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.


  1. I and others chastised Vision Vancouver for it's even more blatant disregard for public accountability of their 6 1/2 page 1 Billion dollar 2010 Budget. So, in typical fashion, their solution is to add more volume but not more content.

    It is absolutely outrageous that elected Councillors are denied access to any and all information they deem to be necessary for them to fulfill their responsibilities to the electorate. I encourage the current opposition Councillors to continue to raise this issue, only you have to do so a whole lot more forcefully. The feedback I'm getting is that the NPA and Green opposition is ineffective.

    Bill McCreery

  2. You know we all (I am surely that person) get to be so smart talking about creating a budget, but here is a real question: are you ready to take a responsibility of running the country’s budget or at least a single’s city? I am definitely not, neither most of you. Finance related questions are never that easy to take and tasks to accomplish. In order for the budget work efficiently and transparently you have to go through hell first. By hell I mean constant dealing with mortgages (FHA), credit cards, SBA and probably even cash advance online. These are the difficulties we can only talk easily about. I am not here to defend money decision-maker. I am here to underline how hard this is.

  3. You are absolutely right that to prepare a Vancouver budget is enormously more complicated than the average person's household budget. That is why the City has a huge department of finance that works on it all year plus the various department heads who submit requests for their departmental budget. This mind boggling exercise is headed by a Board of Administration all of which is overseen by the City Manager. This years budget had by far the best graphics of any produced to date and was a tribute to the many specialists in communications who worked on it.

    Jonathan Baker