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February 24, 2012

Narrow Focus for Clark's Strategic Plan

Gordon Campbell's Five Great Goals for a Golden Decade defined the government's strategic plan for 6 years, first appearing in 2006 and persisting until this year. That wording and Campbell's image as a policy nerd made for many jokes about the great goals: The Budget Transparency and Accountability Act requires the government to produce a strategic plan that sets out the government's priorities and identifies specific objectives and expected results. The Act requires each ministry to produce a service plan that must be consistent with the current government strategic plan and to include specific objectives and performance measures.

The strategic plan for fiscal 2012-13 through 2014-15 abandoned four of the great goals, replacing them with what is essentially Premier Clark's jobs plan. Her covering letter for the plan says: "My government's targets are ambitious - they reflect the British Columbians. We know that hard work is required to meet our goals, and we are committed to a relentless focus on economic growth and jobs." Narrow could have been used in place of "relentless". The word "objective" can't be found in Clark's strategic plan, and the word "goal" is only used in the context of her jobs plan.

In place of goals, Clark's plan identifies three government priorities: A government goal, objective or priority with no measurable outcomes is little but empty rhetoric. The text of Clark's plan reviews health, education, justice reform and open government, but there are no outcome measures relevant to anything but the jobs plan. Gone are outcome measurements found in previous plans such as percentage of kindergarten students entering school "ready to learn", Life Expectancy at birth, British Columbia seniors living in institutions and Province wide greenhouse gas emissions among others. It can be argued that those measures remain in ministry service plans, but a message is sent that those measures are not as important when they are stripped from the strategic plan, particularly when most ministries are facing a three year budget freeze. It is hard to argue that measurements on social indicators are or are not consistent with the strategic plan when the plan makes no reference to goals or measurements other than those contained in the jobs plan.

While the Act requires ministry plans to be consistent with the government's strategic plan, most ministries do not make explicit reference to the strategic plan or its components. Two interesting exceptions are the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Advanced Education.

The Ministry of the Environment's plan says it is supporting the government's goals, initiatives and priorities; however, the strategic plan only uses the word "environment" in the context of the jobs plan, never in the context of greenhouse gas targets or protection of native species. When compared to the 2011 plan, the environment ministry reveals that in 2011 BC suffered net decline of conservation of native species of plants and animals. It also failed to meet its target for visits to BC parks by over one million visitors.

The Ministry of Advanced Education's plan says it "aligns with and supports achievement of government's current province-wide priorities". That is important since one of the measurable outcomes of the strategic plan is to "increase the number of international students in British Columbia by 50 per cent over the next four years". Unfortunately that is as far as the Ministry of Advanced Education has gotten with its planning. Its performance measure 4 is the number of international students studying in British Columbia. It provides a baseline of 94,000 for fiscal year 2011-12 and a target of 141,000 for fiscal year 2015-16, but for the three years before 2015 its target is listed as TBD (to be determined). It is probably easier to meet a target if it is not specified until after results are known.

Ministries will be so busy coping with the fiscal prudence imposed on them that they will be hard pressed to pay attention to performance measures. It is more likely that they will focus on not slipping too far behind. There is nothing wrong with wanting BC to create good jobs and succeed economically, but the Clark government needs to learn most British Columbians want to see progress on many fronts, including health, education, environment, social services and justice. It is not good enough to say that jobs are a means to an end and a way to make progress on all else that falls within government's responsibilities.