The Atlantic Provinces “special snowflake” syndrome.

special-snowflake

The term “special snowflake” is generally used as a term of derision in the service industry. It comes from the term parents may use for their singularly wonderful child being “special”, like a “snowflake”.

After being popularized in the 1999 movie Fight Club, the term has transmuted into a sneering reference to those who feel they are or-so-very unique, but generally fall into columns of all-too-common attributes.

Kind of like our provincial governments.

In many ways, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador are indeed unique. The geography is somewhat different, the weather is more severe in some areas and in some locales, we speak in unique and charming dialects.

Beyond that, all of us, all 2.4 million Atlantic Canadians, are dealing with pretty much the same thing. Our economies are primarily resource based, we are in debt up to our ears (personally and publicly) and for a population slightly smaller than downtown Toronto, we are grossly over-governed with far too many people living on the public dime.

22.6% of all jobs in Atlantic Canada are in the civilian public sector. That’s fully five points above the national average.

To add to this problem, the public service continues to grow while public sector unions complain about “austerity” when governments simply try to reduce the speed of spending growth. There has been only one year in this century that Nova Scotia has seen a drop in the percentage growth of program spending, while most years spending has far exceeded the benchmark of population growth and inflation.

Do you feel we are getting 3 billion dollars worth of better government than we did in 2007? I didn’t think so.

To govern us across this region we elect almost 200 federal and provincial politicians and if we are counting just the major census areas (not including small villages, towns, county and other governments) we elect a total of 137 municipal councilors. To manage just the municipal and provincial affairs of the region we are forking over in excess of 33 billion dollars to politicians and the public service.

If we were getting absolutely awesome service from our over-investment in politicians and the public service, perhaps we wouldn’t have reason to complain. If we were getting “World Class” public services, we could all look at our tax bills and rejoice at the universal higher standards of living here in Atlantic Canada.

Except we don’t because the vast majority of our citizens know our total tax burden is much too high and “government customer service” is the punchline to a joke.

For mostly parochial or political reasons, governments in Atlantic Canada have historically felt our uniqueness trumped all. Because our respective provinces were somehow unlike any other province in the region, it was necessary to have separate provincial regulations, laws, and labour standards reflecting our “specialness”.

Not so much. There is no longer any rational economic justification for the layers of unnecessary governance Atlantic Canadians must contend with. A recent APEC report clearly explains the problem and quantifies the burden, and it isn’t pretty.

However, a glimmer of hope has arisen in our region. Perhaps because of the tireless lobbying of group like CFIB, or maybe the stars lined up to provide four political parties of the same stripe in power at one given time, or perhaps just because of the urgent need to finally try to address the problem, we have a body to attack some of our ridiculous regional redundancies.

With Newfoundland and Labrador signing on in December to complete the quartet at the Joint Office of Regulatory Affairs, the region now has a central tool to start dismantling some of the unnecessary costs and confusion that comes with four sets of rules to do business.

While such an event may have only titillated the wonkiest of public policy aficionados, it could prove to be a pivotal moment in the political and economic evolution of our region.

If the four governments finally come to grip with reality and accept the tax load on our shrinking population to support our unnecessary layers of government is unsustainable and must be lowered,  if they can come together to find governance efficiencies between provinces and enact sensible regulatory and interprovincial trade policy, perhaps Atlantic Canada has a fighting a chance at being a special snowflake.

Cutting Red Tape: An old problem finding new solutions

scissor-red-tape

I was having coffee with an old political warhorse recently and we were talking about red tape. He told me a story about how after John Buchanan won the 1981 election, his government promised to cut red tape. The classic line from Digby Liberal Joe Casey in the legislature was, “He sure is cutting, but lengthwise.”

This is to say, there’s nothing really new about politicians promising to cut red tape. The idea has been kicked around for years because red tape is a horrible drag on the economy. What’s new, however, is after years of hounding federal and provincial governments, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) is beginning to see some results.

To give credit where it is due, during John Hamm’s government, there was some movement on red tape, but it was no secret the bureaucracy regarded the project as bothersome. The “Better Regulation” initiative was largely ignored, then quietly shelved during Rodney MacDonald’s years and completely jettisoned during the Darrell Dexter years.

However, under Stephen McNeil regulatory reform has been revived and Nova Scotia’s grade on CFIB’s annual Red Tape Report Card has climbed from the “D” he inherited in 2013. As it is Red Tape Awareness Week, CFIB is announcing Nova Scotia is receiving a mark of “B” for 2016 putting the province back in the top half of Canadian jurisdictions.

The improvement in the mark is not because we’ve seen significant regulatory burden reduced for business, it’s because of the political leadership and excellent groundwork completed by a small group of dedicated individuals led by Chief Regulatory Officer, Fred Crooks.

We were very pleased to see Regulatory Accountability and Reporting Act passed, the creation of the Joint Office of Regulatory Affairs and Service Effectiveness, the Premiers’ Charter of Governing Principles for Regulation adopted, the creation and implementation of the ground-breaking business economic impact analysis tool and the initiation of a “Business Navigation” project to help new businesses get off the ground.

In particular, the Premiers’ Charter is a beacon of hope for small businesses in Nova Scotia. The commitment to enact fewer and better regulations, as well as the cost-for-cost rule, should keep the current regulatory burden in check. It’s now also been adopted by the three other Atlantic Provinces with mirror legislation as part of their participation in the Joint Office.

While this is all good, to see improved satisfaction levels from business owners, the government must begin producing results in time and/or money saved. With new technologies designed to make secure, online transaction readily available, there are tremendous opportunities for government to find creative solutions to cut costs, fix the government customer service experience, measure improvement and deliver real results.

To advance this, CFIB is recommending the province establish a baseline measurement of the existing red tape burden faced by Nova Scotia’s small businesses, set clear targets for its reduction, and publicly report on how it’s going. We believe only accountability will force this innovation.

If the Premier really wants to make Nova Scotia “the best regulatory environment in Canada”, we need to get at it, and now. The groundwork is done, it’s time to take action. Let’s navigate away from bureaucracies that are simply held accountable for process and move to a service oriented public sector that is held accountable for results.

This article was originally published in the Chronicle Herald on Thursday, January 26, 2017