Cut consultants, ads and travel even more

Posted on March 28, 2016 in Governance Debates – Opinion/Editorials – Ottawa is right to trim spending on outside consultants, advertising, and bureaucrats’ travel, but it should cut deeper and faster.
Mar 28 2016.   Editorial

It’s headed in the right direction but Ottawa’s effort to cut spending on outside contractors, government ads, and bureaucrats’ travel is moving slower than it should.

An annual reduction of $221 million in this area was laid out in last week’s federal budget. At first glance, that may seem a considerable amount. But, as reported by the Star’s Alex Boutilier, the government pays consultants and other private companies about $8 billion a year for professional services such as legal advice, engineering expertise, temporary office help and translation.

In its first budget the Liberal government declared itself “committed to eliminate poorly targeted and inefficient programs, wasteful spending, and ineffective and obsolete government initiatives.” To that end, it’s trimming $170 million a year from what it spends on external contractors and consultants.

Internal documents, prepared for Treasury Board President Scott Brison and obtained by the Star, indicate that the government’s long-term goal is to lower spending on these outside professional services by about $1.6 billion. But, as Boutilier points out, that won’t be achieved until 2026-27 given the current rate of annual reduction. That’s far too long to wait.

Other cuts included in Ottawa’s planned $221 million trimming of expenses include $40 million pulled from the government’s annual advertising budget and $11 million by keeping civil servants at home instead of travelling. These are both worthy objectives.

The administration of former prime minister Stephen Harper was in the habit of spending public money shamelessly on dubious and highly partisan ads. One prominent example was the Conservative government’s much-criticized Economic Action Plan ad campaign, trimmed with Tory blue and largely dedicated to celebrating official largesse. That kind of advertising cost taxpayers almost $70 million in 2014-15 alone.

Brison says the government may find more savings as it changes the rules on federal advertising to ensure it is both non-partisan and serves a legitimate public service. Even aside from saving money, it’s important to end Ottawa’s chronic use of taxpayers’ money for partisan ad campaigns.

Brison also indicated that discussions are continuing with federal bureaucrats to trim the use of consultants even further. As if to acknowledge that more can be done to cut this kind of waste, the government described its modest $221-million budget initiative as “a first step.”

One can only hope it will be followed by further — and bigger — strides in spending restraint.

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