some of the other language buried in the government’s guidelines gave him pause.
“Looking at increasing co-pays, changing entitlement ceilings, establishing eligibility criteria for universal programs and so on, there’s a real risk that the most vulnerable people are the ones that get nailed there,” McCurdy said.
“Are they talking about child dental services? Are they talking about home services for seniors, or seniors’ dental?”
In an emailed statement sent on behalf of Finance Minister Cathy Bennett, the government said the guidelines are meant to provoke “bold” thinking from within government.
“The provincial government has not yet established specific budget targets for this year or any future years,” Bennett’s statement said.
“As the Government Renewal Initiative Guidelines explain, departments and agencies, boards and commissions, are being tasked, as are all Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, to be innovative and drive the change that is required.”