New Brunswick

'Why would you keep them?': Higgs blasts poor oversight of consulting deal

Opposition Leader Blaine Higgs is echoing the New Brunswick auditor general's alarm that a consulting firm was allowed to continue its work for the province, despite a lack of results.

Consultants were hired when he was finance minister, but Liberals failed to keep watch, Blaine Higgs says

Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs was finance minister when Ernst & Young was hired to find savings in the Social Development Department. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Opposition Leader Blaine Higgs is echoing the New Brunswick auditor general's alarm that a consulting firm was allowed to continue its work for the province, despite falling far short of delivering $47 million in savings.

Earlier this week, Auditor General Kim MacPherson said consultants from Ernst & Young were paid $13 million to identify cost savings in the Department of Social Development. Their work led to $10 million in savings at most, she said.

"There's a culture of … don't rock the boat, just kind of let things move along," Higgs said Friday on Information Morning Fredericton.

"If we don't hear any complaints, if we don't hear any bad news stories, then life is good. Our province can not continue in that direction."

Ernst & Young started working on the Social Development job under the former Progressive Conservative government, when Higgs was finance minister, but the firm continued to bill taxpayers after the Liberals under Brian Gallant took over in 2014.

Although the original Ernst & Young contract was for two years, MacPherson found the consultants were still working with the department in February this year.

Her audit revealed that Social Development used an emergency exemption to award Ernst & Young the first two phases of the contract in the first half of 2013.

Continued investment

Higgs said the firm was hired to find $47 million in savings as an extension of a project that had found "complacency" on the part of the government.

The contract was renewed with no signs of oversight.- Blaine Higgs

"When you think of a project that was laid out to cost $13 million, but it should have returned $47 million, the question should be 'What stopped us from getting the $47 million?'" he said.

Higgs said the PC government spent between $1.6 million and $2 million on the project before the general election, but "the contract was renewed with no signs of oversight."

Liberal cabinet minister Serge Rouselle said earlier this week that the contract was renewed in 2015 so the consulting firm could finish work it had already started.

"All that work had been done, so the department decided at this stage, it was better to finish the work with this consulting firm," he said.

Safety measures

Higgs said there were specific measures in place under the Tory government to make sure such contracts delivered action.

The primary measure was the project management office, which reported to Higgs and the premier's office on which departments were acting on plans provided by such groups as Ernst & Young.

Auditor General Kim MacPherson says the $13 million paid to the consultants produced only $10 million in savings at best. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Ernst & Young was paid $1.9 million for identifying two initiatives that were never implemented, according to MacPherson's annual report. Higgs cited this as something that could have been avoided with a project management office.

The project management office was dissolved after the 2014 general election, and Higgs said the Liberal government has not replace the monitoring of projects that the office supplied.

Lack of communication

Higgs also said the internal shuffling of deputy ministers caused a lack of proper communication around projects such as these.

"It's hard to go to a deputy and hold them accountable when they're plucked from one place to another and just stuffed in a job and told 'do this,'" he said.

Higgs said the government can learn from the project about examining why costly initiatives are allowed to continue for many years.

"The sad part is, why would you keep them?" he said. "Why would you keep them going after '15, if you have no intention of implementing them?"

With files from Information Morning Fredericton