Thank you very much, Mr. Chair, and thank you, honourable members of the committee for inviting me to appear this morning as the committee considers the budgetary submission for 2018-19.
I am accompanied by Ms. Sandy Tremblay, our Director of Corporate Management and Chief Financial Officer.
It's been almost four months, and only four months, since I started as commissioner. When I arrived at the office in January, as I said when I last appeared before you, I found a well-organized office, a fully staffed office with effective structures and processes in place. I am therefore in the envious situation of being able to focus on the matters that should require some improvements as opposed to having to rebuild and reimagine what should have been there as has been the case before once in my career. I've done that.
In fact, when I showed up the morning of January 9, my office had already submitted the estimates for the fiscal year 2018-19. I quickly reviewed them and saw no reason to revise anything. They seemed perfectly appropriate, so I did approve the $6.9 million that was submitted for that purpose. To provide some context for this figure, this $6.9 million, I'd like to discuss some of our office's priorities in terms of how we intend to fulfill our mandate in the coming year.
Under the approach the office will take under my leadership, one of the first things was to develop a mission statement for the office. We did that, and in February, we came up with the following mission statement, which I'll read to you. It's not long. Our office “provides independent, rigorous and consistent direction and advice”—we do both—“to members of Parliament and federal public office holders.”
It also “conducts investigations”—that's the second thing we do—“and, where necessary”, the third thing we do is we “make...use of appropriate sanctions in order to ensure full compliance with the Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons and the Conflict of Interest Act.”
The office is an institution that serves an important purpose. Our role is to contribute to the announcement of Canadians' trust and confidence in elected members of Parliament and appointed public office holders. The mission statement reflects our responsibility for administering to similar but distinct, quite different in fact, regimes and various means, some preventive, others reactive by which we will do so.
The mission statement will be hung in our meeting rooms. It serves to remind our staff that our day-to-day work is governed by the very rules we administer and to help keep our focus on what matters most.
I think it's important that external audiences also have a better sense of what we do.
That's why I spent some time developing the mission statement and will spend some time broadcasting the mission statement.
In addition to doing that, we've also refreshed our office's brand identity. We've done some branding not only because it's fashionable, but also because I think it is important to have a distinguishable appearance in the products that we release. I hope you'll like it. You'll see it when we table our annual report next month. Early next month, we will table our annual reports, I should say—one under the act, one under the code—and you will see new colours and a new appearance.
I think our effort was to—and I think we have successfully communicated our independent and impartial character, the nature of the work we do and the way we do it, which is to say with integrity, rigour, and consistency. That's also important—consistency.
The second thing that had almost been completed when I arrived was the strategic plan, which describes our priorities for the next three years. It was already well advanced. Since the direction set in that document was in line with my vision, we decided to approve it after making a number of minor changes to it. You will also be able to read it in the annual report that we will be presenting at the beginning of June.
The plan identifies priorities in three key areas.
Education and outreach is such an area.
As I told you in my previous appearance, I want to make sure public office holders and Members of the House of Commons have the information they need to understand a somewhat complex set of rules and to be in a position to actively meet their obligations at all times. In fact, my goal is the following: if they do contravene the Act or the Code, it will not be because of ignorance, nor will it be by omission or a lack of awareness.
In order to provide education, we will go beyond the traditional classroom approach and leverage instead new-media technologies to reach out to our clients, through webinars and online videos, for example. People who are governed by the Code and the Act are busy and don’t always have time to travel to spend two hours in a classroom doing training. They must be able at anytime to consult vignettes, videos, and webinars that explain any given aspect of the Act. It would be very short, very precise, very thorough, but also very accessible.
Similarly, last March, we signed a memorandum of understanding with the Commissioner of Lobbying to work together on the development of common products since Nancy Bélanger’s mandate and mine somewhat overlap. This, in turn, will allow us to conceive products that will be useful to our community.
In the coming months, we will review all of our educational materials and revise them as necessary, which will allow us to reach our goal.
When public office holders and Members seek advice from my Office, we aim to provide them with clear and consistent direction every time. Everyone should receive the same information. It’s very important that we be consistent and not give contradictory information.
I have already made it clear that I will strictly enforce the Act and the Code by investigating, as promptly as possible, potential contraventions of both regimes, and by making use of appropriate sanctions when contraventions are found.
We will also make greater use of the media to inform the public about our activities, to the extent permitted by the Act.
As far as modernization is concerned, we have replaced our financial management system and started upgrading our electronic case management system. We are also planning the redesign of our website in the next fiscal year.
I’ve thus summarized for you the activities pertaining to education and to the modernization of the systems used.
The third sector is that of operational excellence. We wish to focus on accountability, leadership, integrity, transparency, and stewardship.
I therefore have much to do in the coming months. I intend to review all of the policies that are on our website and to update them as necessary to reflect best practices in public sector management.
Generally speaking, this is what we’re doing.
I will now talk about budgetary requirements.
Barring unexpected increases in the demands on our resources, I expect our office will be able to implement its mission in 2018-19 with an annual operating budget of $6.9 million as we have sought.
Salaries account for the majority, 81%, of our expenditures. We're fully staffed. We typically experience a low employee turnover which is a good thing, because it's a very specialized line of work. It takes time. There's a long learning curve for people who join the office.
We have 49 positions in total, and 18 of those positions are directly used to provide advice to public office holders and MPs. The other positions are used in corporate services, communications, outreach, legal services, investigations, and in my own office.
Major expenditures this year include the upgrade of our electronic case management system. We talk about consistency. We talk about accuracy and rigour, so it's important to rely on state of the art when it comes to the system we use.
We we will also modernize the public registry and redesign our website. There will also be a cost associated with the MOU with the Commissioner of Lobbying.
We will make full use of our budget, for the first time ever, this year.
For the last year, our surplus is less than 2% of the budget. This year, it will be lower because we basically have granted pay increases to our employees. We will be able to live within our means, barring something really unforeseen, but it will be much tighter this year than it was last year.
In fact, you may not know this, but the budget of $6.9 million is the same budget as when the office was first created 11 years ago. It is essentially at the same level, $6.9 million. The budget was never fully spent. In fact, I brought a graph with me which shows the distance between approval and usage. There's always a big gap. I think the lines will cross this year on expenditure and budget.
We've had significant increases in some areas; for instance, there was a 22% increase last year in the number of situations where advice was sought—22% is quite something. We have 2,900 situations where people have sought advice, which is much more than the 2,400 the year before.
Public communications, probably in large part due to the Morneau situation and “The Trudeau Report”, but nevertheless, went up 30%. Contact with the public and contact with the media in the last fiscal year went up by 30% compared to the year before that. In case you were wondering, we had 2,700 situations where the public was in touch with us. The public means people who are not subject to the act and are not media representatives. The media was in touch with us 411 times last year, compared to 315 times the year before that.
We've accommodated this within the existing budget. It's becoming tighter. We'll make better use of technology. I think it's quite predictable that, if things remain as they are currently, we will need an additional injection of resources in future fiscal years. However, my team and I will do everything we can this year to live within our allocated budget, although there are supplementary estimates that we know exist, and if there is a compelling reason to do so, we will be making a submission.