Evidence of meeting #12 for Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics in the 43rd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was charity.

A video is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Ian Shugart  Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet, Privy Council Office
Gina Wilson  Deputy Minister, Diversity and Inclusion and Youth, Department of Canadian Heritage
Benoît Robidoux  Associate Deputy Minister, Department of Employment and Social Development
Mary Dawson  As an Individual

1:50 p.m.

Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet, Privy Council Office

Ian Shugart

I believe so, but officials at ESDC would have to provide that detail.

1:50 p.m.

Conservative

Damien Kurek Conservative Battle River—Crowfoot, AB

Sure.

Did you listen to the Prime Minister's testimony before the finance committee?

1:50 p.m.

Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet, Privy Council Office

1:50 p.m.

Conservative

Damien Kurek Conservative Battle River—Crowfoot, AB

Was there anything in that testimony that surprised you?

1:50 p.m.

Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet, Privy Council Office

1:50 p.m.

Conservative

Damien Kurek Conservative Battle River—Crowfoot, AB

On what date did the public service become aware that the Canada Service Corps was not able to run the program?

1:50 p.m.

Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet, Privy Council Office

Ian Shugart

I don't know specifically, but as I've indicated, at one point, for the scale of what was being sought—the number of placements, for example, and the need to reach disadvantaged youth and so on—the program had not reached such a level of maturity that it was going to be able to handle that.

1:50 p.m.

Conservative

Damien Kurek Conservative Battle River—Crowfoot, AB

I do find that interesting, because if you have an organization with obviously limited capacity versus a new government program that has limited capacity, it seems like a non-starter, which leads me to my next question.

I've read a lot of government briefing notes, but rarely have I seen a briefing note outline such a binary choice as the one that has been described to members of this committee and others. Is it common practice for the public service to provide a binary option to a prime minister or cabinet minister to move forward on a program of this scale, something close to $1 billion?

1:50 p.m.

Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet, Privy Council Office

Ian Shugart

Well, there was analysis provided about the ability of other options to deliver, and given the facts of the case, the issue for ministers essentially would have come down to “Do we proceed with this program or not?”

1:50 p.m.

Conservative

Damien Kurek Conservative Battle River—Crowfoot, AB

So, if I'm understanding you correctly, it was either WE or nothing.

1:50 p.m.

Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet, Privy Council Office

Ian Shugart

To deliver this program at that stage under those contingencies, yes.

1:50 p.m.

Conservative

Damien Kurek Conservative Battle River—Crowfoot, AB

Okay.

Regarding all the third parties that the government reached out to in order to see if they could run the Canada student service grant, would you be able to provide the dates and details of all the contacts between the department and those various organizations?

1:50 p.m.

Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet, Privy Council Office

Ian Shugart

I believe that material is included in what we've undertaken to provide. If further information is sought, we would be responsive to that.

1:50 p.m.

Conservative

Damien Kurek Conservative Battle River—Crowfoot, AB

Okay. Thank you. I appreciate that.

In your experience, does the Prime Minister usually read the full briefing material he is given before an announcement or a decision is made?

1:50 p.m.

Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet, Privy Council Office

Ian Shugart

I'm not with him when he does his reading, but based on his performance and that of all his predecessors, I would say yes.

1:50 p.m.

Conservative

Damien Kurek Conservative Battle River—Crowfoot, AB

Okay. I appreciate that.

How often does the government make program announcements when they don't really have a general idea of how, when or even if they will deliver a specific program?

1:50 p.m.

Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet, Privy Council Office

Ian Shugart

That, I think, is very much attributable to the circumstances that we faced. The head of a government will, I think—and I can't provide details off the top of my head—often indicate that a government will do something about such-and-such a problem. The government, in this period of the pandemic, I think, frequently declared its intentions in order to send reassurance to Canadians, and then details followed and, as we've seen, were sometimes changed in response to changing circumstances. In that regard, this has been a very unusual period.

1:50 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Rachael Harder

Thank you.

The floor is Mr. Dong's for five minutes.

August 11th, 2020 / 1:50 p.m.

Liberal

Han Dong Liberal Don Valley North, ON

Thank you, Chair.

Thank you, Mr. Shugart, for being here. I certainly appreciate that.

Can you tell us how you and your office or the public service have adapted, over the last several months, to the new norm of running the government during this national crisis caused by the pandemic? I ask this because I've been listening to some of the comments made at this committee, and there's a lot of talk and comparison with how the government should normally function and the processes during normal times. If I may make an observation, the past several months have been nothing like normal times.

When it comes to your office and the government and the public service, how have you been doing in comparison with normal times?

1:55 p.m.

Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet, Privy Council Office

Ian Shugart

I would say there are differences of procedure and of substance.

With respect to procedure, I think we have experienced what members of Parliament have experienced. The normal interactions out in the country with groups and communities were vastly curtailed. With respect to how we made decisions and so on, a lot of it was virtually, as the committees are experiencing, and often at all hours of the day and night, given the amount of business and the extent of the impacts of the pandemic. People were pressed. People were tired. Some public servants were doing their work but knowing that it was not being called on. Other public servants were under pretty unrelenting pressure to deliver. The same is true for ministers.

With respect to the substance, I would say that none of us have been happy with the speed at which analysis had to be undertaken. In fact, we conveyed informally, as did the former government during the financial crisis, to the Office of the Auditor General that we anticipated that there would be mistakes. We set out our objectives in advance so that there would be understanding in the Auditor General's office about the constraints that were affecting things.

In this particular case, if we had all the time in the world, I am sure—I'm speculating here—that one of the options to mount this kind of program would be, “How could we accelerate the development of the service corps?” In the circumstances, action was required sooner than that, and that led to what we're now familiar with.

I don't present any of that as an excuse for any mistakes that collectively may have been made or may subsequently come to light, but simply to provide background to the nature of the circumstances.

1:55 p.m.

Liberal

Han Dong Liberal Don Valley North, ON

Yes, I agree with you; it's fair to say that things weren't operating normally with the government. There's the fact that many public servants have had to work from home, which is very different from the situations they've dealt with in their past experience.

At this committee and also at the finance committee—I've watched the testimony—there has been quite a bit of talk about contribution agreements. In your opinion, do you think contribution agreements are unethical? In your opinion or in your experience, is it common for the government to acquire third party services through contribution agreements?

1:55 p.m.

Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet, Privy Council Office

Ian Shugart

It is. It is absolutely common. I wouldn't say it's the default, but it is common. We have a vibrant civil society sector, voluntary sector, in this country. The support to women's shelters, the support to food banks, the support to long-term care facilities and other mechanisms during the pandemic were delivered on the part of the public by third parties. Contribution agreements were the vehicle for arranging that support.

The contribution agreement is a tested mechanism that has been used over decades by governments—

2 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Rachael Harder

Thank you, Mr. Shugart.

2 p.m.

Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet, Privy Council Office

Ian Shugart

—with, over time, greater precision in order to ensure probity.

2 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Rachael Harder

Thank you.