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Lessons from lotteries

Posted by cwaddell under All, Media Commentary, Political Strategy

Christopher Waddell

The recent controversies in Ontario surrounding the expenditures of executives of eHealth and now the Ontario Lottery Corporation raise a couple of important issues beyond expensing the cost of a cup of coffee that would benefit from investigation by both the media and parliamentary or legislative committees.

First, how did the belief emerge that senior management of quasi-government agencies need to be compensated as if they were working in the private sector and how can it be justified? The argument was that’s the way to attract top talent in senior management posts. Yet private sector compensation is designed to reflect the degree of risk that rests on the shoulders of senior management. Their decisions will determine whether the enterprise competes successfully in the market, whether it grows or shrink, lives or dies. By contrast, for example what are the corporate risks faced by the senior management of the Ontario Lottery Corporation and the decisions managers must make that will determine whether the lottery corporation, as a government-mandated monopoly, will prosper or fail that justify senior management compensation equivalent to that in the private sector ?

Second, to an extent the public doesn’t realize, government now contracts out an enormous range of services – everything from opinion polling and communications advice to speech and report-writing, the delivery of programs, IT support, economic and issue analysis and options, strategic advice and external oversight of government-funded activities. With governments facing large deficits yet also paying for so many external consultants and services, sooner or later someone will start asking exactly what do all the people who work for government actually do?

While media coverage will properly ridicule expense account excesses and raise legitimate questions of whether taxpayers are getting value for money for the contracts let by government, there’s an underlying issue that also deserves attention but may not get it. Both situations reflect the failure of elected officials in both the government and opposition to carry out one of their prime responsibilities as members of a parliament or legislature – overseeing and questioning how public money is spent.

Christopher Waddell is acting director of the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University. He is a former reporter, Ottawa bureau chief, national editor and associate editor of the Globe and Mail and a former CBC-TV parliamentary bureau chief and executive producer-news specials for CBC TV News.