Mr. Chair and members of the committee, thank you very much for inviting me to appear as you consider the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner's submission for the 2021-2022 main estimates.
As many of you were not involved in the committee until last year, I will quickly describe the goals of my office since its creation 14 years ago.
Our primary goal is to help regulatees, that is, public office holders and members of the House of Commons, know and follow the rules in the Conflict of Interest Act and the Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons.
In order to help the individuals subject to the rules, we continually improve how we communicate and engage with regulatees. This not only supports our primary goal, but also helps build trust in the office. It is important for us to work together with regulatees to help them comply with the Act and the Code as much as possible.
It is important that a continuous dialogue take place to avoid breaches. There must be trust between elected and appointed officials and their advisors in the office based on mutual respect and professionalism.
Over the years, a solid information management system has been created as it is key to providing the informed advice we try to give to regulatees. It also improves our efficiency because we don't have to reinvent the wheel each time advice is sought. It also ensures that we provide consistent advice from one individual to the next.
Our already established movement towards a digital office helped us tremendously when we moved to a virtual office in spring 2020 due to the pandemic. The process was nearly seamless for us.
The office operates with a total of 51 indeterminate positions. Most of the office's resources are dedicated to our primary goal, helping regulatees meet their obligations under the act and code. These resources are not just in our advisory and compliance division, although this is where almost one-third of our employees work, including your advisers, but it's also located within the communications group that provides educational documents and develops presentations for regulatees.
We also have a legal services and investigations division, which offers the legal opinions we rely on and, of course, conducts investigations. Finally, our corporate management division handles blind trusts, in addition, of course, to providing us with all the HR, information technology and financial support that we need.
In the past two years—and I use two years because I haven't been before this committee since May 2019—the number of reporting public office holders has increased by 7%. The office helps them, as well as the MPs, as well as the other public office holders. We have a total group of about 3,200 people we serve. In the vast majority of situations, we help them through email and telephone. This was the case already before the pandemic, so that's why it was relatively easy for us to switch to that mode when the pandemic hit.
Requests for presentations have dropped obviously because, of course, the pandemic has caused people to focus on their real delivery priorities, so we've had fewer presentations given in the last fiscal year. However, requests for advice were up through the pandemic, particularly in the last two quarters. We have already revised the presentations and have placed the focus recently on very specific, high-interest subject matters, such as recusals, outside activities and post-employment, that appear to reflect the most concerns for regulatees.
I had a session on recusals a few months ago, which was very well attended by over 300 [Technical difficulty—Editor]. On June 8 and June 16, I have already invited all the reporting [Technical difficulty—Editor] holders to a session on offers of outside employment and post-employment obligations.
Requests from the public for information have also increased 27% over the last fiscal year. There has been a steady interest from the media in the work of our office. Given the restrictions placed upon me by the act, we've worked hard to ensure that we are as open and transparent as possible with both the public and the media. Our approach has included more active use of Twitter to share information and updates. We have over 3,000 Twitter followers at this point in time. Last year we increased by 52% the number of tweets that we sent out in order to be of interest to our followers.
Since I was last before you, I have issued nine investigation reports under the act, and four under the code. We've always been able to complete our analyses and conclusions in less than one year, which was one of my initial goals when I was appointed back in early 2018. I set out this goal to complete—unless it was exceptionally complex or unless there were exceptional circumstances—any study, any review and examination that we do under the code or the act within one year. We've managed to do that in the 13 reports issued in the last two years, and 18 since I've been in my position in January 2018.
I hope you will share my view that we have produced quality work each time.
I'm here today, and I'm pleased to let you know that we currently have no investigations ongoing under the act—no backlog. Therefore, we're ready to accept the next complaint or the next situation where I have reasonable grounds to start an investigation. We have a couple still ongoing under the code. In fact, I'll be tabling a report before the House rises as a result of an investigation under the code.
We receive a fair volume of complaints and information, if you wish, from the public, from the media, so we've reviewed over 100 files, 100 situations, where my staff reviewed incoming information to determine whether we should investigate. There is a good flow of information that comes in all the time.
I will now talk about the budget, since that is what brings us here today.
This year, we are operating with a budget of $7.67 million. That represents an increase of about 2% over last year. That is what I requested. Last year, we also secured funding for three additional communications advisor positions and to keep our information technology system up to date. Since the office was created 14 years ago, the budget has grown by about $1.6 million over the original budget.
Let's talk a little about the pandemic. Obviously, that is what's on everyone's mind; as we heard earlier before the meeting started, the patios are opening tonight.
The pandemic hit us suddenly, as it did everyone else. Personally, I had a medical condition two or three years ago that made me more vulnerable. So I remember very well leaving the office not knowing, like all of you, when I was going to come back and how. We all thought it would be a few weeks. However, we had to take steps gradually.
We were lucky, because our employees already had tablets and could work from home. In addition to our policy to provide equipment in a controlled manner to facilitate telework while ensuring ergonomics, we took steps with each employee regarding Wi-Fi availability. For 51 employees, supplies cost $28,000, from equipment to paper, pencils, and so on. Those costs were offset by decreases in other costs, such as printing. We have saved a lot of paper and a lot of trees. We also achieved significant savings on mail-outs.
In general, employees really like being able to telework. So we have a positive workplace. We use technology, as Parliament has, to keep channels open and have a constant dialogue with employees.
All this work, of course, has been accomplished because of the 50 people who work with me, who have been very good throughout the pandemic.
We did not actually measure productivity, because we have no backlog, in any respect, anywhere in the organization. We've been able to cope with the volume of work in spite of the pandemic, while trying to minimize problems and help employees as much as possible vis-à-vis the maintenance of a good balance and a good mental health situation.
That's what I have this afternoon. I would be pleased, of course, to answer any questions that members might have.