Christy Clark killed off one of Gordon Campbell’s good ideas last week, weakening government accountability and removing one of the few ways citizens have to assess its performance.
Most people forget, but back in 2001, Campbell, Clark and the Liberals had a populist bent and promised a new way of doing things.
They promised open and accountable government, with regular reports on the results it delivered to citizens.
The B.C. Progress Board, killed by Clark last week, was part of that. Campbell asked a group of business leaders — David Emerson was the first chair, Jimmy Pattison was on board — to set measurable goals for the province, report on progress each year and offer advice on critical issues.
The board singled out six important areas — economic growth, standard of living, jobs, the environment, health outcomes and social conditions. Then it identified key indicators that could be used to measure how well the province was doing each year, things like exports per capita and birth weights and educational achievement.
And the Progress Board said British Columbia should be first or second in Canada in all six areas by 2010. The board would report each year on how the province stacked up against the other provinces, and northwest states, and whether B.C. was improving or falling behind.
It’s been a useful exercise. Citizens, and government, can see what is and isn’t working. The spin by government and opposition can be replaced by facts.
When Campbell was pushed out, I turned to the Progress Board reports to assess his government’s effectiveness over the years.
It was barely average, according to the board. B.C. slide backward in the rankings in more categories than it improved over Campbell’s tenure. B.C. ranked fourth in economic output per capita in the board’s first report in 2002. It was in the same spot in the 2010 report. It was second in real average wage, also unchanged. Employment improved from fifth to fourth. Productivity ranking fell from fifth to seventh among provinces.
On balance, the economic rankings slipped slightly from the NDP years.
The other measurements were mixed as well. B.C. ranked sixth for poverty in the first report; now it’s tenth. Infant health has declined. High school graduation rates have improved.
Overall, the Progress Board found the government’s performance was average, maybe just a little but worse than average. B.C. improved in some areas, but so did other provinces, at similar rates.
There’s nothing wrong with average, really. The Liberal government was as effective, more or less, as its peers across Canada.
But politicians in power like to promote the idea that their leadership is better than average, whether it is or not.
That wasn’t the Progress Board’s only role. It had a small budget and issued research reports on important issues.
For example, Clark made attracting more international students a key part of last week’s jobs plan. But in 2005, the Progress Board prepared a comprehensive plan to build a B.C. brand in international education. It has offered reports on crime and regional policing, resource revenues and productivity.
But all that’s over. Clark killed the Progress Board last week, replacing it with a Jobs and Investment Board to encourage investment and identify barriers to development. (After a decade in government, you might expect those kind of issues to be addressed, or wonder why MLAs aren’t doing the work of finding out what’s blocking development in their regions.)
The loss of the Progress Board is significant. The annual report card, and the special reports, offered insight and a level of accountability rare from any government. The cost was modest. And a database of comparable performance measurements over years offered great potential long-term benefits.
Clark hasn’t offered any rationale for killing off the board. It’s a bad decision, but one that could still be released.
Footnote: The focus on measurement and accountability was a key part of the Liberal approach when they took power in 2001. Ministries and agencies were required to have three-year plans, with detailed targets so progress could be measured. But each subsequent year, the number of measurements were reduced and the benchmarks chosen became less meaningful. People like accountability, until they actually are held accountable.