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 estimates.

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

4:50 p.m.

Liberal

John McCallum Markham—Unionville, ON

Okay.

I was listening to the conversation of a few minutes ago when you were saying that information already exists on expenditure by program and that we could review departments that way if we wished to. You said that would not cause any problems. But if we continue to vote the way we vote today, there would be no additional work for you.

So when you talk about an additional three to five years of work, I understand that this is only if we change the way we vote, not if we change the way we study programs. Is that right?

4:50 p.m.

Assistant Secretary, Expenditure Management Sector, Treasury Board Secretariat

Bill Matthews

The three to five years I was referring to are if the change was made to the actual vote structure. In my mind, there's a lot of information out there now on programs that would not prevent a committee from studying on a program basis, but I was actually referring to if Parliament decides to change the basis for the vote. That then requires some time.

4:50 p.m.

Liberal

John McCallum Markham—Unionville, ON

Okay.

Going back to my first question, if a budget comes in and brings in new programs, would those typically be introduced into the supplementary estimates (B) or what?

4:50 p.m.

Assistant Secretary, Expenditure Management Sector, Treasury Board Secretariat

Bill Matthews

It depends. Supplementary estimates (B) is your most common. But some programs have taken a couple of years to design.

4:50 p.m.

Liberal

John McCallum Markham—Unionville, ON

Okay.

Thank you.

4:50 p.m.

Conservative

The Vice-Chair Mike Wallace

Our next questioner, from the Conservative Party, is Ms. Block.

May 14th, 2012 / 4:50 p.m.

Conservative

Kelly Block Saskatoon—Rosetown—Biggar, SK

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.

I want to thank you for joining us today. I always appreciate your presentations. I know it was way back at the beginning of this Parliament that we received a very thorough orientation on the whole estimates process from you. It's good to be finishing up this study with you.

We've heard from many witnesses. As you rightly noted in your concluding remarks, we've been provided with a wide range of opinions and options on multiple issues, some of which are in complete conflict with one another.

I think a study like this allows us to really examine all of those options but also to test some of the assumptions we may be making. One of our earlier witnesses, Mr. Stilborn, stated that a major contributor to the dissatisfaction experienced by MPs was that discussions are “heavily dominated” by focusing on “unexamined assumptions”. I think this allows us to examine those assumptions.

As I stated earlier, I think it's helpful to be ending this study with your comments. You gave us some considerations for changes and asked us to consider whether or not any changes we look at making will help us to better fulfill our roles. You've also asked us to consider the reporting burden and implementation issues.

I want to turn to one of the things I've become aware of: the need to ensure that all committees and parliamentarians understand the estimates process as those of us who have had the opportunity to sit on this committee have come to understand it. I want to focus a little bit on training, and perhaps you might advise us on what kind of training could be provided to parliamentarians.

Also, on the second-last page of your deck, on improvements to the reporting of information, could you pick out a few of those things that, if implemented first, would help us? What would it take for you to go ahead and make some of these changes to make this information more user-friendly for us?

4:55 p.m.

Assistant Secretary, Expenditure Management Sector, Treasury Board Secretariat

Bill Matthews

Thank you, Chair.

To actually make some of the suggested changes on that slide, we don't need the blessing of this committee. We try to make improvements. If we think we have a good idea.... We added horizontal items not so long ago. You'll see some improvements in the next supplementary estimates (A).

If the committee members have ideas on things we can do, it's good for us to know them. In the next main estimates, you will likely see some additional changes as well.

In terms of training, I think the offer's been made before. We are happy to have sessions with new members, either of the committee, or more broadly, of Parliament. We're often not taken up on that offer, but it stands. I'm happy to do it. It helps, but I think we also have some work to do in better connecting this information, either online or on paper, to allow parliamentarians to find what they're looking for, so that's on us.

To actually make some of the changes we've put forth, we can pursue changes we know are a good idea. If we think something's a good idea but we are not so certain, we'd rather hear from the committee, because its guidance is useful.

Sally, did you have anything specific you wanted to add?

4:55 p.m.

Executive Director, Expenditure Operations and Estimates, Expenditure Management Sector, Treasury Board Secretariat

Sally Thornton

We'd very much appreciate hearing whether you think any of those would be useful. Some of these could be done as early as your next main estimates. We're set for our supply cycle for this year, but when it comes to connecting the dots, perhaps going alphabetically.... Actually, we're very likely to recommend going alphabetically, anyway, just because parliamentarians may get it, but other Canadians don't. We are really looking at some of these for the next main estimates, if possible.

4:55 p.m.

Conservative

The Vice-Chair Mike Wallace

Do you have anything more? You have one minute.

4:55 p.m.

Conservative

Kelly Block Saskatoon—Rosetown—Biggar, SK

I guess all I would say is that we've heard that we probably do have all the information we need. I know my colleague across the way spoke to certain information being in one place and other information being in another. I think being able to connect the dots, being able to align information so that we can get a really good idea of the plans and priorities documents as well as the performance reviews, and having all of that flow such that we can see from beginning to end what's happening within a department, certainly in terms of the budgeting or the programming of a department, would be very helpful.

I'm just wondering if there's anything else you would like to comment on. One of the things we heard about was even expanding the mandate of this committee. I'm not sure if you are aware of that recommendation, or whether it would even be helpful to have a committee with the role of specifically looking at the estimates process.

4:55 p.m.

Assistant Secretary, Expenditure Management Sector, Treasury Board Secretariat

Bill Matthews

I was aware of that recommendation, and I thought there was a good discussion around the pros and cons of that because if you dedicate a committee to the estimates, you don't have maybe the specific knowledge of a certain department in the room, but you'd certainly get more airtime for your estimates, so there are pros and cons.

I'm not going to suggest to Parliament how it should organize itself. We have observed that when you deal with estimates they are planning numbers, and the public accounts committee looks at actuals, and those two things are just logically linked and how you manage that.... We have seen both committees weigh in on accrual appropriations, so I have noticed that those committees often are interested in the same issue. What you do about that, I am not sure. It's not necessarily a bad thing, but I have noticed those two committees tend to sometimes focus in on the same things.

4:55 p.m.

Conservative

The Vice-Chair Mike Wallace

Thank you very much.

Our next questioner is Monsieur Larose.

4:55 p.m.

NDP

Jean-François Larose Repentigny, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

I want to thank the witnesses for answering my questions and for telling us how long we have to wait before any changes are implemented. My question is precisely about those changes.

We know that people are always really afraid of change. But if we have the courage of our convictions, if our society is one that evolves and that is always seeking a better way, that is what we have to do.

You said that you spend an enormous amount of time managing information. The more I listen to you, the more I recognize the complexity and the extent of the information that you have to manage in terms of the number of employees you have. My concern, given the ambiguity between the budget, the estimates and the evaluation of the previous budget, is about crisis management. You mentioned it at the beginning. A government can find itself in a situation where there are unforeseen circumstances. It could be an economic crisis or a natural disaster, but the costs can be absolutely astronomical. If a budget is poorly managed and we end up in a crisis, with incredible expenses like that, what do we do? At that stage, the gun is already at your head.

You do excellent work. We realize the amount of information that you give us on a regular basis. Do you need any tools that would allow you to track and communicate information better? We often talk about what you can bring to us, but what can we bring to you?

In a long-term process of development and change, are there tools that could be used to improve the way in which the information is understood?

5 p.m.

Assistant Secretary, Expenditure Management Sector, Treasury Board Secretariat

Bill Matthews

Mr. Chair, in terms of my earlier comments with respect to a crisis or an unforeseen event, that's an important point because if the government wants to spend money on something that was not planned, it does need to come back to Parliament for approval, and that's a key control we have in the system. I did mention the Haiti earthquake, I believe, as an example of that. I hope we never lose that control. It is a key control.

In terms of tools that we use or that you could use, as I alluded to earlier, the notion of getting researchers tools online so they can actually take the various data sources and put them into an analytical tool to help them do their work better would be quite helpful. Open data, online information is the way of the future. It would allow researchers to better access the information, and ideally look at trends and ask better questions. I think that's where we have to go. I know people love getting their blue books, but to better integrate the information online is the key, and that's where we have to go.