Sheila Fraser's praise is a hard-won thing. That's why Canadians familiar with the Auditor-General's scathing reports on government waste and mismanagement should pay attention to her plaudits for the federal government's stimulus package. Her findings point to a case example of how accountable, high-performing government officials can quickly launch major public works projects.
In January 2009, Canada was in the grip of the worldwide recession. The need for quick government spending to spur the economy was great. And that meant short-circuiting the usual budgeting process. With most major government spending, Cabinet ministers need to approve the policy in principle first; then a detailed plan goes to the Treasury Board, a subcommittee of Cabinet, for approval. With the stimulus, the government did both at once.
But the federal government, at the bureaucratic and political level, had in this instance obviously learned from boondoggles like the sponsorship program. It brought rigour to the approvals process for the whole range of stimulus spending: bridges, housing, government laboratories. "All of the projects that we tested ... met the eligibility criteria," said the Auditor-General.
The government was able to deliver quickly because it used existing programs, the Auditor-General noted. That meant that all "shovel-ready" projects were certified as such by public officials at different levels of government.
There is room for some nit-picking. The Auditor-General did not do a value-for-money audit, and it's still not clear whether the stimulus delivered the jobs promised. As the federal Liberals have noted, some projects were late in starting, and some legitimate questions have been raised about whether the distribution of funds disproportionately benefited ridings held by Conservative MPs.
Consider, though, the upshot. Governments are often blamed for being slow and unresponsive, and prone, once they have spent the money, to spending it on the wrong things. That was not the case here. "Central agencies and departments worked together to achieve timely implementation while paying considerable attention to risk" isn't especially inspiring language. But in a time of great cynicism about government, the gist of it is encouraging. Canadians should take comfort in the federal government's ability to deliver a well-run stimulus program.