Tired of paying too much for too little?

Tired of paying over-the-top electricity bills to a regulated monopoly created by government fiat? Tired of going to your child’s school to express your concerns and being treated as an interloper? Tired of waiting for hours on end at the emergency room or waiting at a clinic to see a doctor you don’t know because you don’t have a family physician of your own? Tired of watching your tax dollars used to buy votes in key ridings, instead of being used to create sustainable jobs for your children and grandchildren? You are not alone.

Globally, the pressure of aging populations and shrinking government balance sheets have people looking for answers. On Monday, Oct. 29, Alessandro Colombo of Lombardy, Italy, will be in Halifax to discuss the Lombardy Model, an approach to the delivery of universal public services rooted in local control and individual responsibility. The Lombardy Model is based on the principles of subsidiarity, or the greatest control at the lowest level possible. Moving the power (and the money) from the centre to the regions, from the regions to the towns, from the towns to the communities and from the communities to you.

This Italian experiment is driven by three core principles: “the pluralism of the offer,” monopolies need not apply, and supply should be separate from measurement and regulation; “freedom of choice” among accredited and evaluated options, no matter the source of supply (public, private, not-for-profit); and “fiscal subsidiarity,” ensuring the money is controlled at the lowest level possible and targeted where it will do the most good. These three principles ensure universality of service level and standards (everyone receives the agreed upon base services, regardless of their ability to pay, and from any supplier available) while effectively introducing competitive tools to constrain costs, encourage innovation and avoid centralization and “empire building.”

These ideas are not new. The concept of subsidiarity has been around for literally thousands of years. Canadian Bob Bish, a municipal governance expert, has advocated and promoted successful applications of concepts like compulsory competitive tendering and activity-based costing that are steeped in the subsidiarity tradition. Mike Strembitsky, the visionary who remade Edmonton public schools from a hide-bound, centralized, bureaucrat-focused model (exactly like our own Halifax regional school board) into the global poster child for flexible, effective, student-centred learning it now is, also pursued subsidiarity based reforms: open boundaries, student choice, income contingent transportation subsidies, open public reporting of results.

The American left has also used the principles of subsidiarity to achieve some remarkable transformations. President Bill Clinton used them as the basis for his welfare reforms that helped put millions to work and increased the resources available to help those who truly could not help themselves. The Democratic mayor of Minneapolis used subsidiarity oriented approaches to reform his city’s tendering and service provision, lowering costs and expanding service levels in the process.

Even in Nova Scotia, you can find subsidiarity at work. The king of top-down bureaucratic selection of winners and (mostly) losers, ACOA, supports a highly successful program based on the principles of subsidiarity. The Community Business Development Corporations manage a pool of funds drawn from federal taxpayers, but invested and administered by the local community themselves. Going one step further, the Nova Scotia Small Business Loan Guarantee Program sees local co-operatives invest their own money for the same type of locally driven, locally based and, again, highly successful approach to business growth and attraction. Successful growth, driven at the local level, with private funds, for public ends — now that’s subsidiarity.

The advocates of subsidiarity and “quasi-markets” are trying to break down the dogma around the tired debate between public and private. Arguing that over-attachment to either concept just breeds waste and fruitless ideological wrangling, they are advocating the use of market-based tools to achieve collective ends; and where their ideas have been put to the test around the world, they have worked.

Mr. Colombo is in Halifax to learn as well as to teach. Everything can be improved upon, and the lessons they have learned in Italy will be as helpful to us as the lessons we have learned here will be helpful to them. After all, despite the track record of success, subsidiarity remains the exception, not the norm, in government service delivery.

Monopolies are inefficient and unfair, and economists (not to mention all the rest of us) have known this for literally hundreds of years. Yet governments continue to design and promote monopoly services, either directly supplied by public servants or regulated by them. Here, and in Italy, and indeed around the globe, communities are experimenting with the alternatives. By learning from each other, maybe we can accelerate the process.

Charles Cirtwill is president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, an independent economic and social policy think tank based in Halifax. Mr. Colombo will be at the Halifax Club, 2-4 p.m., Oct. 29; register for this free lecture at www.aims.ca under “events.”

Read the article in The Chronicle Herald here