The history of the Conference Board’s TILMA report

Keith Reynolds, a researcher with CUPE-BC, has been following the BC government’s transactions with the Conference Board through access to information requests. Below is his summary of how this deal went down:

Conference Board contract on TILMA

I put the following notes together from about eight FOI requests over the last eight months and thought you might be interested in the results.

One of the main tools used to sell the Trade Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement (TILMA) between BC and Alberta has been a Conference Board of Canada study that looked at the economic impact of the deal.  The study found that the deal would add $4.8 billion (78,000 jobs) to BC’s economy.

The study’s results, based on subjective guesses by a small group of survey respondents, have been debunked by the CCPA’s Marc Lee and Erin Weir as well as other economists.  The Conference Board has not responded to the issues raised about its methodology.

How did such a flawed document come to play such a big role in a critical public policy debate?  Results from a series of Freedom of Information requests show that almost no one with expertise in inter-provincial trade was considered to do the study.  It was done on the cheap and it was a rush job.

The Ministry of Economic Development was responsible for the process that awarded the contract to the Conference Board.  They issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) on July 21, 2005.  The closing date for a response was August 10, 2005.  The study was to be completed by October 1, 2005 – less than two months away.  The RFP asked for a Macro and a Micro analysis of the impacts and said, “The study would quantify those impacts where possible.”

Only two organizations were permitted to bid on the RFP – the Conference Board and MMK Consulting.  The Ministry had narrowed the list down to two from a total of 20 they had found on the Canadian Association of Management Consultant website.  The Ministry has refused to release the names of the 18 organizations not allowed to bid on the RFP claiming that to release the names of the people they didn’t talk to would be harmful to “the financial or economic interests of a public body.”  Apparently no effort was made to speak to academics who work in this area.

The short list of two quickly got shorter.  On August 8th MMK President Stuart MacKay e-mailed the Ministry saying they would not submit a bid because of heavy existing client commitments.  Thus the Conference Board became the only group bidding on the project.

The Conference Board proposal contained the methodology that was subsequently used in the report.  On August 10th a senior advisor in the Ministry sent an e-mail suggesting Ministry officials get together to discuss the Conference Board response.  He said, “not that we have any alternative, but we want to make sure we are getting what we need in the contract.”

The contract with the Conference Board was signed on August 22nd, leaving 38 days to meet the deadline.  The contract price was $49,800, a small amount of money for such an important contract but still about $1,300 a day for the project.

Feedback from business and government was critical for the success of the study.  The response of these organizations drove the analysis of TILMA’s impacts.  This consultation consisted of contacting 24 organizations, 11 from government and 13 from industry.  Only six government organizations and four private sector organizations responded.

The small response from the small sample is not surprising.  The surveys were sent out by e-mail on roughly September 8th.  Survey recipients were given only seven days to respond.  Not surprisingly, many groups that might have made an important contribution, including the Ministry of Small Business, did not respond to the survey.  As the Insurance Corporation of BC said in their FOI response, “The Corporation receives many surveys each year and responds as appropriate.”  ICBC did not respond to this request.

The contract was complete on October 1st.

The governments involved say with TILMA it will have huge economic benefits and little impact on undermining the role of government.  Opponents of the deal say it will give business the power to second-guess decisions by local governments in particular, but will have few economic benefits.  While there is disagreement on what the impacts of TILMA might be, there is broad agreement that they will be substantial.

A thorough economic analysis that built on previous studies might have answered some of the questions that have been raised.  Instead the government went with what was basically a sole sourced contract with low costs and less than six weeks to complete the project.  In other words, quick and dirty.

Not surprisingly, although the contract was completed in October 2005 it was not released until January 2007 in the face of impending FOI requests.

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