Sunday, 16 December 2012


Suppose you worked at City Hall. And suppose you wanted to change the way the City prepared its budget in order to achieve transparency, efficiency and honesty. Would you consider adopting the method used by the US Department of Defence?

If so, you would also be happy to pay $675 for a toilet seat.  In the early 1960s the Defence department adapted the latest budgeting craze sometimes called Planned Program Budgeting (PPB). The idea was to back off traditional line items in the budget in favour of splendidly broad objectives.  This not only enabled the Americans  to pretend that the Vietnam War had a purpose, but  more importantly, to rob the public blind.  These were the glory days of sterling toilet seats and nails that cost more than their weight in gold. 

There have been many variants, sometimes called Goal Oriented Budgeting, (GOB), Managing for Results (MFR) New Public Management (NPM)  Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART) and Planning programming, budgeting systems (PPBS).  These are useful tools for burglarizing the government because in perusing the budget it is hard to trace exactly how the money is spent.  If 100 million dollars is attributed  for the Army Band, whether it is for toilet seats or tubas,  is much harder to trace if there are no tuba or toilet seat line items.

If you visit Vancouver’s web site and tip toe around the info-graphics and duck every time they fire a cliché at you, here is what you will see:

Council has supported the City’s mission “to create a great city of communities that cares about its people, its environment, and the opportunities to live, work and prosper,” by aligning spending with programs that support Vancouver’s people, environment, and prosperity.  Key plans that represent these priorities inform the budget direction. Public consultation conducted during City’s Goal: Cultivate and sustain vibrant, creative, safe and caring communities for the wide diversity of individuals and families who live in, work in and visit Vancouver

Did you know...Vancouver consistently ranks as one of the Most Livable Cities in the World?  

If in your quest for knowledge you actually want to know about something like transportation you are referred to:

If you want the Nitti Gritty, to coin a phrase, you can download the Transportation Plan 2040 adopted October 31, 2012..

Browsing through the pictures eventually, you think you are about to step ashore in the land of  the Truly Something Substantial (TSS).  Entitled “Policies and Actions and Details”  you learn this:

M 1.1.1. Continue to optimize network operations such as signal timings and rush-hour parking regulations to manage congestion while supporting other plan goals.
M 2.2. Support strategies that reduce the need for parking
M 2.2.4. Create a developer-friendly, Council-endorsed toolkit to assist developers and staff in developing transportation management strategies for new development.

Our Glorious Leader's Great Leap Forward

The Vancouver Sun luxuriated in this collection of pictures, pie charts, cliches and bull shit this way:

It is an annual budget the like of which Vancouver residents have never seen.

Where previous budgets consisted of row after row of numbers, the 2013 document reads more like a book. Its 172 pages are filled with colourful pie charts, tables of figures, and a neatly organized narrative, devoid of banker’s jargon, outlining the projects and services on which residents’ money will be spent.

This method of budget reporting is a “massive leap forward” in public accountability and transparency, according to Mayor Gregor Robertson and his team of Vision councillors, who gave majority assent Tuesday to the final $1.148-billion operating and $258-million capital budget.

Residents will see a 2.8-per-cent increase to property taxes to help pay *****

The Vancouver Province sounded incredulous:

"On Wednesday, NPA councillors George Affleck and Elizabeth Ball - who were elected, like all councillors, largely to examine city spending for taxpayers - were told by city manager Penny Ballem that on the advice of an outside consultant they would no longer receive line-item details on how city hall is spending public money. Ballem, showing contempt for elected officials, said all of us have to "trust staff."

Read more:

Maybe Council has to trust staff because the Mother Superior says so but I don't trust them and I certainly don't trust her.

The Budget That None Dare Speak its Name

In his recent book, “Program Budgeting and the Performance Movement, The Elusive Quest for Efficiency in Government”  (Georgetown University Press 2011 ) William F. West writes of the various iterations of program budgeting systems as “an unsuccessful exercise in managerialism.”  Its recrudescence in the US, “has encountered the same obstacles that led to its widespread abandonment three decades ago.”

Secretary of Defence McNamara was drawn to PPB because it promised a more efficient allocation of resources and responsibilities among  weapons systems and operational units.  The elaborate process linked planning with budgeting by evaluating and comparing activities in terms of the purposes they served. West observes, “Accordingly, it was also a tool whereby McNamara hoped to centralize his control over services that had traditionally enjoyed a good deal of autonomy.” 

President Johnson extended the program throughout the entire US government. The extension was terminated after little more than five years because to be blunt, it was a flop. PPB survived only in the Department of Defence during the next 30 years. However, it emerged in the Department of Homeland Security under Present George W Bush.

It has not been successful whether described as PPS or any other acronym. According to West, “the most important goals  cannot be realized ." It is described as a management fad that was discarded.  White also explains that it is an extremely expensive system to maintain in terms of resource demand. He says even more importantly are the constraints associated with decentralized and pluralistic political environment of public administration.  

Ironically, the evolution of PPB at the Department of Defence suggests that formal systems of planning and assessment that seek to be comprehensive and that are synchronized with the annual budget cycle may in fact undermine the kind of selective analysis that can be beneficial.

Coming back to our town, the recent move to try to centralize community centre administration by doing away with local Community Centre Associations (after relieving them of the money they raised) is a predictable result of MFR or PPB or PPS whatever they choose to call it.

The City is now being run by a physician who is out of her depth and social media experts and graphics artists who may well be top in their fields, but rank at the bottom of the class when it comes to public administration. 

That happened because fools like me and a few of you voted for VISION on the theory that they could not be worse than the last bunch.

Monday, 10 December 2012


Politics, The Art of the Impossible Dave Barrett and the NDP in Power 1972-1975 by Rod Mickleburgh and Geoff Meggs (Harbour Publishing) is a great read and a significant contribution to political science.  It might not be Plutarch’s Lives but it captures the personalities and excitement of BC`s fling with the Socialist government that briefly controlled British Columbia from 1972 to 1975.  

The authors treat Barrett with affection but do not spare him or his government from a meticulous analysis of the weaknesses that lead to the NDP’s collapse.  Among the NDP's many political errors, they sometimes forgot their major constituency.  A labor party cannot expect to survive when they order striking unions back to work.   

The NDP cabinet tried to do everything at once.  They did not expect to last.  Had they tried to bring the public along they might have accomplished even more.  As it was, they did an unbelievable amount.  The sincerest form of flattery is when the next government does not repeal legislation.  Much of their legacy remains.

It is tempting to draw comparisons between the radicals of the NDP under Barrett and the later NDP governments of Harcourt and Glen Clark.  They were very different.  Harcourt never claimed to be a socialist.  He would have fit in well with the US liberal democrats.  So would Glen Clark who easily made the transition from government fast ferries to private enterprise and neon signs.

Through a series of interviews with the participants, the authors convey the flavour of a government that considered itself so socialistic that they worried that the US might do to them what it did to Allende in Chile.  Barrett spoke to his cabinet on occasion of the risk of assassination.

My favorite cabinet minister was Gary Lauk.  He might not have been in his best form when he was interviewed by the authors, but he was certainly one of the funniest and nicest guys I ever met.
I met Lauk, not to long after he had been made Minister of Trade and Commerce.  He had just suggested that the government would nationalize the telephone company.  I tactfully volunteered that his remarks had tanked the price of BC TELS's stock.  Since a lot of the union pension funds were invested in the BC Tel, I asked him what he would do to his enemies if this was how he treated his friends.

He replied, “You have got to realize that we are a socialist government.  We are not a bunch of U.S. Democrats.  We are socialists, and yes, we will nationalize the phone company.  The banks are next.”

Lauk remained in opposition after the NDP’s loss in 1975. He ultimately gave up his seat to Mike Harcourt.  I got to know him well after that.  He was a terrific litigator.  We would frequently meet for lunch with the same group of lawyers.   

Fast forward to the Glen Clark administration  

 Young Premier Glen Clark had just announced his intention to levy a significant tax  on houses.  The real estate industry writhed and gagged.  The housing market was finished – forever.  As I reflected on galaxies in collision, I saw Lauk coming out of a Court Room.  I walked over to him and said, “Well my socialist friend.  What do you think of your Premier's new tax?”

Lauk, who owned a nice place in West Vancouver, glared and said, “Those F***ing Communists!”


I wish I had said this:

Lesson # 1:
* U.S. Tax revenue: $2,170,000,000,000
* Fed budget: $3,820,000,000,000
* New debt: $ 1,650,000,000,000
* National debt: $14,271,000,000,000
* Recent budget cuts: $ 38,500,000,000

Let's now remove 8 zeros and pretend it's a household budget:

* Annual family income: $21,700
* Money the family spent: $38,200
* New debt on the credit card: $16,500
* Outstanding balance on the credit card: $142,710
* Total budget cuts so far: $38.50

Got It ?????
OK now,

Lesson # 2:

Here's another way to look at the Debt Ceiling:

Let's say, You come home from work and find
there has been a sewer backup in your neighborhood....
and your home has sewage all the way up to your ceilings.

What do you think you should do ......

Raise the ceilings, or remove the shit?


Sunday, 2 December 2012


Last week a New York City policeman bought a pair of boots for a homeless man.  This act of kindness went viral on YouTube.  

This week Vancouver Council agreed to lease with an option to purchase a 33,000 square foot building to a Vancouver Company called HootSuite. Whether it also was a subsidy  depends on the terms.  They have not yet been disclosed.  The  Vancouver Web site reported:

HootSuite has signed an innovative agreement with the City to lease new office space at 5 East 8th Avenue, with an option for ownership. The two-storey, City-owned building contains over 33,000 square feet of office space and has a 2012 assessed value of $9.6 million.

HootSuite seems to be a very good company and a success story. The City Website notes:

HootSuite Enterprise clients include 79 of the Fortune 100 companies, as well as large organizations like Virgin, McDonald’s, Sony Music, Lamborghini, WWF, and more. While the company has grown its workforce internationally, including the opening of a new office in London UK’s Soho district, its roots remain firmly planted in Vancouver.

So what was innovative? If one searches the name, HootSuite, on Vancouver's web site, the only reference is a report of January 23, 2012 from Vancouver’s Economic Commission. It simply says that HootSuite, along with Disney’s Pixar and others, is “part of the City’s growing media cluster.”

The old Police Department Building at 5 E 8th Avenue became surplus in 2011. I could not find it listed for sale or rent in 2012 on the City Site. The report gave no indication that HootSuite was going to get first dibs without it being advertised.

Blogger, Frances Bula had an item on the “lease to own” deal. She says that she talked to a broker who told her that at market rental rates HootSuite should be paying somewhere in the neighbourhood of one million dollars a year (33,000 square feet times about $30 per square foot per year) for this. “What they are actually paying, we don’t know yet except for the city’s assurances that the company will pay “market rent.”

From the press release, one would think that market rent might be the problem for HootSuite in the first place. If they had to pay market rent, the company might not stay here. Is the City being modest about its largesse? The deal may in fact be great for the City but without any details who knows? 

There are many businesses that would like to get an innovative deal on a multi-million dollar building in an industrial zone. Were others given the opportunity?

There are strict controls and procedures regulating grants to for profit corporations under the Vancouver Charter. (See for example ss. 153, 206.) Did the “innovative” deal for HootSuite amount to a subsidy or a grant? One would not put it past City Hall in light of what is going on with respect to zoning. 

The STIR program provides a series of incentives to real estate developers to build rental housing. It encourages projects where new multi-residential rental housing units are secured for the life of the building . It waives development cost levies so that the burden of the project is placed on the community.

There is nothing wrong with HootSuite. Its program allows among other things Twitter users to time their tweets for prime hours. The timely expression of ideas in 140 characters is important. It could theoretically allow City Hall to provide adequate information on deals like the one with HootSuite.

The New York Times is currently running an article on the Economic Development Commission in Texas. It points out that the lines quickly blur between economic benefits and corporate welfare. Who benefits more: the public or the corporations?  see    [see also Clr Affleck questioning one of the VEC's members last year:]

Transparency is a virtue but it is not the virtue our Council is best at. There is no room for secrecy when dealing with publicly  owned real estate. The City has a power to buy and sell property. It does not have to go to the highest bidder. It can take into consideration various policy issues. But the idea that what is good for HootSuite is necessarily good for the country has a bad odor to it.