Sound familiar?

This week’s Auditor General’s report on the delays and cost overruns on the Bluenose II retrofit sounds so familiar.

The provincial AG’s finger-pointing came just days after Halifax’s auditor general criticized the poor planning, cost-overruns and delays in building the Washmill Lake bypass on Highway 102. Halifax’s AG blamed a run to grab matching Federal funds, poor planning and lack of communication for a $4 million project’s cost to quadruple to $16 million.

The Bluenose retrofit was budgeted at $14.4 million, but has so far consumed $20 million and could yet cost $25 million before it’s finished, two years behind schedule.

The provincial AG says the Bluenose budget was not realistic and that the project was doomed because it was handled by a department with almost no capital project experience.

This is exactly what his predecessor said of the handling of the new Colchester East Hants Health Centre in Truro. The budget for construction of the new hospital was $104 million. When it finally opened, two years late, it cost $184 million! The Auditor General concluded the original budget was insufficient and the local health authority had no experience in large construction projects.

The definition of crazy is to do the same thing over and over and expect different results.

Project after project in this province come in over-budget and behind schedule. There are no consequences for those who habitually make mistakes. Instead, we continue along the same decision-making path, ensuring those in power are protected from any responsibility or consequences for failure.

This is worrisome for the future of Nova Scotia health care. We are on the cusp of a major reform, but front-line workers, medical retirees and others involved in health care wonder how anything can change if we fail to recruit new blood to the executive ranks. The comment has been made that we are shifting old thinking to new chairs. Cynics suggest that for some there is no upside to success. If the realigned system works, that’s an indictment on how health care has been managed. If the realigned system fails, then the executives get to deflect the failure on to politicians.

For the preservation of politicians and patients we need success. Our recent history is not comforting.

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5 Responses to Sound familiar?

  1. T.S. says:

    Reading the recent auditor general reports on projects in Nova Scotia, perhaps we could craft a piece began with a rhetorical caricature – a hypothetical minister overseeing a department which managed an industry about which he knew virtually nothing. I’ve long suspected many or even most ministers arrive that way and are indeed held intellectual hostage to their deputies. Graham Steele’s recent book reinforces that view.

    We take someone from a small-town background, drop them into a position running a ministry with a hundred-million or multi-billion dollar budgets in areas unrelated to their previous occupation or experience, while also expecting they continue to represent all the issues of the constituents in their riding.

    Putting myself in the Minister’s shoes I rely totally on my Deputy Minister, and the pyramid of experts beneath them, to educate and advise me. I am their commander, their link to the government and The People, but I am also their intellectual hostage. When I ask if something can be done, and they say it can for this price and this schedule what am I supposed to do? If I reject their proposal I am de facto implying a lack of confidence in them. If I accept it, I am at their mercy, because if it goes awry The Minister and their government is responsible.

    So if a Department is assigned oversight of something that is complex and unfamiliar to them (Bluenose II, Washmill Lake) or something that that has evolved over decades into such Byzantine complexity that nobody really has a clear view of how it all functions any more (so they dare not fiddle with it), yet it’s annual cost increase outstrips the government’s increase in revenue to the point that it’s clearly unsustainable (public health care), at what point does the current Minister and the government of the day have to accept responsibility for the way things did or are turning out?

    When does the Minister admit “this is not working and we need to change tack”?

    How can any Minister of Health be seen to say that for the way we manage public health care? Would their government or their party even allow them? If they did, what then? How does one go about deeply reforming the management of public health on which the lives of thousands of vulnerable people depend on any given day so it’s both sustainable and more responsive to patient needs?

    • A British TV series called Yes, Prime Minister airs Fridays on Vision TV.

      • Tim Segulin says:

        Indeed NS must have her own versions of the imbecilic Hon. James Hacker and his devious Permanent Head (similar to a NS Deputy Minister) Sir Humphrey Appleby. I’m thinking more of the original series Yes Minister here.

        For those who haven’t yet seen this great old 1980s UK series, take a moment to watch the dynamic between the minister and his Deputy. You can’t help but wondering how something like that might contribute in NS to less than brilliant decisions surrounding the Bluenose III, Washmill Lake, subsidizing lots of environmentally friendly but hugely uneconomic windmills and their construction at Trenton etc.

        One might also wonder how much it applies to the way public healthcare trundles along without change except to continually cost more and become less responsive to non-emergency needs.

        It must be scary for a minister to be responsible for initiatives in fields which they do not understand so they must put blind faith in the wisdom of their Deputy Minister and his minions.

  2. Bubbie says:

    Graham Steele, in his book, “What I Learned About Politics”, says it all. He basically said the Legislature was a joke and that before a minister of any portfolio is appointed everything is scripted and laid out by the senior unelected bureaucrats and that the most important work done by an MLA is in his/her constituency. Probably the reason why everything looks and sounds the same no matter what party comes to power. He also said that it took him fifteen years to learn what most cynics always knew. In one part of his book he indicated that he was all fired up to give his first speech before the Legislature as Minister of Finance but was greatly disappointed and almost embarrassed after he had given his speech because other MLAs were either texting, reading, shouting or simply nodding off to sleep. Sounds disgusting. It makes you wonder why we even have the kind of political system that we have. The book certainly reinforced the beliefs I have about our political system and why we have dug ourselves such a huge financial hole.

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