Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 4/11/2016 (285 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
I enjoy driving to Saskatchewan. As I pass Virden, I do not need the sign welcoming me to Saskatchewan to know I am in another province. No, I can tell by the quaint provincial costumes — the purple hats and the lime-green leggings of Saskatchewan men are a sure tipoff that I am in a different place.
This is silly, of course — but the existence of provinces demanding that they have a "made-in-Saskatchewan energy policy" or a "made-in-Nova Scotia health policy" underscores the arbitrary nature of political and administrative divisions in delivering public policy. In most cases, the boundaries we use to deliver public policy make little sense, do not align with unique needs of the population and add administrative cost with little commensurate value.
The proliferation of political and administrative boundaries is breathtaking. Any administrative map of Manitoba reveals a complex web of jurisdictions. For example, we have five school districts and several dozen divisions. Why do we need six school divisions in Winnipeg? Please don’t say the Winnipeg School Division brings more focus to inner-city needs, when it also includes Fort Rouge schools. Even so, what is fundamentally different about Grade 4 math in Seven Oaks compared to Pembina Trails?
One critical dimension that may warrant a separate education division is the disparity between aboriginal and non-aboriginal school achievement. Here, an important stratum serves to guide the creation of an administrative unit devoted to accelerating the academic achievement of aboriginal children.
Rural municipal governments represent a more natural emergence of additional local governance. Critically, a region can apply to be a rural municipality based on meeting certain population requirements. Mayors and reeves typically comprise the governance structure and serve as an important countervail to the provincial government. The fact the Association of Manitoba Municipalities started as a voluntary organization and its growth depends on the natural processes of urban growth lends credibility to these administrative units compared with arbitrary bureaucratic boundaries.
The regional health authorities (RHAs) are an excellent example of an arbitrary "solution" in search of a problem. Created in 1998, the idea was smaller regional administrative units would give voice, and make service more responsive, to local needs. Yet the original 11 RHAs have been pared to six. Even a cursory glance at a map reveals Manitoba’s RHAs do not align with any natural service area. And just to add yet another anomaly, Churchill is part of the Winnipeg Health Regional Authority (WRHA)! This completely undercuts any rationale that a health region represents a coherent delivery system based on patient need.
Each administrative unit comes with an overhead cost. For example, each of the 39 school divisions in Manitoba has a board of approximately 10, along with a support staff. Just administrating the school divisions in Manitoba requires a staff of more than 500, and that is being quite conservative. These divisions also set the school tax. An argument could be made that elected boards offer taxpayer control, although the reality is taxpayers appear to have little influence over school taxes.
If Manitoba Education were to assume direct responsibility of delivering all education, certainly it would need staff on the ground. It may well collect schools into administrative units that would define catchment areas. But local governance and local delivery are two separate ideas. We have a Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service that is governed centrally but positions its stations to serve the local population efficiently. Is a school system or a health system any different?
The absurdity of many of our administrative divisions was made apparent last week when the WRHA announced a staggering interim deficit. Whether this deficit is real is not the issue. Any shortfall will not be covered by Winnipeg residents by the WRHA imposing a tax on Winnipeg residents; rather, it will be covered by Manitoba Health. The creation of RHAs has not increased transparency or accountability but simply erected another bureaucratic layer that attenuates effective oversight.
We urgently need to thin and rationalize the numbers of arbitrary administrative units we have governing service delivery in Manitoba. It will take a fresh provincial government with a majority and mandate to reduce spending to effect such change.
Gregory Mason is an associate professor of economics at the University of Manitoba and a senior consultant at PRA Inc. His views are his own.