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January 4, 2007

Finance Confirms it Wings It!

"It's a mistake to assume that government is competent."
Rafe Mair's Axiom Number One

"The basic forecasts were submitted in written form - pro forma financial statements - with fairly high level revenue and expense categories. We did the comparative analysis and contacted the ministries for explanations of increases. The responses were mostly verbal. We did not receive any correspondence dedicated to an explanation of the revenue variances."
Manager, Fiscal Planning and Integration, Treasury Board Staff in an email dated October 26, 2006 to the Manager, Information and Privacy, Ministry of Finance

Table 1.1 in the First Quarterly Financial Report 2006-2007 released by Minister of Finance Carole Taylor on September 15, 2006 included a line showing an increase of $109 million to the province's bottom line this year, $115 million next year and a further $63 million two years from now, a total increase of $287 million over three years, due to higher than expected "own-source" revenue from school districts and health authorities. Table 1.1 summarized the changes from February's budget; the increase of $109 million this fiscal year represented 10.7% of the net increase in total revenue shown for this fiscal year. In other words, it's important. Government routinely makes what it characterizes as "major" announcements over amounts much smaller than $109 million in one year, $287 million over three years.

After three months of chasing the Ministry of Finance with freedom of information requests, it turns out that an email admits that the Ministry of Finance has no documentation on the details behind the $287 million increase. In terms of policy, own-source revenue for school boards and health authorities includes the controversial school fees that were ruled illegal, and the revenues received by health authorities for providing uninsured services, not to mention the revenues gained from violating the Canada Health Act when private patients paid to queue jump. Wouldn't you think that the Ministries of Health, Education and Finance would want to know something about the details behind estimates of own-source revenue for school boards and health authorities? It is more comforting to think that the government is withholding information and violating the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act than it is to think that they don't know what they're doing.

Three months between initiating a request and ultimately receiving a package of documents is relatively quick in getting information out of the Campbell government, even though the time limit in the Act is 30 working days. When a complaint was sent by registered mail to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner on December 18th, I received a reply by email on December 21st. By December 28th the file was closed with a promise that the documents were in the mail; they were received on January 2nd. The Freedom of Information Commissioner is certainly keeping his word on expediting the processing of requests that amount to "deemed refusals".

In addition to my original freedom of information request, when the time limit was extended because the Ministry of Finance said it had to consult with other public bodies, I submitted a further request for all documents that were part of that consultation. That request yielded far more useful information than the first request; it contained a package of emails which showed sincere efforts by staff in the Ministry of Finance to answer my request for information, including an email which claimed that the $287 million variance in revenue was accepted with no written documentation. There are several possibilities that could explain how a $287 million change in revenue over three years could be important enough to warrant its own line in the First Quarterly Financial Report yet not important enough to be documented, including:

1) incompetence,
2) an attitude that $287 million isn't important, or "material" as the accountants say,
3) a less than complete search for documents, or
4) a culture that intentionally fails to create paper trails on matters of important public policy so as to avoid capture by Freedom of Information Requests.

Lack of materiality might be the government's best defense, but that is inconsistent with the inclusion of own-source revenue in the First Quarterly Report. When you think of it that way, Mair's Axiom Number One might not be so bad after all.


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