Liberals get poor grade from Progress Board

The Progress Board, set up to report on how the government is doing and killed by Christy Clark last year, went out with a bang.

The Progress Board, set up by Gordon Campbell in 2002 to report on how the government is doing and killed by Christy Clark last year, went out with a bang.

The board’s final report last month compared B.C.’s performance on key indicators with its standing in 2000.

It wasn’t a flattering report card for the Liberal government. The province actually slid backward in its economic ranking over the decade, and remained mired in ninth place for social conditions.

The Progress Board was a noble effort. Campbell set up the independent panel to devise measurable standards that could be used to monitor the province’s progress each year. They looked at ways of assessing B.C.’s performance on the economy, health outcomes, environment and social conditions and prepared special reports on key issues.

And the board set goals. It concluded  that B.C. should aim to stay in first place for environmental quality and health outcomes — where it was in 2000 — and to rise to first or second place in the other categories by 2010.

It was an ambitious target, but the Liberals embraced it.

The performance has fallen well short of the lofty goals.

B.C. remains in first place among provinces for health outcomes and environmental measurements. (Which, considering all the criticism of the Liberals’ environmental policies, should hearten them.)

But it was ranked fourth for the strength of its economy in 2000; now it has slid a place to rank fifth.

British Columbians had the third highest personal income in 2000; the province had slipped to fourth place by 2010.

The province ranked fifth for employment in 2000; it had fallen two places to seventh by 2010.

And it remained the second worst jurisdiction in Canada for social conditions. B.C. has the highest proportion of its citizens living in poverty, or at least below StatsCan’s low-income cutoff level. When the Liberals took over, the province was in sixth place.

That doesn’t mean that the economy or employment hadn’t grown, or that there had been no improvement in social conditions.

Other provinces have just improved at the same rate, or faster, so B.C. lost ground.

Still, the goal was to rise to first or second place in these categories by 2010. Instead, the economic rankings worsened.

The point of using rankings, rather than absolute measures, was to get some idea how the government and B.C. were doing relative to other provinces.

The goal wasn’t to be an average government, but to manage in a way that produced better results here than in other provinces. That hasn’t happened. In fact, B.C. went backward in some key measures.

It’s unfortunate Clark has killed the Progress Board, replacing it with something called the Jobs and Investment Board.

It’s unclear if the new body will continue monitoring performance using the same broad range of publicly available measures. Its focus is narrower, with no obvious interest in health, the environment or social conditions.

The results in its final report certainly don’t paint a glowing picture of a province being managed more competently than any other. There’s nothing wrong with being average, but it’s not much to boast about.

That’s a problem for the Liberals, who have been trying to contrast their record with the “decade of decline” under the NDP in the 1990s.

The New Democrat government of the late 1990s was remarkably inept, with a series of largely empty announcements substituting for any coherent, consistent policy direction.

The Progress Board report, though, confirms that the Liberals haven’t been any great shakes at managing the province either, based on the actual results during their tenure. (Partly, that may confirm that government actions are much less significant than they like to claim.)

Political parties often like to run on their opponents’ records. It’s a lower standard to meet — we might not be good, they say, but the other guys are worse. We’ll be hearing a lot of such talk over the next 16 months.

But the reality is that neither of the main parties can claim any great success. Perhaps that will encourage them to quit living in the past, and talk about what they would do if elected.