Government Operations Committee on May 2nd, 2012
Evidence of meeting #42 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 estimates.
A recording is available from Parliament.
On the agenda
The Chair Pat Martin
Ladies and gentlemen, let's convene our meeting, please.
Welcome, everyone, to the 42nd meeting of the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates. We'll be continuing our review of the process for considering the estimates and supply for the Parliament of Canada.
We're very pleased, in fact honoured, to welcome two special guests today. I won't call them witnesses, because they're here by invitation to share with us some of their experience in this regard.
First is Mr. Peter Dobell, the founding director of the Parliamentary Centre, which he founded in 1968, ladies and gentlemen. He has a vast knowledge on these issues, and he is the author of two books on Canadian foreign policy. With him is Mr. Martin Ulrich, as an independent consultant and formerly the senior associate with the Parliamentary Centre, also with a long-standing career in the public service first.
We welcome and we'll benefit from and value very much what you have to share with us, Mr. Dobell and Mr. Ulrich. You have five or 10 minutes each and then we'll open up to questions.
You have the floor, sir.
Peter Dobell Founding Director, The Parliamentary Centre, As an Individual
Good afternoon, to all of you.
You've invited the two of us to comment on two papers we have jointly written, a large part of them by Martin. I should let you know in advance that I got him started. The two of us have very different backgrounds as your chairman has just pointed out, but we worked together very cooperatively a number of years ago. Because we have different experiences we're going to speak in sequence, if that's satisfactory. We'll make a few remarks each.
Initially let me say that our writing, and my earlier writing before Martin joined me, was prompted by distress at Parliament's ineffective review of the estimates and its inability to detect and point to any misexpenditure of funds.
Before Martin Ulrich joined the centre I had already expressed concern that the estimates were being ignored. The fact that I was writing about this led John Williams, very soon after he was elected in 1993, to ask me to appear before a group of colleagues from the Reform Party—not a committee meeting—to talk about the situation. That's an example of how he got started and made it a kind of life work. It was only after Martin joined the centre that we were in a position, drawing on his experience—over 30 years in Treasury Board—to suggest ways that Parliament might propose of improving the situation.
I should say that the two of us have been much impressed by the quality of the speakers you've had, and their knowledge. I know many of them and I can affirm that you've made the right choice of people to come here. I'm not so sure about today, but anyway, it's not only the fact that you have had good speakers but the time you have devoted to looking at the problem.
You have managed to work in this Parliament fairly cooperatively, which is a bit unusual. I think it's going be a matter of how far you can draw on your experience to suggest satisfactory ways of improving the situation.
With Martin and I, a lot of the work we've done involved going to members of Parliament who were then in office to try to see how they were working. The conclusion we reached very quickly, and it's one of the things we wrote about, was the need for a substantial, what we called, financial service.
To be candid, we actually envisaged a much larger service than I'm sure you're going to be able to get. We were thinking about up to a dozen individuals with extensive experience in government financial services who could understand the complexity of government finances, which are really pretty difficult to penetrate.
The proposal we have proposed has been supported by a number of your witnesses, I'm happy to say. Indeed Kevin Page, along with his colleagues who came here, is an example of the kind of person we think should be in the financial services.
The only difference is that I think he should be reporting directly to Parliament, perhaps even to your committee, and I would like to see him reporting to you rather than reporting to the media.
Second, I'd like to see him taking some time to decide to take direction from you as to what subjects to work on, rather than deciding himself what's needed.
In our study, the one which we wrote for the IRPP, we advocated that committees on estimates should continue throughout the year. In effect, we share the opinion of those who say that it's a mistake to terminate the inquiries on May 31.
In our papers, we concluded that it would be more effective if, rather than looking at the annual estimates only in the spring, members were to concentrate right from the beginning on examining individual programs. This way you would get some sense of whether the performance on each program corresponded with what you perceived to be the public's needs and expectations.
We've been asked to report our conclusions in our study prepared for the Gomery Commission on the sponsorship scandal. It reminded me, when we received this request, that although we wrote that report with some hopes that someone would pay attention to it, as far as we are aware, this is the first parliamentary attention that's ever been given to that report.
I mention this because I hope that the report you will be preparing will have impact and will not be ignored the way ours was. In other words, come up with a report that has some chance of getting some parliamentary support and public support.
If your report has a positive and constructive tone, especially if it has the support of members from all parties, which is pretty hard to get but worth trying for, its chances of being seriously considered by government will be greater.
Bob Marleau was quite right in suggesting that conclusions with a positive tone that proposed ways to improve a program were more likely to be taken seriously by the ministry. It may take time. It's not something that's going to happen immediately, but it's worth considering whether that's something you could do.
Over the years that I have been observing—and they are substantial, as you mentioned—and working with parliamentary committees, I can advise you that I know of instances where a report that had the support of all parties had an extraordinary effect on the government. If opposition members on a committee, rather than looking for ways to attack the government, were to work with government members on ways to improve the effectiveness of government operations—to use words that you have already heard from Joe Jordan—you could jointly establish a base for demonstrating to the public that it was getting value for money for a program, something that the government might respond to if you agreed on ways to improve it.
Pat Martin Winnipeg Centre, MB
Thank you very much, Mr. Dobell.
Mr. Ulrich, would you like to carry on?
Martin Ulrich Independant Consultant, As an Individual
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Good afternoon, everyone.
I'm going to go into a bit more depth, particularly on the study for the Institute for Research on Public Policy. I think that is a bit dated now. It's almost 10 years old. It was one thing where we looked at, not the estimates in particular, but government oversight of financial management very generally. One of the reasons for that, as you all know, is that this was an issue internationally, not just in Canada. At the time, there was a lot of criticism of Parliament in the academic world, in the media, and so on.
We wanted to get into that subject in depth, so we took all the studies of all the committees during one calendar year. We identified those which had, in some way, shape, or form, an oversight of financial management. Both Peter and I met with members of all the parties at that time. I would say it wasn't a random sample by any means. We chose people who had been around a longer time and had more experience with the process to essentially get the best advice going.
Out of that process, it became very clear that financial oversight should be looked at on three different levels. One level is the broad, macroeconomic level. That's the overall budget, deficit, and debt—those kinds of things. Another level is the individual transactions—the individual contracts and all those things. Between the kind of control framework that the government had set up at the time, the Financial Administration Act, which provided all kinds of constraints as to how the government could use these funds that were either used through legislation or through votes, and the Auditor General's office doing its audit—there was this middle level, and that was the program or departmental level.
We reported in the paper the clear views of parliamentarians. We, after all those discussions, happened to share those views, but they were not essentially our views. They were the views of people like you, roughly 10 years ago. Their conclusion was that Canada, the Canadian Parliament, and the Canadian House of Commons does a pretty good job at that high, broad level—the aggregates. The budget is a big event in Parliament. There's a lot of preconsultation and so on. At the time, the finance committee was very active in pre-budget consultations. It worked pretty well.
They also had a lot of confidence, even though they didn't get into it a lot, at the individual transaction levels. But that middle level—the one where the estimates are—is the one that essentially did not work. That was not a surprising conclusion, I suppose, but it was nice to know that experienced members of Parliament felt this was the case.
A number of recommendations came out of those discussions, but one that I think is particularly interesting is—I'll use a bit of jargon here because I don't know what other words to use—the control framework. Since it is responsible for voting these funds, how does Parliament assure itself that Canadians have received what the government intended they receive, and that they were done effectively, efficiently, and all those good things?
Over the years, the vote structure and the kinds of things you technically vote on in Parliament have been evolving. As Peter referred to it, there were many cases where, over the years, the government gradually ended up making the votes larger votes. Therefore, when you had a number—when parliamentarians saw a number of x billion dollars for some great, noble purpose, they had absolutely no way of comparing that amount of money with that result.
They asked what they could do. In many ways, that's one of the reasons for the financial analysis service. One of the things we had recommended was that the financial analysis service, working under the direction of this committee, would take a look at that. How do you sort that stuff out to make it sensible? It's not that the government doesn't need flexibility. The government does need flexibility. At the same time, you represent all Canadians. Parliament needs to be able to ensure that it has taken a look at how the government, the big administration, has used that authority and money it has provided.
I think that control framework—largely the centre is the vote structure—is something that really needs to be looked at. Kevin Page certainly recommended that when he advocated that votes be on programs, and I think that is a huge step in the right direction.
A couple of other things came out of that study. One of them was the idea that committees should at least look at indicators. I believe—and as Bob Marleau made very clear—there's a lot of misunderstanding among parliamentarians as to what you have the power to do and what you can get done if you're willing to do so.
You have an enormous amount of power. There's an enormous number of things you can do if you get agreement in committee. We looked at committees, and the estimates were supposedly one of the reasons you should have committees. Well, in this study, we actually documented how much time committees spent on the estimates, and it was a minute amount compared to the other things they did.
Now, if the estimates are as important as certainly we believe and the people we talked to believe, then it might be a thing to think about how you would judge whether committees have performed well in their financial oversight duties. It might be something that this committee, with its overall responsibility for the estimates, might wish to consider.
So that was that study. The only thing I would mention about the sponsorship study we did was that we didn't actually investigate the sponsorship. The question we were asked to address was would it be possible, if Parliament did a better job of its financial oversight, to reduce the odds of something like the sponsorship scandal?
Needless to say, we concluded that certainly parliamentarians could not be said to be responsible for what happened, but certainly they could be said to have not done the kind of oversight that would discourage officials from doing what was evidently done in that case.
So I think the question that was posed in that study was quite a legitimate one. Could parliamentarians be seen as somehow, by not having done their jobs, encouraging bad financial administration? You might want to think about that.
I'll close with four observations that I think are supported by the two studies I'm talking about.
One, it is I think exceedingly important to think about the estimates as not just about money. It is money for a specific public purpose. You have to be able to relate that money to that purpose. If the kind of information you get does not link those two in a way that makes sense to you, then I think you can't really do the process.
In the times when I was in government, which is now more than ten years ago, I worked for the Treasury Board and we had a lot of dealings with Parliament at the time. It worked quite well. It was clear that the officials who worked in government, working with parliamentarians' staff, consulted quite a lot, or at least they were able, in that era, to do it. They were encouraging the parliamentary staff to figure out what parliamentarians actually need for information, and how it should be structured.
Two things came out of that. One was that there really was openness to doing that. The other was that you had to make sure it wasn't just a financial document—it was a financial document related to results that Canadians could understand. Mr. McGee from New Zealand, I believe, emphasized that point, and I would say everything we have done reinforces that.
I was also struck by the comments from Mr. Marleau and Mr. Williams about the authority in parliamentary procedures that you have available. As I read them, it was not that you shouldn't change them; it was that if you think that the solution is through another change in the Standing Orders, odds are it won't work. You have to look beyond that. You have to look at the way things are done, beyond the authorities and the powers and so on.
The vote structure I've already mentioned. What I call the control framework for programs, but whatever you call it, is certainly an area that deserves some attention.
Peter mentioned near the closing of his comments about getting consensus in committees and elsewhere. One of the things I've always been skeptical of is that Mr. Williams mentioned that report of more than a decade ago where there were some suggestions as to changing a certain amount of money that you can vote on. I think that's a delusion. I don't think that's going to help.
I think it's more important to see that it is the government that should control. It has a plan. It's worked it out. It's asked for it. If you don't have confidence in it, then you do what parliamentarians do, but I think to mess around in the detail is not a good thing to do. But all of these studies from 2001—there were 19 studies that had recommendations regarding either change in resources or change in results—were tabled in Parliament. They were sent to committee.
It doesn't change the votes for the specific year, but it does allow for downstream change, and usually, in the past, that has been acceptable to governments to consider.
If you try to change the votes in the year, you're just asking for difficulty. If you try to evolve the process, you might have some sort of success.
I think one of the reasons that estimates have not gotten much attention is that there's too much desire to change the numbers, and if you don't change the numbers, you feel you've failed. Well, if that's the way you feel, it won't work.
The Chair Pat Martin
Thank you very much, Mr. Ulrich. Thank you, Mr. Dobell.
That gives us a great deal to think about and to question.
Beginning for the official opposition, the NDP, Linda Duncan.
Linda Duncan Edmonton—Strathcona, AB
Thank you. I really enjoyed our chat before we began. I want to follow up a bit on that. I want to thank you very much for all of your writing in this area. It's very thoughtful.
One of the things that really struck me was your comment to me, which has been brought up by quite a few of the other experts, that, in fact, everybody at this table is simply an elected member of Parliament. So we all have accountability when we're voting on the estimates and the budget implementation bill. We have accountability to our electorate, and we have accountability for every portfolio we're in. We're really all in this together.
I like your idea. It was raised previously by somebody else whose article I read. They were saying that this committee is supposed to be neutral, so maybe we ought to start shuffling the chairs and not make it so adversarial, right off the bat. I have been on committees where, in fact, we did that. It might actually change the mindset, certainly for the purposes of developing this report. It's a refreshing idea.
I want to ask you three questions. I'm going to give them to you, and you might want to merge your response.
First, what do you see as the key barriers to actually instituting changes to the estimates and budget processes? There have been previous reports, with excellent recommendations. We've heard some really interesting recommendations from some of the experts. A lot of them seem to be in sync. There seem to be a lot of areas where we probably could reach consensus, if we're all free to agree on that. I'm interested to know your advice on that, apart from the fact that we should shuffle the deck chairs.
The second is something that has come up certainly in the Auditor General's reports and was, I think, mentioned by you indirectly, and that is the choice of instruments. The Auditor General very roundly chastised Aboriginal Affairs and recommended that they be more accountable for spending. The way to do that was actually to get away from the year-to-year negotiated contribution agreements and do it through a legislative mandate, in the same way service is delivered at a provincial level.
When I look at that from our perspective, and as members of Parliament looking at the estimates, there's no way you can delve into individual contribution agreements. If there's not a clear legislative mandate saying that this is what the government commits to do, and here are the criteria by which it will be judged, it makes it all the harder for us. We don't generally get into the details of all these individual contribution agreements. That might get even more complex when government starts contracting out more of its activities. You have to delve into those contracts and what the terms are for delivery.
Third, we have now had our second DM-led committee to have oversight of spending. We have the F-35 deputy-led committee, called the point seven or something, presumably as a mechanism of accountability for the terms of reference and how they're going to spend and assess and determine what's appropriate to buy.
The government senior officials now seem to be suggesting that it was very successful for shipbuilding, and therefore it's going to be a good model for the F-35s. I guess an obvious question arises for me. If this mechanism is one the government is starting to use, should it, in fact, become the mechanism we use, instead of wasting three years fighting over what the truth is on the criteria and spending and what things cost? Is it the kind of mechanism we should be thinking about recommending, or others like it, from the outset? It actually has problems, because it could muddy accountability if you had too many people accountable.
Sorry. I don't know if you could track those three questions, but I would appreciate your comments.
The Chair Pat Martin
There's less than one minute left, I'm afraid, to address those points as best you can, as briefly as you can, sir.
Independant Consultant, As an Individual
I'll address question one—
Founding Director, The Parliamentary Centre, As an Individual
—and two and three.
Independant Consultant, As an Individual
I'll leave number three for you.
Question number one concerns the key barriers. I might be dreaming in technicolour here, but it seems to me that there is a huge job to be done, and I think it rests with this committee to really look into the process of oversight at the program level. How can parliamentarians do it? It's not only your committee, it's all the others. You have the mandate on this committee, I believe, to deal with other committees and their work on the estimates, to kind of figure out what needs to be done.
I think the second thing that is closely related to this is that in an awful lot of committees the government members are protecting the government. The opposition members are protecting the opposition, and the question is, how can each party get something of value by overseeing, on behalf of all Canadian citizens, how the government is spending their money? There are answers to this. I have some of my own, but I don't live in your world, I've never lived in your world.
It is a very difficult question, but I think it you address it openly and say the people on the government side have a certain belief that they have the right kinds of programs.... They vote for it. We know they do. But what's wrong with the opposition members saying, “Well, you're going to have that, but let's at least understand what is happening. Why do you need that amount of money to achieve those specific results?” If opposition members see that as a waste of money, they can't change it but they certainly have a better idea how to communicate with the Canadian people as to why a change would be a good idea.
The government members, it seems to me, since they are in favour of the programs, would be in a better position to defend why it is exactly what their policy requires. It seems to me there is a zone here. I don't know exactly how to do it, but I sort of raise this as an issue of what parliamentarians should do. They should try to develop a way of testing it down to the party level at some stage.
On question number two, if I understood it correctly, talking about the sort of contribution process and deputy ministers, committees, and all that sort of thing, one of the things that's very big on the contribution agreement is.... Some of them are huge, but as Mr. Williams mentioned to you, the committee can certainly ask for an evaluation of that. In the past this was a perfectly normal thing for a parliamentary committee to do—ask the government for an evaluation of it, and in that evaluation they might even suggest that they consult with the members of the committee in doing it. This is a way, at least it was in the past, where you could get information over a period of time and come to some kind of understanding of what this huge thing is and why it needs to be the way it is, and what might be wrong with it.
Founding Director, The Parliamentary Centre, As an Individual
The only thing I'd add is that Martin has pointed to the fact that opposition members take one position, government members take another position, but the important thing is that, privately, a number of the government members may think that isn't exactly the way they would like it to be for the future, so they will be able to raise in their caucus that change should be made. It's not going to come quickly, but it can come over time.
The Chair Pat Martin
Next for the Conservatives, Mike Wallace.
Mike Wallace Burlington, ON
Thank you, Chair.
Thank you, gentlemen, for coming today. It's a very informative presentation, and I appreciate that you've been spending many years thinking about this.
We are hearing a lot about moving from the aggregate sort of voting system that we have to more of a program system. My view of the Auditor General is that those are performance audits, not financial accounting audits, because it's not just whether this invoice matches this dollar amount, and it's put in the proper ledger and all that sort of thing. It's about how those programs are actually performing. It will be an interesting discussion about what we do with the actual votes on the financial piece on these if we do move to looking at the program side.
Right now, when we do estimates, we deal with basically the minister and the bureaucrats who report to the minister from that particular department. You're looking at whether parliamentarians should look at programs. Does that open the door that it's not just a financial audit on the program that we're spending x dollars on, that all the invoices match up and that money's going out the door, but you can tell, say, if it's wasted? It's the actual results, the performance of it. I'm assuming you're assuming that we would be looking at that.
What is the role of the individuals who are the recipients of the program? I don't think there's a program in the world, and I've tried it at the municipal level, where there isn't somebody who benefits from it, regardless of what it costs. What is your vision? If we're looking at programs, what kind of an audit or performance evaluation is that? What roles do all the players play?
Independant Consultant, As an Individual
In many ways, the performance audit methodology the Auditor General of Canada uses and which is used in many other countries in the world is a little bit hard to understand, in the sense that they say they're not looking at performance, but they do come awfully close to doing so. Certainly, committees of Parliament are not so constrained, and many such studies in the past—I haven't looked at the agenda of committees in the current Parliament—were under way. They would invite officials, and they would come through the minister's office. There are certain procedures for it, but in the past that seemed to work. Certainly, the clients of the program would be invited to be witnesses on these studies, and in addition, academics or others who have just studied the program would be invited.
To jump into a different thought—it's related, but it's a little bit different—in some cases in the past when the government wanted to make a policy change, it deliberately asked the committee to do a study of that. One of the reasons they did that was because the whole idea of parliamentary government is that the people consent. It's about building consensus, about people feeling that what the government is doing, they don't have to rebel against it. They have confidence that the process is fair. That doesn't mean they're going to agree with everything, but there is consent. By having a parliamentary committee, especially with all-party agreement, come up with a recommendation, in many cases it's the easiest way for a government to implement a change that everybody realizes is needed, but there will be powerful forces against it. So I think doing it in consultation with people is just an essential thing to do for programs, but it doesn't mean it's this committee; it means all of the committees with departmental responsibilities.
As I said, I don't know how many of those studies are under way, but that was in the 2001 period when we did the study, and there were 19 studies over the period of one year of those kinds of matters. All of them looked at resources and results. Many of them looked at the outside—at public need as related to the results the government was achieving. So there's a long history of doing that and having committees doing it. In some cases, the government might not be happy with it, but in many cases the government is happy with it because it helps them get the job done that they want done.
Mike Wallace Burlington, ON
I have a quick question. We now have reports on priorities and planning, which come in the late spring, and then we have performance reports on what departments did the year before. Do you have any comments on those reports that are required by departments and what their usefulness is?