Thursday, March 17, 2011

On business considerations

As promised, let's follow up with one more point of discussion from my column today: namely, should we avoid "running government like a business" or similar analogies, particularly in a context where the government in power is branded largely as business-friendly?

On that front, the first point I'd note is that there are different ways for businesses to be run. And the distinction drawn by Ian is obviously an important one: as catastrophic as it is for the corporate sector to be dominated by short-term thinking, the consequences are even worse when a government falls into the same trap. (And let's not doubt that the Wall government has tried to do so: does anybody else remember that the Sask Party was fully willing to trade off whatever strategic interest it later argued to be sacrosanct in the sale of PCS in exchange for a one-time election slush fund?)

But if one's starting point is a responsibly-run business which serves to aggregate and direct the resources of multiple stakeholders in pursuit of their long-term interests, then there's no reason why we wouldn't want the public sector following a broadly similar pattern. And indeed, the largest problem with the Wall government (like so many others) is the degree to which it acts for the business sector instead of acting like a business of its own.

After all, whatever alliances a business may make in the marketplace, its primary goal will naturally be the well-being of its own operation. And negotiations with other entities are quite naturally based on the assumption that the business will try to get the best possible deal for itself (and ultimately its shareholders), rather than regularly settling for less than it could in a futile attempt to win the favour of other parties who do operate based on their own self-interest.

Unfortunately, Wall's government has approached its role from exactly the opposite perspective. Instead of seeking to maximize Saskatchewan's returns for the benefit of the "shareholders" who have a long-term stake in the well-being of the province, the Sask Party ranks its desire to ingratiate itself to the corporate sector above any question as to what's ultimately best for the citizens who make up Saskatchewan as a whole.

So once one takes the time it takes to explain the difference between acting in service of business and acting like a business, the distinction makes for a useful tool in evaluating the Sask Party (or any other government). And it's hard to see how anybody who isn't on the receiving end of public largesse could try to argue that we're best served accepting the former.

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