Evidence of meeting #35 for Government Operations and Estimates in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was budget.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

  • Ned Franks  Professor Emeritus, Department of Political Studies, Queen's University, As an Individual
  • Joachim Wehner  Associate Professor, Public Policy, London School of Economics and Political Science, As an Individual

4:35 p.m.

Professor Emeritus, Department of Political Studies, Queen's University, As an Individual

Dr. Ned Franks

The problem with changing the estimates is its multiple functions. It's a control document. The structure of the votes in it, and to a lesser extent the allotments, is a control over departments by Parliament and by the Treasury Board. The issue that faces Parliament and the Treasury Board in creating the estimates is the level of control you want to have. How many votes should there be? Should there be a vote per program or should they aggregate programs? How much control can you exercise effectively centrally? How much do you let the departments do within a vote or, to be more accurate, within an allotment within a vote? The answers we have come to in Canada are primarily derived from the experience of the Treasury Board and the departments over the years. There has been very little parliamentary input into it. I don't even know if Parliament is capable of doing it.

In your report, you might ask about the estimates going to the specialist committees in Parliament. Invite them to comment on the vote structure and the allotment structure of the budget estimates they're dealing with. You might be surprised. You might get some very helpful answers that would surprise even the government.

I think there's a large role for Parliament, because the question you have to ask as parliamentarians, ultimately, is whether you are comfortable with this system as it exists. Or do you feel that you lack both knowledge and control, even in the accountability stages? I know that many times I have heard parliamentarians express that concern about control, if we can call it that, over the budget.

4:40 p.m.

NDP

The Chair Pat Martin

Thank you.

It's been over five minutes, but if you have one quick question.... We've been way over on everybody's time allowance.

4:40 p.m.

Conservative

Peter Braid Kitchener—Waterloo, ON

I might as well take advantage of your generosity, Mr. Chair. I'll go back to Professor Wehner.

I have a different question on a different topic. I'm curious if you have any thoughts on how we can better use technology to help us understand the estimates process. Specifically, I'm thinking about Internet-based documents, hyperlinks, including analytical tools.

Do you have any thoughts on that?

4:40 p.m.

Associate Professor, Public Policy, London School of Economics and Political Science, As an Individual

Dr. Joachim Wehner

Not immediately, I have to say. It's been my experience that what really makes the difference—and I've briefly worked in Parliament as well—is when you get members of Parliament who pick up the estimates and actually read them. I'm sure there are good ways of using technology to deepen that process, but very little actually gets around basically picking it up and reading it and thinking about it.

I'm sorry to disappoint—

4:40 p.m.

Conservative

Peter Braid Kitchener—Waterloo, ON

It's just like a morning newspaper. You can't replace it.

4:40 p.m.

NDP

The Chair Pat Martin

Dr. Franks would like to answer that briefly.

4:40 p.m.

Professor Emeritus, Department of Political Studies, Queen's University, As an Individual

Dr. Ned Franks

I've wondered about that, having worked on the inside and looking at it from the outside. The answer is the amount of information that Parliament gets is “that big”, compared with “that big” within the department and “that big” in the Treasury Board, and so on all the way along.

I think Parliament could get more information, but the question is, can Parliament use it, and how would it use it? I don't see that there's a matter of confidence that you couldn't get more than is given, at current times, in the estimates.

Having said that, even the estimates you get now, with their meagre descriptions of programs and so on, is far better than 50 years ago—far, far better. Perhaps we could give a little push to get more in there.

4:40 p.m.

NDP

The Chair Pat Martin

Thank you, Peter.

Now we're starting a whole new round and we'll go as far as we can. We're going up to about 5:15 our time, which is about half an hour still, if that's okay with our witnesses.

For the NDP, Denis Blanchette.

March 26th, 2012 / 4:40 p.m.

NDP

Denis Blanchette Louis-Hébert, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

I thank our guests for being here.

Mr. Franks, the beginning of your statement was rather pessimistic as to our system's capacity for transforming itself. I am going to try to get past that.

I'd like to discuss a comment you made which surprised me. You said that basically, no distinction needs be made between capital and operating expenditures.

Since budgets get larger and larger and expenditures are increasingly diverse, would not making a distinction between capital expenditures and operating expenditures not contribute, on the contrary, to making things even vaguer and harder to grasp when we attempt to follow up on the budget?

4:40 p.m.

Professor Emeritus, Department of Political Studies, Queen's University, As an Individual

Dr. Ned Franks

I've wrestled with that, and perhaps my academic colleague might have something to add, but my impression is that when you separate the capital budget from the operating budget, you open avenues for fudging. What is capital and what isn't capital is a debatable notion.

I know that lawyer friends of mine who deal with the selling or purchasing of businesses always prefer the cash accounts to the accrual accounts because they figure they're getting a truer picture of a business. It's not that I don't trust public servants or politicians, but I do feel that keeping away from capital budgets, as something totally different from operating budgets, opens the room for more fiddling than I would like to see. We did it in the past, and I was not comfortable with what we did then.

4:45 p.m.

NDP

Denis Blanchette Louis-Hébert, QC

Thank you.

Mr. Wehner, I thank you for your very interesting contribution. When you mentioned that all of the parliaments that have adopted the Westminster system have by and large the same type of structure, you raised the fact that we may have a systemic problem.

Beyond simple suggestions of accommodation, in the best practices you have observed elsewhere, such as at the OECD, are there ways of getting closer to a type of governance that will allow us to have a clearer perspective on things and to gradually get closer—we who work in this type of parliamentary system—to some more effective models, even if, as we are agreed, there is no single ideal model?

4:45 p.m.

Associate Professor, Public Policy, London School of Economics and Political Science, As an Individual

Dr. Joachim Wehner

I've seen a lot of change within the basic model of the Westminster system of government. Different parliaments have, for example, instituted new committees that they didn't have in the past.

Professor Franks mentioned that this was the case in Canada as well, in the 1960s, for example, with reforms to the committee system. You've seen new analytic institutions and changes to the structure of the estimates and so on. I would say there's nothing inherently wrong with the Westminster system. It's just a system that comes from a starting point that puts Parliament at a severe disadvantage.

It is up to you, in a way, to reshape that system. I've tried to highlight some of the variables that you could try to shift if you wanted give Parliament more of an opportunity to make a difference. I'm not saying that it will always use that opportunity—that is partly due to party politics—but what could be done is very clear, I think. It is about the formal powers of the parliament. It is about executive flexibility once the budget has been approved, the strength of committees, the timing of the budget process, and access to analytic capacity. Any of these variables can be changed, even within the Westminster framework, and we have seen that in the past.

Some of the things that I recommended in my comments I think are very well possible within the basic framework of a Westminster type of system.

4:45 p.m.

NDP

Denis Blanchette Louis-Hébert, QC

You talked about adjusting the period during which we study all of this, but certain imperatives are difficult to control. For instance, we study the main estimates, but our system imposes a structure by which we only see the results some 18 months later in the public accounts.

Can you tell me whether, according to your observations, this cycle is used in several countries? If not, would it be possible to compress the process to allow us to see the total financial picture from one year to the next, in an effective way, using tools that would allow us to monitor the evolution of programs and to make better forecasts?

4:50 p.m.

NDP

The Chair Pat Martin

Could we keep our answers fairly brief, please? We're getting close on time.

4:50 p.m.

Associate Professor, Public Policy, London School of Economics and Political Science, As an Individual

Dr. Joachim Wehner

I think you've raised a very important point. One of the things that could be done without much difficulty, I believe, is to have more in-year reporting by the government at a detailed level, or a more detailed level than may be available at present.

Technically, there's no reason why there shouldn't be an update every month, for example, or every quarter of budget execution, at least at the vote level, and maybe at the program level. That will give you a lot more information, not only 18 months down the line when the accounts come to the public accounts committee, but also as the fiscal year unfolds. You will have a lot more information at hand about what is actually going on in the budget. These are changes that I have seen in a number of countries.

There are quite a few parliaments where you have monthly reports. These are not necessarily reports to parliament. They are just things that are posted on treasury websites, for example, such as monthly reports or quarterly reports, and ideally at a program level. And why not? The treasury has all of this information. It may as well publish it.