When mistakes are made why not learn from them?
by Don Cayo


John Crosbie, like most successful Newfoundland politicians of his generation, started out a Smallwood Liberal. But Crosbie, intelligent and independent, didn’t stay long in the fold.

So, though once the darling of Joey’s Liberals, he came to be cast as a pariah. His former leader vilified him for, among other things, being rich.

Crosbie responded with one of his wonderfully sardonic lines. “What do you want?” he asked. “A politician who’s rich going into office? Or one who’s rich when he leaves?”

That line sprang to mind last week as the New Brunswick Tories and NDP took on Justice Minister James Lockyer. They’re gleefully horrified that he may have admitted the government made mistakes in the deals it signed for some public-private partnerships that went bad.

“What do you want?” asked a wry voice in my head. “A politician who admits mistakes while he’s in office? Or one who forsakes such honesty until he leaves?”

But whether Mr. Lockyer admitted mistakes – they say he did, and he says he didn’t – is moot. If he didn’t, perhaps he should have. So should a raft of other politicians – in New Brunswick and everywhere else – on this issue and on many more. They’re people, for heaven’s sake, and people err.

So do governments . And governments – all of them everywhere – have a lousy track record when it comes to delivering services. The OECD reckons that when pretty well any government starts paying out a subsidy, for example, only about 20 per cent of the money hits its target. Thus we’ve had years of regionally enriched UI, intended to help poor folks marginalized by seasonal jobs, but actually benefiting wealthy families far more than poor ones. We have welfare programs mired in high-cost, ineffective red tape. We have the Post Office, where many of today’s problems stem from bureaucrats trying to buy labor peace with efficiency-killing concessions to militant unions.

Public-private partnerships, like three that have gone sour in New Brunswick, seek a better way to do things. Mr. Lockyer’s province was one of the first to pursue them in a big way, so it’s little wonder that it’s encountering some first-time problems. The question is, will it learn from these problems, failures, mistakes – call them what you will? And will provinces like Nova Scotia also try to learn something by looking across their borders?

New Brunswick not only embarked earlier into public-private partnerships than most other provinces, it also tried them in some new fields. Nova Scotia has a big one – the new toll highway – under its belt, as well as a school, and it has a host of others in various stages of planning or development. But New Brunswick went beyond traditional road- and school-building into some new fields. It’s in these new fields – all high tech – where the problems took place. Two of them – a partnership with Blue Cross to computerize Medicare records, and one with Andersen Consulting to integrate administration of the justice system – proved to be much bigger than anyone envisaged, and they ran into big cost over-runs and delays. The third, with IBM to computerize the tax-collection system, was over-taken by events – made redundant by the integration of the old provincial sales tax and the GST.

A fair question, then, is this: Did the concept of public-private partnerships fail? Or were the government and the businesses alike ill-prepared to get into areas they don’t know much about?

A reading of what has been cast as Mr. Lockyer’s “indiscretion” – in fact, a thoughtful analysis to a public-private partnering conference in Toronto – suggests a bit of both. The key “failure” was to not spell out clearly enough in advance the expectations on both sides.

And Mr. Lockyer drew from the experience insights into the need for a new, formal process to set the rules for public-private partnerships – a sort of equivalent to the tendering acts that every province has to ensure that the process is comprehensive, fair and accountable.

Jane Jacobs, the iconoclastic critic of everything from city planning to economics to moral philosophy, writes in Systems of Survival how people in government and business – “guardians” and “traders”, she calls them – have not just different priorities, but fundamentally different moral codes under-lying what they do. Her theories explain rather well why governments have such a dismal record in delivering services. And she argues powerfully that elements of the two codes – that guardians not trade or that traders not take on the habits and powers of governance – should never be mixed. In that context, it makes a lot of sense for “guardians” to engage “traders” as partners, allowing each to stay faithful to their philosophy, and each to do what they do best.

That being the case, if I were in government in Nova Scotia, I’d be asking Mr. Lockyer for a copy of his speech. And if I were in opposition in New Brunswick, I’d be applauding him for being so candid and forthright while he’s still in office, still capable of applying what he and his colleagues are struggling to learn.