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Evidence of meeting #40 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 expenditure.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Allen Schick  Distinguished Professor, School of Public Policy, University of Maryland, As an Individual
Jack Stilborn  Retired, Library of Parliament, As an Individual

4:25 p.m.

Liberal

John McCallum Liberal Markham—Unionville, ON

In one of your papers you refer to the possibility of parliaments or legislators reducing spending in lower-priority areas and increasing spending in higher-priority areas. Are you suggesting that one option might be for parliamentarians to have that authority as long as there's no net increase in the total?

4:25 p.m.

Distinguished Professor, School of Public Policy, University of Maryland, As an Individual

Dr. Allen Schick

Yes, sir.

Let me tell you the basis for that. I'm from the State of Maryland, which is one of the fifty states. It's the only state in the country where the parliament, the legislature, is barred by the state Constitution from increasing the estimates tabled by the government. It cannot vote appropriations in excess of what the government recommended in the budget.

One result of that is that the Maryland legislature has gravitated to a role not of adding expenditure but of taking a tough line in reviewing expenditure, ensuring that they are sensible, that they are within a fiscal envelope, and often cutting expenditure. So that's a possible role.

Things don't always work out precisely that way because what parliamentarians in Maryland sometimes do is tell the Governor of the State of Maryland that if he doesn't put their preference in the budget, he'll have a difficult time with them on some entirely unrelated issue. So in effect they're taking the budget hostage, as it were.

Nevertheless, this is a role the Maryland legislature has carved out, not adding to appropriations but cutting appropriations.

4:25 p.m.

Liberal

John McCallum Liberal Markham—Unionville, ON

Thank you very much.

4:25 p.m.

NDP

The Chair NDP Pat Martin

Thank you. That's your time, John.

That concludes the time we have set aside for your presentation, Professor Schick. On behalf of the committee, I want to say how very much we appreciate your taking the trouble to be with us here today. When we first began this comprehensive review, many people said, “You've got to hear from Professor Allen Schick”. We're glad we did.

It was a pleasure to meet you. We found everything you had to say very useful. We will make very good use of some of your publications comparing other nations and how they wrestle with this thorny issue. On behalf of the committee, I thank you for being with us today, sir.

Thank you very much, Professor Schick. It was a pleasure meeting you.

4:30 p.m.

Distinguished Professor, School of Public Policy, University of Maryland, As an Individual

4:30 p.m.

NDP

The Chair NDP Pat Martin

We're going to suspend.

4:30 p.m.

NDP

The Chair NDP Pat Martin

We will reconvene on our project and welcome our next witness. He is someone who is no stranger to this committee. Mr. Jack Stilborn served for many years as a researcher for the Library of Parliament and as the analyst for this particular committee on government operations and estimates.

I understand, Jack, that you were with us in 2003 when this committee undertook a similar study that wound up with a great number of recommendations. It's very helpful to us to have you here to share your thoughts with us on that experience and on anything else you might like to give us in your opening remarks.

You know the routine. The floor is yours, sir.

4:30 p.m.

Jack Stilborn Retired, Library of Parliament, As an Individual

Thank you very much for that introduction. It really leaves it for me only to say thank you to all of you for this invitation today. It's a great privilege to be here.

You have a text that I have distributed. I will attempt to speak from it, but I will shorten it down a bit as I go.

The synopsis that I offer there I want to reword slightly by suggesting that I think the basic thing I'm trying to do in this text is respond to the fact that a great deal of our thinking about Parliament is heavily dominated by unexamined assumptions, many of which are traditional. One of the challenges in thinking about anything like the estimates process is to attempt to see how Parliament actually works today, and particularly to take full account of the impact of disciplined political parties on Parliament, and then ask what Parliament really needs, rather than necessarily simply imposing what we think it ought to have or should be doing, based on assumptions with which it's no longer well aligned.

Dissatisfaction with Parliament's role in the scrutiny of government spending is longstanding, both among observers and among many MPs themselves. The central argument I will present today is that unrealistic expectations, and, as I've just said, possibly a misunderstanding of the way the Westminster model of Parliament now works, have been a major contributor to these dissatisfactions. A stronger focus on how Parliament actually works today could result in more realistic expectations, lower the frustration level, and also perhaps suggest some changes that might actually make a difference.

Concerns about Parliament’s effectiveness in scrutinizing government spending date back to the beginning of the modern era in Canada’s Parliament in the mid-sixties. The standing committee structure was originally created in 1965, and made permanent in 1968, partly because estimates debates on the floor of the House had become chaotic affairs, wildly partisan, and typically involved the concurrence in most of the government’s spending in panic sessions running late into the night in the last few days when Parliament was sitting. So it's interesting to realize that in the standing committee structure originally, estimates were one of the main jobs that it was seen as potentially being able to contribute to.

Successive episodes of reform in subsequent years have given committees greater powers, resources, and so on, in theory to strengthen their effectiveness in financial scrutiny. Paradoxically, however, 45 years of procedural reforms, both large and small, do not seem to have made a difference to the basic issues that originally provoked reform. Parliament is still widely seen as ineffective in its financial scrutiny role. MPs continue to express wide frustration with the estimates procedure and the supply process. Indeed, if anything, frustration appears to have increased roughly in tandem with the reforms that were intended to address it.

Why is this? A central explanation would seem to be that during the past 45 years the incentives that apply to committee members as they face the estimates each year have remained essentially unchanged. Government-side members who raise issues that could create ministerial discomfort soon learn that this does not contribute to successful political career development in Ottawa.

4:30 p.m.

Some hon. members

Oh, oh!

4:30 p.m.

Jack Stillborn

Opposition members may gain temporary glory by raising critical questions, but the inattention of the media and public to committee proceedings on estimates is so profound that these moments remain invisible in the ridings. It is implausible, to say the least, that electoral support in the ridings can be influenced by labour on spending estimates in Ottawa.

The fact that governments view the estimates as matters of confidence, given that they reflect the financial intentions of the government, underlies the incentive problem, along, I suppose, with the current level of party discipline. Under majority conditions, there is really nothing for committees to do with the estimates that might actually change spending plans, and under minority government scenarios, as we have recently seen, the theoretical possibility of changes is inevitably wound up with strategic calculations about bringing the government down rather than being about the substance of the estimates.

I have a section here called “Recent Reforms” that I'm going to treat in a more summary way. It basically makes the point that the major recent reform is the restructuring of reporting to Parliament and the creation of a theoretical future-year focus in the RPPs, which committees can study and make recommendations on outside the constraints of the estimates. That's the major development since that time. But committees have shown singularly little appetite for that kind of study, and I think it's because the basic incentives or disincentives I just reviewed have not changed. Also, this new future-oriented study concept—that just comes out of the Treasury Board Secretariat, actually—requires committees to engage in a level of delayed gratification about their work that is very optimistic about the kind of political timeframes that dominate members' behaviour, because these future-oriented studies won't even come into play until a year or more down the road. It's only then that the results will be visible.

What is to be done?

The dynamics of the Westminster model suggest that even in more attractive formats, with more interesting content, the overwhelming portion of information generated by Parliament about spending will continue to be greeted with seeming indifference by Parliament.

However, beneath the indifference, in committees and elsewhere, there is continuous attentiveness to the possibility of exceptional cases—sponsorships, F-35s, and so on—that have a high level of political resonance. When Parliament becomes seized with these issues, its appetite for relevant information becomes extremely intense and rapidly goes far beyond anything available in the formal estimates reports.

This brings me to my first recommendation. Attempts to improve Parliament’s effectiveness in scrutinizing government spending should focus on what Parliament actually does rather than on what we have traditionally thought it should do.

Parliament’s attention to government spending is issue-driven and highly episodic. The critical improvement challenge is thus the availability of information when needed by Parliament rather than the fine-tuning of formal reports or the attempt to redeem the formal estimates process by means of procedural tweaking.

In the committees, the estimates process will continue to be about looking for issues rather than about actually changing government spending. A flexible online resource that allows MPs and staff to drill down to individual activities and get a concrete picture of planned costs, or what is being accomplished and what the present costs are, should be the priority.

Such a resource might occasionally be useful for the consideration of estimates. More importantly, it could support attention to government spending outside the estimates process, where most parliamentary action actually happens now. It should be designed with that role in mind.

I want to just mention here that a lot of the basis for this already exists in the Treasury Board Secretariat in something called the program activity architecture, which you may have heard about from previous witnesses. It basically requires departments to organize their programming in a hierarchical form. They start at the top, with the outcomes to which they contribute, then move to the programs, then move to activities, sub-activities, and sub-sub-activities, where appropriate.

In theory, that drill-down environment is already there. It just needs to be made available to Parliament.

Second, although the idea has traditionally been anathema to governments, a capacity of this resource to break out activities and spending on a riding-by-riding basis is also needed. Yes, this will predictably produce a great deal of posturing about real or imagined inequities. But it would enable questions relevant to Canadians to be asked. Facts would be provided and explanations given. Ultimately, this is a healthy thing.

My second major point is that the existing structure of estimates needs to be replaced with something that reflects what Parliament actually does and, if the argument I have outlined is correct, will continue to do.

Why not integrate the estimates votes into a single vote on a government spending plan? After all, is this not in the bottom line what Parliament does? Parliament concurs in the estimates every year. Why do you need multiple and, in many cases, treacherously obscure votes to accomplish this?

The spending plan could include any limitations on making funding authorities transferred among what are now separately voted items that are appropriate to ensure that the government doesn't have just a free hand to shunt money back and forth at will. It could also include any principles or guidelines currently used by Treasury Board Secretariat in assessing departmental submissions for reallocating money during the fiscal year. This approach would reflect the modern reality that substantive spending control is actually done by governments, with parliamentary endorsement, rather than—as the phrase “the power of the purse” seems still to suggest to many—by Parliament itself. Furthermore, it could actually strengthen parliamentary and public knowledge about how spending control happens.

A modern supply process should take Parliament seriously, and this includes relieving it from ritual tasks that are too often incomprehensible to MPs. Political accountability is by its nature not a systematic process, but is highly selective based on the political importance of singular issues.

Parliament is uniquely the institution that can do this: selecting issues that are important to the public, holding governments accountable for what they are doing or failing to do, and providing through the contrast between government and opposition positions a very public counterweight to the tendency towards groupthink that is otherwise a pervasive feature of modern institutional life.

I think we should be more appreciative of the political accountability delivered by our Westminster model of Parliament and less troubled by the absence of a more systematic, non-partisan kind of accountability in the committees.

Thank you very much.

4:45 p.m.

NDP

The Chair NDP Pat Martin

Thank you, Mr. Stilborn. That was a very thoughtful and interesting presentation.

We're going to jump right into questions then. We'll begin with the NDP. Alexandre Boulerice.

4:45 p.m.

NDP

Alexandre Boulerice NDP Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Mr. Stilborn, thank you for coming here to make your presentation. It was very interesting, but at times also troubling.

When you stress the indifference of Parliament to examining budget estimates, it calls to mind other presentations we have heard in which we have been told that scrutinizing expenses is the reason Parliament exists. If it is our role, but we are not fulfilling that role because we are not interested, we have a problem.

You say that members of Parliament are not provided with enough incentives to do this work conscientiously and to spend a lot of time on it. You also mention that it is not very glamorous politically. Yes, I have to confess that committee work is not the first thing my constituents want to talk to me about.

If there are insufficient incentives, what do you suggest to change that situation, that culture? You seem a little negative, a little pessimistic when you say: “In the committees, the estimates process will continue to be about looking for issues, rather than actually changing government spending.”

If there are not enough incentives, if government members cannot really criticize their own government and if opposition members are sitting here solely to sniff out scandals, what concrete changes are you suggesting?

4:45 p.m.

Retired, Library of Parliament, As an Individual

Jack Stilborn

I probably do need to talk a little bit about the impression that I may have given of general indifference to the estimates, because I certainly don't want to create that impression. I think that MPs, generally speaking, go through the considerable inconvenience and challenge of becoming involved in politics because they are very passionate about what government does and how public money is spent.

That passion surfaces from time to time in discussions of singular issues that catch parliamentary and public attention. I'm talking about not so much indifference as an almost act of revulsion to the appearance every year of the estimates documents in large piles and reports, which most MPs who I have talked with personally find to be very turgid and uninformative. They feel that these things are being inflicted upon them and they have to wade their way through them to do the formal estimates work, and then at the end of the formal estimates work there's nothing much to do with the estimates other than report them back.

It's not so much indifference as perhaps an element of hopelessness produced by the constraints of the formal estimates process.

4:45 p.m.

NDP

Alexandre Boulerice NDP Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie, QC

I want to talk to you about the timing of the process of approving the estimates and the presentation of the budget. It is an odd situation in that the supplementary estimates (C) come at practically the same time as the main estimates. Then that is followed by the budget, which has nothing to do with the main estimates we have just examined.

The American professor we spoke to earlier talked about two stages. The first is when we look at the strategy, the big picture, the overarching issues in the budget; the second is when we look at the expenses in detail, meaning the main estimates and the supplementary estimates (A), (B) and (C). But there should be some connection between the main estimates and the budget itself. They cannot be completely disconnected from each other.

What do you think should be the time between the budget being brought down and the main estimates?

4:45 p.m.

Retired, Library of Parliament, As an Individual

Jack Stilborn

I think the first thing I would say is that if we think about the key requirements that one would expect Parliament to bring to these various documents and pieces, you essentially need to be able to hear what the government is proposing to do in the budget, and then you need to be able to track what it's doing through a succession of reports, estimates, documents, and other information sources.

Personally, I'm not sure that the sequence of these various reports is the critical matter in the tracking. As long as every document is quite clear about what it is and what's in it, and explains clearly how the other documents add supplementary or complementary information, it should be possible to track the story.

Having said that, it does seem odd to have what appears to be a kind of mingling of different fiscal years, where you get the budget and then you bounce back to the main estimates. Personally, I don't understand why the timing couldn't be altered in a modest way by moving the budget forward, possibly into late January or early February, as soon as Parliament comes back, and then moving the estimates tabling to later on.

As we already recognize, the deadline for placing the estimates before Parliament has no substantive consequence. The estimates are placed before Parliament and then they sit there for several months before committees get around to examining them. I don't see why you couldn't move the main estimates later into the spring, into May perhaps, and that would allow a considerable portion of the proposals in the budget to be costed specifically and put into the main estimates.

Let's remember, too, that the main estimates are called “estimates”. If they're not dead right, then there are plenty of opportunities in supplementaries later on to correct that. If that were done, you would have a sequence that starts with the budget and then merges through....

As I said, I don't know how much stands on this, but certainly that sequence is more obviously logical and transparent.

4:50 p.m.

NDP

Alexandre Boulerice NDP Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie, QC

Thank you very much.

Thank you for your suggestion; it is a constructive one, I find.

4:50 p.m.

NDP

The Chair NDP Pat Martin

Thank you, Alexandre. Thank you, Mr. Stillborn.

For the Conservatives, Jacques Gourde.

4:50 p.m.

Conservative

Jacques Gourde Conservative Lotbinière—Chutes-de-la-Chaudière, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Mr. Stilborn, thank you for joining us and giving us a different perspective on our study. It is very interesting.

I am wondering about one paragraph in your presentation. You said that a priority should be for us to have a new online tool that could give us new or better information. You also said that the tool might be able to give us information riding by riding. Could you give us some more details about that tool?

I understand that it could be very interesting to see government expenses riding by riding, but it could well be tiresome work. It might be a source of pride to be able to determine how much was spent in old age security or employment insurance, but perhaps we would always end up comparing ourselves to others when situations are not necessarily comparable. Some regions have higher unemployment and that is not necessarily anyone's fault. It may also be that some regions have more seniors. I do not know how a tool like that would be relevant.

4:50 p.m.

Retired, Library of Parliament, As an Individual

Jack Stilborn

The main thing I can tell you, and I don't want to be in the position of creating myths about Treasury Board capacity, as it will make them very unhappy people, but I do know there is a single program activity architecture and it is a hierarchical structuring of programs. Then beneath them there are activities, sub-activities, and so on, and down at the very bottom, I believe, there is nominal cost information. They roll up the cost information to get the estimates and the cost of programs.

So, in theory, a great deal of what could be an online resource that could be available to parliamentarians exists over there. I have heard officials express some concerns about the cost of putting it online, for example. It could be that if you think about it in a very narrow framework focused on the formal estimates process, that might be a fair point to make. But if you think of it as an information resource supporting Parliament working on programs and their effectiveness both inside and outside the formal estimates process, then any costs involved become correspondingly more understandable.

In terms of the breakdown of information by writing, from time to time members do ask for that information about specific programs in written questions and by other means, and then the PCO goes into a panic and has to coordinate across all the departments pulling that information together. So the capacity to provide the information is there. We just do it now on an ad hoc basis.

I would have thought that if you have this kind of an online database, it ought not to be an insuperable problem to have that information built into it. Perhaps it would cost some money to do that, but on the other hand, the offsetting savings would be that you don't have these panic episodes when specific questions are asked.

4:55 p.m.

Conservative

Jacques Gourde Conservative Lotbinière—Chutes-de-la-Chaudière, QC

It could well be interesting for a member of Parliament to have that information, but what would be the relevance in having it riding by riding, from an overall public administration perspective? Some departments can get us some information. But, in terms of the overall budget, not a lot would change for us.

4:55 p.m.

Retired, Library of Parliament, As an Individual

Jack Stilborn

It's fair to say that in many cases this information wouldn't have policy relevance, but it might have. Some members at least, as I mentioned, have asked for it and do ask for it from time to time. My logic is if Parliament wants to do something, then the role of the system is to help it do it. If there is no policy relevance to the information once it's been obtained, then that can be explained and the question gets put to bed, but at least members have the opportunity to see the information and decide for themselves whether or not they think a policy issue has been raised.

4:55 p.m.

NDP

The Chair NDP Pat Martin

Thank you, Jacques.

Next we have Linda Duncan for the NDP.

April 25th, 2012 / 4:55 p.m.

NDP

Linda Duncan NDP Edmonton Strathcona, AB

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Welcome, Mr. Stilborn, and thank you for your ideas, obviously based on a lot of experience.

I'd like to follow up on the discussion that's been going on about providing information riding by riding. I can certainly think of an obvious program where that was being requested; it was like pulling teeth, and that was the economic action plan.

Of course, where you have a plan like that where the intent is supposedly to provide jobs across the country, then it's pretty obvious that the MPs in each region, particularly those areas where there's high unemployment, are going to want to know. To do your job as a parliamentarian, you're going to want to have the information that tells you, okay, what's the overall expenditure, what are the policy objectives, where's that money being expended, and who's benefiting from it. Certainly, the process we went through on that was not open and transparent, and some MPs, to their credit, took their own staff time, hours and hours, getting that information.

Not necessarily about the riding by riding, but your recommendation about availability of information.... It's interesting that all the other experts who have appeared seemed to drill down to that, and certainly seemed to be endorsing what the Parliamentary Budget Officer was calling for even today. He noted that a good deal of this information is already provided to Treasury Board in a detailed way, and there doesn't seem to be any logical reason why that same information couldn't be made available to parliamentarians or certainly to the Parliamentary Budget Officer, who could in turn report.

A number of experts have recommended that the Parliamentary Budget Officer should report throughout the year, and perhaps monthly, on spending and comparison with policy proposals. I'm wondering what your comment might be there.

I think your idea is a good one. I don't think the detailed information would be of relevance and interest to MPs just on a riding-by-riding basis, but certainly to have the comparison on particular policy areas that they're following would be.

4:55 p.m.

Retired, Library of Parliament, As an Individual

Jack Stilborn

I think the idea of drilling down is kind of interesting. As a way of coping with the scope and scale of modern government, we've kind of institutionally passed the last several decades agglomerating information into more and more high-level statements. There was a sentiment at one point among the people who worked on parliamentary reporting that you were actually doing Parliament a favour by this because you were giving them something shorter, which has been a demand from time to time about estimates documents. It would give them in a nutshell a report on spending and what was happening. There is merit to the high-level discussion on how numerous programs contribute to outcomes, and so on.

One problem is that members of Parliament, in general, don't have a natural affinity for some of this very abstract language. In the world they live in there are real people in the ridings who have problems, or not, and finding if government can be helpful or not. At a policy level that's where they live. The system somehow has to help them do what they want to do and give them the kind of information they want to start with. There might very well be a learning curve of what would be most useful.

5 p.m.

NDP

Linda Duncan NDP Edmonton Strathcona, AB

My understanding is that one of the roles of this committee is to also analyze across departments—in other words, where there is a substantive area that the government is delivering programs on, but they are being delivered through a number of departments and agencies.

In my previous role as the Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development critic, we ran into this, even when we had the minister and the deputy ADMs in the committee to look at the main estimates. It was simply revealed to us at that point, “Well, you can't ask that because that's actually for the Minister of Health. Gee, too bad she's not here.”

So it would be a far more useful exercise—and probably less frustrating for the officials and the ministers themselves—if a lot of that information could simply be available online. Then the process of estimates could be on the broader policies of what direction we are going in, and so forth.

I think there would be a lot of advantages to simply providing that information more openly and transparently. I think you sort of alluded to the issue that until that information is provided you can keep it as a hot issue. The hot issue is the government's secret. In fact, if the information were readily available, you could move on to bigger issues of Parliament. So I think you are raising some really interesting issues here.