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

4:30 p.m.

Conservative

The Vice-Chair Mike Wallace

I have one really quick question for Sally. It's on your recommendation, which I think is an interesting one, about pre-submitting questions so you have the right staff here and the answers. I'm assuming that if parliamentarians submit the questions in advance you'll be here with the answers, and that wouldn't preclude members from being able to ask questions that they have not previously submitted. Is that your view?

4:30 p.m.

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

Sally Thornton

Yes. As a consideration, if the question is provided in advance the work is done and people come prepared to respond to it. It doesn't preclude others. That being said, we often get 10 or 20 questions from parliamentary researchers and not a single one of those questions is asked when we arrive here, although we are prepared on all of them.

4:35 p.m.

Conservative

The Vice-Chair Mike Wallace

Okay. Thank you.

That's the end of my turn.

Monsieur Blanchette.

4:35 p.m.

NDP

Denis Blanchette Louis-Hébert, QC

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.

The documents produced hitherto were produced because they had some value. I am not one of those who says that documents should be eliminated just because they have lost some value. I would be more in favour of seeing how we could give them their original value back.

Normally, in a budget, the Minister of Finance and the Treasury Board Secretariat have to be on the same wavelength. They have to be looking at the same figures. If you are in agreement from the beginning, everything falls into place as it moves downwards.

So what is stopping you from presenting the budget and the estimates almost at the same time?

4:35 p.m.

Assistant Secretary, Expenditure Management Sector, Treasury Board Secretariat

Bill Matthews

The budget's a very high-level policy document. It's not about what's in the estimates document itself. It's about what has to happen behind the scenes for an expenditure item to be included in an Appropriation Act, and it means a well-designed plan. Where you have ongoing programs that were there for a number of years, the numbers in the budget are absolutely lined up with the numbers in the estimates. That makes perfect sense—one's cash, one's accrual. But don't discount the behind-the-scenes work required to get expenditure approvals for a new program. That's the key thing.

I will tell you that when Treasury Board is doing its work and a proposal for spending comes in, the first question is whether it was covered by a budget. If the answer is, no, it's a full stop. That's kind of the first check. The budget is step one, but to properly design a new program and get expenditure authority there's a lot of work required after the budget. In my mind it's not a disconnect; it's a timing difference. The budget is step one. The estimates are further down the track and the last approval you need before you go to the Appropriation Act and start spending money.

4:35 p.m.

NDP

Denis Blanchette Louis-Hébert, QC

Why can't you produce the estimates and the reports on plans and priorities at the same time?

4:35 p.m.

Assistant Secretary, Expenditure Management Sector, Treasury Board Secretariat

Bill Matthews

The report on plans and priorities was designed to support the study of the main estimates. So when you actually look at the main estimates, the theory behind the report on plans and priorities is that it's a document, by department, to help committees complete their studies of the estimates. So it gives additional details for each department to help in the study of the estimates.

The report on plans and priorities was not designed to help assess the budget. The link for the RPP is the main estimates.

4:35 p.m.

NDP

Denis Blanchette Louis-Hébert, QC

As things presently stand, there is a major gap between the two, to the extent that the report on plans and priorities is no longer doing its job. Perhaps we have to find a way to produce the documents at the same time so that the report on plans and priorities gets its initial value back.

That brings me to another matter. Given that the figures you have are very high level ones, have you any suggestions for parliamentarians as to how they could become more familiar with them in depth? Do you at the Treasury Board Secretariat have any techniques, any databases or any other information, in addition to the estimates and the report on plans and priorities, that would let us make the connections we need? My colleague mentioned horizontal programs, for example. There are also transfers from one department to another. Do you have anything that lets you follow it all? If so, can we get access to it?

4:35 p.m.

Assistant Secretary, Expenditure Management Sector, Treasury Board Secretariat

Bill Matthews

What I would suggest to you that parliamentarians look at, and it's all public already, but I think it's up to us to better group these documents together.... If I were studying a department's main estimates, I would certainly look at the main estimates for the previous year and look at what the change is. That's public information.

What is not well linked is what the department actually spent the previous year, so again it's public but we could do a better job of linking it in. And depending upon at what point you are during the year, because there's nothing to say that this committee cannot study departmental plans and estimates at any point during the year, the quarterly financials are useful tools to look at what the department has actually spent so far this year, and how that compares to previous years. That gives you a really good sense of what's changed.

The whole question, in my mind, is what's changed since the previous year? In supplementary estimates, you'll get new items. They stand out. When you look at mains, you can look at the previous year's main estimates, look at the previous two years' actuals, and then, depending on what point you're at during the fiscal year, you can look to the quarterly financial statements for a given department and say, okay, what's going on with this department? How has it changed since the previous year? That's all public already. What is not easy is finding a spot where you can see it all at once, and that's what we have to figure out.

Sorry, my colleague would like to add something.

4:40 p.m.

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

Sally Thornton

If I may, you know the big binders we come equipped with for main estimates, about three years ago committees asked us if we could share that information. There was a significant change made to main estimates where we did departmental highlight sections, so you now have the information that had been in those main estimates. If you see information out there that is available, you see us using it, and you would like it in another form, please, let us know. We have made those changes in the past.

4:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Vice-Chair Mike Wallace

Next from the Conservatives is Mr. Braid.

May 14th, 2012 / 4:40 p.m.

Conservative

Peter Braid Kitchener—Waterloo, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair, and welcome back to the witnesses. Thank you for being here this afternoon.

This notion of reviewing and approving based on a reorientation to a view of programs—one of the reasons that I think admittedly I'm drawn to it is that I think one potential byproduct of a reorientation of review by programs is that there will be a greater focus on results, a greater focus by federal government employees, by departments, by members of Parliament, and by Canadians. Do you have any thoughts or comments on that?

4:40 p.m.

Assistant Secretary, Expenditure Management Sector, Treasury Board Secretariat

Bill Matthews

Thank you for the question.

I'll make a couple of quick comments. There is all sorts of information out there on programs now, so there's nothing to prevent parliamentarians from reviewing departments by programs, and you could leave the vote structure the way it is, or you could change it. But the focus of the study could be by programs right now, and nothing would have to change on that front.

What you do have at your disposal, if you are looking at programs, is that every program gets an evaluation every five years, and that's public. You can actually see the results of the programs that have had evaluations done. In addition, all internal audits are made public, so if there's an internal audit that is related to a specific program, that's public as well. So you have those two additional sources on top of your reports on plans and priorities, which are very much designed around programs, as well as the departmental performance reports. You have quite a suite of information available to you. There's nothing that would stop the committee from taking a program view right now on its study.

The separate question is, what does Parliament vote on? It could be programs, or you could just simply change the focus of your studies.

4:40 p.m.

Conservative

Peter Braid Kitchener—Waterloo, ON

That's very good.

In an earlier response I think you suggested that one of the things we could consider at this committee is a focus on strategic outcomes. Could you elaborate on what you meant by that?

4:40 p.m.

Assistant Secretary, Expenditure Management Sector, Treasury Board Secretariat

Bill Matthews

It had caught our attention that many witnesses had mentioned the notion of changing the vote structure to programs and program activities.

Slide 8 of our presentation has the number of programs that were laid out, and 593 program activities and over 2,000 programs struck me as a rather large number—too big to study. So the idea of strategic outcome is that it's a higher-level grouping of programs. The committee could then pick and choose which strategic outcomes were of interest and delve into programs as needed, but it struck me that using 2,000 programs as a starting point was a rather heavy load.