Government organized ‘to defeat good people,’ social programs risk breakdown: advocate

Child, Youth and Seniors’ Advocate Kelly Lamrock. (File photo)

FREDERICTON — The Higgs government is using outdated practices from 30 years ago to manage social programs, and must change how it operates or risk a breakdown of multiple social programs, according to a new report from Child, Youth and Seniors’ Advocate Kelly Lamrock.

In How It All Broke, Lamrock examines social program failures across multiple departments and makes 10 recommendations to the Executive Council and Department of Finance and Treasury Board.

“Many New Brunswickers rightly wonder why a number of social services are breaking down at once,” said Lamrock. “It is not a coincidence. It is because the government is organized at its centre to defeat good people working on how it delivers social programs.”

Lamrock also questioned why the province has emergency rooms that warn people not to show up, long-term care patients stuck in hospitals, schools that barely teach half of all children to read, child-care wait-lists, mental health-care wait-lists and family court wait times nearly two years long, and a child protection system that repeats the same mistakes.

This is the first time Lamrock’s office has issued a report aimed at the central departments that manage government: the Executive Council Office and Finance and Treasury Board.

“In reviewing breakdowns in child protection, long-term care, mental health, disability support, family courts and classroom education, we noticed that the same flaws kept happening over and over,” said Lamrock. “This led us to consider the possibility that the problem is not necessarily within the departments themselves, but the failed central-governance model they work under. This report addresses where the common problems lie.”

The report identifies what Lamrock calls five central governance flaws in how the province has been organized since the mid-1990s: failure to plan for human-resource needs with good models and training targets, budgeting without any measurement of what works or clear social outcome goals, holding public servants to bureaucratic rules and uniform processes without accountability for outcomes, setting hard targets for fiscal goals but not for social outcomes, and avoiding preventative planning and investment in optional programs that might prevent crises, then overpaying to fund the crises.

“If it was the case that these things were caused by incompetent people or one round of underfunding, I could say so,” said Lamrock. “However, the reality is that there are good people working in the system. Also, recent budgets compare well to the historic averages and very well compared to the austerity budgets of the mid-1990s, in terms of social spending. It is not bad or incompetent people. It is a broken system.”

The report makes 10 recommendations.

  • Create a social policy branch of the Executive Council Office.
  • Separate the functions of Treasury Board and the Executive Council Office.
  • Hold a training summit to set hard targets for training based upon credible demand models.
  • Launch a “reinventing government” initiative to reduce social program red tape, increase discretion of front-line workers to solve problems and make regions and departments more accountable.
  • Review training programs to focus less on uniformity and compliance, instead training for problem-solving and flexibility.
  • Set social targets for government departments and reporting progress in annual updates.
  • Establish more accountable budget processes by ensuring that demand projections, service standards and projected social outcome targets for key social programs and new social investments are regularly included in the supporting budget documents.
  • Review the relationship between government and the non-profit sector, including looking at ways to make program delivery more local, flexible and client-driven.
  • Establish more flexible rules and incentives for social departments to provide integrated services to clients, based upon a “meet the need first” model.
  • Assess the impact of operational changes resulting from new collective agreements on the citizens receiving the service.

“I am tired of seeing the same problems cause harm to children, seniors and vulnerable New Brunswickers. It is time to call out these patterns of failure,” said Lamrock. “We have a lot of good people working hard to support the vulnerable, but the system keeps producing the same problems. Good people should not have to work in a poorly designed system.”

The Saint Croix Courier