Thursday, June 01, 2006

EI Extension - Pilot Program or Just Buying Time?

According to a VOCM story this morning, a pilot project of extended EI coverage (5 more weeks) for workers in areas of high unemployment scheduled to end Sunday has been extended for an additional 18 months.

The operative phrase in this story is "pilot program". Let me explain.

As a government communications "professional" (more about that another time), you learn very quickly to adopt the government/bureaucratic code for the actions or inactions undertaken by government.

For example, the latest code, from the province but also from the feds, is "innovation". You hear the word all the time from political mouths and news releases. It used to mean something that was really new, different and based on substantial research and insight to produce a true improvement on what was there before.

Now, when government says their program is innovative, they merely mean "different from current practice". The concept of innovation has been devalued.

Same thing with the word "pilot program". This term used to be defined as a short-term experiment used to test the effects of a program in order to determine if it can be used as a model for future development. Imagine my surprise when I started in government and learned that "pilot program" does not mean that at all.

In government-speak "pilot program" means a one-off special program which can be extended indefinitely without any intention of wider application. Calling it a "pilot program" lets you extend and/or bend rules and make a special case for bureaucratic, fiscal or political reasons.

I saw "pilot programs" in a large provincial social policy department which were convenient to maintain but were inconvenient to extend. In one case, the "pilot program" was ongoing for years with no meaningful evaluation on-going or any intention of ever rolling it across the province in spite of the crying need for it.

Whenever anyone came to the department and said "we want that program over here too", the response was always "it's a pilot program which has not yet run it's course and is still under evaluation". A more sophisticated way of saying "no" but a first-class negatory nonetheless.

In essence, the term "pilot program" is a devalued concept but gives political and bureaucratic cover to doing what you want.

This is where the EI benefit extension comes in.

How does this extension of a further 5 weeks of EI come under the umbrella of being a true "pilot program". In fact, it does not. Is there any chance this extension will become permanent and extended as a level playing field to all workers across the country?

But just by calling it a "pilot program" allows the federal government, through the office of regional minister Loyola Hearn, to provide yet another temporary band-aide in the form of extra money to the people he's responsible for without going through the trouble of actually thinking through a more permanent solution.

Oddly enough, this 18 month extension will expire right about the time this province will be recovering from both a provincial (due Fall of '08) and a federal election (likely due about the same time).

Clearly when you run out of ideas, the solution is to buy time by extending EI benefits in a "pilot program".

Thanks for nothing.

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