Evidence of meeting #45 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

  • Bill Matthews  Assistant Secretary, Expenditure Management Sector, Treasury Board Secretariat
  • Sally Thornton  Executive Director, Expenditure Operations and Estimates, Expenditure Management Sector, Treasury Board Secretariat
  • Douglas Nevison  General Director, Economic and Fiscal Policy Branch, Department of Finance

3:55 p.m.

General Director, Economic and Fiscal Policy Branch, Department of Finance

Douglas Nevison

No, I think that's the key point.

In terms of the sequencing of the two documents, really what it comes to is that, when both have been published, then it's a matter of putting out some sort of reconciliation table. As Bill said, that could be in whichever document came last, or it could be a separate publication on the Department of Finance's website, for example, or on TBS's website.

3:55 p.m.

NDP

Denis Blanchette Louis-Hébert, QC

Merci.

3:55 p.m.

Conservative

The Vice-Chair Mike Wallace

Our next questioner, from the Conservative Party, is Monsieur Gourde.

May 14th, 2012 / 3:55 p.m.

Conservative

Jacques Gourde Lotbinière—Chutes-de-la-Chaudière, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

My thanks to our witnesses for being here. Your presentation was excellent.

Mr. Matthews, on page 13 of your presentation, the concluding remarks page, you list the considerations for any changes. I find your three points very interesting. Will it enable Parliament to better fulfill its role? What are the implementation issues? What is the reporting burden and the usefulness of current information? It is suggested to us at the committee that we should bear in mind, when we present our report, that, if we ask for things that are too detailed or that are used by too few people, it will involve too many big changes. Can you explain what kinds of implementation issues could arise? Would it be too daunting a task for the Treasury Board Secretariat?

3:55 p.m.

Assistant Secretary, Expenditure Management Sector, Treasury Board Secretariat

Bill Matthews

In terms of making documents more accessible that are online, if you're looking for a website that actually links together the documents, that is something we should be striving to improve. Open data will certainly help that.

If you think about the various documents that are included in the cycle, you have the budget, the estimates, the departmental reports on plans and priorities, and the departmental performance reports. There should be a way to better link that information. Sally was referring to connecting the dots. That's one of the things we should be thinking about—how to bring that all together. Right now it is very difficult to find.

So it should be doable.

3:55 p.m.

Conservative

Jacques Gourde Lotbinière—Chutes-de-la-Chaudière, QC

Do people other than members of Parliament ask you questions about the budget? Do questions about the budget come from the public at times?

3:55 p.m.

General Director, Economic and Fiscal Policy Branch, Department of Finance

Douglas Nevison

Yes, we give a number of presentations to the public that try to explain the budget cycle itself and how that links up with the estimates process. It's not just parliamentarians who have questions about how to reconcile the two.

3:55 p.m.

Conservative

Jacques Gourde Lotbinière—Chutes-de-la-Chaudière, QC

It is certainly more complicated inasmuch as it is difficult to get the figures. The envelope for some programs extends over five years. When a program is implemented in the first of those years, the funds are not necessarily spent in exact proportions: 20%, 40%, 60%, 80%, 100% over the five years. You may start looking for exact amounts. They may also be distributed over several departments, as is the case for official languages with the roadmap. Is there a way to simplify that? Could we just allocate the funds to a single program or do we have to distribute them over several departments and then try to find out where they have gone, like we do at the moment?

4 p.m.

Assistant Secretary, Expenditure Management Sector, Treasury Board Secretariat

Bill Matthews

No, if you're thinking about the content of the reports on plans and priorities and departmental performance reports, there is guidance given to departments in terms of what to include in there. As Sally mentioned, we've added horizontal items into the estimates document. If you do see a large horizontal theme, we have tried to include it in the estimates so it's easier to follow.

At the end of the day, departments are free to put into their RPPs and DPRs what they feel is relevant. There is guidance issued by the Treasury Board Secretariat, though, in terms of content.

4 p.m.

General Director, Economic and Fiscal Policy Branch, Department of Finance

Douglas Nevison

If I may add to that, Mr. Chair, in terms of the budget document and new budget measures, at the back of every theme or chapter, there will be a table that provides the funding profile over the first two years. But that's only for new measures that have received a source of funds in the budget itself. For new policy measures, that's one source of information in terms of the profile of a particular policy.

4 p.m.

Conservative

Jacques Gourde Lotbinière—Chutes-de-la-Chaudière, QC

On page 8, you deal with the appropriations and the basis for votes. There is a list, showing 2,064 programs and 593 program activities. A number of witnesses have suggested studying them program by program. When you look at those numbers and those statistics, you see how huge and tedious a task that would be. I figure that you could get all the committees of Parliament together to study all those programs and we would run out of year before we finished. The next year would be starting. Is there a way of grouping things together? Is what we are doing at the moment the most logical thing that can be done?

4 p.m.

Assistant Secretary, Expenditure Management Sector, Treasury Board Secretariat

Bill Matthews

One of the things that can be done when you look at strategic outcomes.... As we've said, there are 300 or 298 there and there are over 2,000 programs. When you look at the departmental documentation, the report on plans and priorities, you'll see the dollar value attached to these. Not all of them are the same size.

So I think the committee could make great progress by studying the larger strategic outcomes. By studying a strategic outcome, you can then study the programs that are underneath it. I would tend to agree that studying each and every program would be a rather significant undertaking, but there is a way, based on the dollar spent, to actually look and maybe select.

4 p.m.

Conservative

The Vice-Chair Mike Wallace

Thank you.

Mr. Larose.

4 p.m.

NDP

Jean-François Larose Repentigny, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair. My thanks to our guests for joining us today.

I find this interesting. I have just started looking at all the material and I have to confess that assimilating all this very complex information is more and more of a problem. Really, it should not be this complicated.

When I do my budget at home, it contains everyday expenses. For a country, there are always things to be paid, whatever the date on which the budget is presented.

I cannot get my head around some of the problems and, honestly, that bothers me a lot. How come we are deciding whether a budget has been effective a year and a half after the fact?

The study that was done is interesting, I find. Some countries have asked themselves whether they could find better solutions, and they have implemented them. All I hear now is that it would cost a lot, it would be complicated and it would slow the process down. But why don't we do it properly once and for all, so that we do not have to keep asking the same questions? We have been constantly wondering how to be more efficient for 30, 40, 50, or 100 years. Unfortunately, concrete steps are hardly ever taken.

If the government and everyone involved took some action, if they decided to make major changes, there would be costs. But, given the increased efficiency and the reduced annual costs, would the impact be positive? That is the question. If other countries in the world have done it and it gives them excellent annual budgeting, I do not see why it would be a problem for us. What resources would we need? Has any in-depth study on the matter really been done? Is it always kind of brought forward and then set aside because people see how complex it would be and they do not want to take any chances?

4:05 p.m.

Assistant Secretary, Expenditure Management Sector, Treasury Board Secretariat

Bill Matthews

In terms of the resources required, it really would depend on what changes are being contemplated. We've mentioned a few here—to actually do a better job of connecting the various documents and simplifying the documents, not much at all; to build a crosswalk, not much at all. If you were thinking about changing a vote structure, that's more of a time requirement, and yes, there would be some resources involved.

The point I was trying to make on this was don't expect that this is something we can turn around overnight. It doesn't mean it can't be done. The accrual appropriation versus cash has been looked at many times, and people have shied away from it because it's big and accrual is typically viewed as being more confusing.

The questions around the vote structure—capital, operating, maintenance versus some sort of program structure—this is the first time I recall that someone has really started to look at this seriously. It's worth a good discussion. I'm not saying don't do it. Just understand that if this is what you want, it will take us some time.

You've heard a lot of witnesses actually say that moving to a program-based vote structure would be more relevant because parliamentarians think of departments in terms of programs. If that is what is desired, absolutely, it's doable. We're not saying don't.

Cash accrual has been around for a long time and people are scared of it because there's a fear that it will make things even more confusing. But the change in the vote structure—yes, it's significant, and yes, it's worth considering.