Sunday, March 20, 2011

Budget cuts should lead to efficiencies

“Inoffensive” is the word that first came to mind after reading the 2011-2012 Budget. As we confront a global financial challenge that has crippled many other countries, Premier Cox has sought ways to be fiscally prudent while being sensitive to the hardship so many of us are going through.

Most finance ministers have either (1) cut drastically, with all the attendant social disruptions, or (2) they have borrowed to provide an economic stimulus, thus adding to the national debt. Our budget has been shaped by both practices, leaving no one feeling particularly aggrieved. In light of declining revenues and concern about government expenditures, this budget is a move in the right direction. 

The Premier has commented that “we should do more with less”; in this sense, Government is now in an excellent position to use the budget cuts to get greater efficiencies. While there will be no job redundancies during this time, the natural attrition through retirement or people simply leaving Government jobs provides the chance to ratonalise positions. It may be the case that some jobs do not need to be filled because they cannot be justified by the workload.

I am confident that a careful, honest assessment of the need for vacant positions to be filled will lead to fewer Government jobs over the next 12 months. Alongside this, we must seek, if not demand, increases in productivity in the civil service. The comparatively small number of employees who use sick leave as an extension of their vacation time and those who conspire to “go slow” in search of overtime hours, contaminate the pool of honest and industrious civil servants. And it costs you and I more money. 

At some point , preferably soon, there needs to be a long hard look at whether or not some departments require a Slim Fast intervention. Education comes to mind immediately, as there is clearly little correlation between its size and its performance. But we need to ensure we are getting value for money in all areas. The Bermuda Music Festival was cut because insufficient tourists came to justify it. What about legal aid? A fundamental tenet of a strong democracy is that those who cannot afford legal representation in a criminal proceeding should be provided support by the state.

It may make more sense from a resource perspective to have a pool of legal aid lawyers working for government rather than paying out $300 per hour to a pool of lawyers in private practice. In a similar vein, there is an annual grant to Business Bermuda for their work to attract business here. Are we getting value for money? These are the questions we need to ask; the answers need to be based on solid information and this, in turn, should inform government decisions.

Government needs to maintain a critical eye over every contract it enters into and the proposed procurement office has a critical role to play. It should help us to avoid examples such as the colossal waste of taxpayer's money on the lawyers hired to advise on the amendment to the Municipalities Act. Where a London School of Economics professor could have done the work for $30,000, we were conned into dispensing with $665,000 of your money.

One of the novel aspects of the Budget Statement is the commitment to have the public involved in the decision making process when it comes to public expenditures. This represents bold vision. An inclusive, participatory process will necessarily help the public to better understand important decisions; it will also provide more scrutiny. Budgets are typically examined from the standpoint of what programmes and initiatives are to be supported; the parliamentary debates are largely structured to reflect that. Another aspect is the effective administration of public funds. This too should form part of the debate.

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