“The Government of Nova Scotia has a serious problem,” states the Back to Balance website, “and needs your help to solve it.”
The serious problem, according to the government, is an impending 1.4 billion dollar deficit facing the province in 2013 unless revenues are increased and spending is curbed.
The Department of Finance started a pre-budget consultation process, dubbed “Back to Balance,” about the pending 2010 Provincial Budget. Initially scheduled for 16 different communities across the province, Back to Balance was described as the collaborative development of a “long-term, multi-year plan to address our fiscal reality and ensure we live within our means.” That is, the government sees this process as not simply being a pre-budget consultation but a multi-year process to help establish values and priorities for the full mandate of the government.
The “Back to Balance” process ended up with 25 two-hour community meetings/focus groups in 18 different communities between January and March 2010, with locations within the Halifax Peninsula scheduled only after questions were raised as to why the original roster had it absent. Government MLA's were also to consult with their constituents and the Finance Minister held private meetings with Regional Chambers of Commerce and labour groups. The Department of Finance also gathered feedback from the Internet at www.gov.ns/finance/backtobalance.
The Minister said that the total cost of the process is estimated to be $63,000 and were facilitated by Becky Colwell from Fourth Wave.
At the community meetings/focus groups, the Minister of Finance made a 15 minute opening presentation. He provided instructions for participation in the process using a prepared information guide which explained the key conclusions from Deloitte’s November 2009 Report on the fiscal state of the province.
The guide asked four questions on which all discussions were to focus:
- What should the government do to increase revenues and reduce spending?
- What changes should be made to programs and services? Are there things government should do better, stop doing, or do more of?
- What investments should be made today that will help grow the economy in the long term?
- How soon should government bring Nova Scotia's finances back to balance?
While this current government has attempted an exercise of participatory democracy not seen from previous governments, the Back to Balance pre-budget consultations create more questions than those four the Finance Minister sought to have answered.
Were the sessions organized around correct assumptions?
The assumptions being adopted by the government around the budget are that “status quo is not an option” and that the only way to head off budgetary catastrophe is by increasing revenues and decreasing spending.
An air of emergency has been fostered around these consultations, and focus on a projected $1.4 billion dollar deficit, rather than on the existing $425 million deficit projected for 2009-2010.
The government implies that budget deficits arose last year, and that previous governments have not gone through similar exercises to justify cuts to public services and jobs. In fact, the Minister raises questions that previous governments raised, namely, what the role of government is and what its core priorities should be.
Will the public input from these meetings make a difference for the 2010 Provincial Budget?
As this process did not finish until March 20, and the Minister says the budget will be tabled on April 6, work within the government on this budget began well before this consultation process started. In other words, it is unlikely that the outcomes of this process will have an impact on the details of the 2010 Budget.
How revealing and valuable is the information gathered through the Back to Balance Budget Consultation?
This consultation leads people to accept the government assumption that “the status quo is not an option” without entertaining alternative solutions which also address the long-standing “social deficit” that has been accumulating.
The four questions ask nothing about the values and priorities of Nova Scotians (one of the purposes identified for the sessions), and the informal polling at the sessions was designed to elicit the types of responses that the government is seeking. These polls facilitated media headlines like “HST hike leading suggestion” suggesting that Nova Scotians supported a 2% hike in the HST, when in fact the crowd was discussing many alternative means of revenue generation besides an HST increase. Minister Steele did not poll on any of the other means of revenue generation being suggested at the meeting.
Given the lack of information publicly available about government finances (spending, investments and revenues) and program evaluation, how can the public meaningfully contribute to budgetary decisions for the province?
In these sessions, Finance Minister Steele makes it clear that feedback and suggestions gathered at these meetings should be focused around that $1.4 billion figure. He is clear that he is not interested in small scale solutions, and asks the public to give input into which programs should be cut - but provides no background information about the programs currently offered.
The government is the only stakeholder with the capacity and access to evaluate its own programs, to understand the effectiveness of services and do a full-costing analysis of them. If they want Nova Scotians to make informed responses, they need to provide them with this kind of information.
If Back to Balance is an exercise of participatory democracy, why was the consultation not more accessible?
Public notice for the meetings was limited to two weeks at the most. It is not clear why the full schedule of planned sessions would not be released all at once. It may be that the dates of some meetings may have to be changed for various reasons but why not make sure the public is aware of the complete schedule to help them decide which meeting or meetings to attend.
Over half the sessions from January 22 to February 20 took place in the afternoon which limited the number of people who can attend due to their work commitments. In addition, many parts of each region are being overlooked for the meetings - such as rural Cape Breton and Colchester County.
The format of the meetings restricted the quantity and quality of discussions in the small groups. These groups only had 45 minutes to discuss the four questions and a mere 90 seconds for each group to report its conclusions. Further, discussions from the floor were not permitted at any point, even after all the small-group reports have been made.
Will the government adapt this process of community consultation to be more inclusive and open to input which may deviate from the government’s own agenda/preferences?
The Minister and the government indicate this is the first step of a longer-term consultation process to establish the government’s values and priorities for the future. If this is the case, it would be helpful for the government to provide Nova Scotians with a general outline of the longer-term process and more clarity about the intended goals of the consultations.
While the decision to consult with the public is an important first step, these particular t pre-budget consultations were too limited and restrictive, and seemingly designed to produce certain outcomes. To encourage broad-based public input on government values and priorities during its mandate, the meetings should start much earlier in the budgetary decision-making process and take place over a longer period. They should also allow for more open, multi-faceted and democratic input and discussion.
 Graham Steele quote in Jan 14, 2010 press release “Getting NS Back to Balance” http://www.gov.ns.ca/news/details.asp?id=20100114004