This week, I changed much of the tech behind this site. If you see anything that looks like a bug, please let me know!

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

4:10 p.m.

Assistant Secretary, Expenditure Management Sector, Treasury Board Secretariat

Bill Matthews

I think the other comment made was around the link between RPPs—reports on plans and priorities—and main estimates. RPPs by convention support the main estimates, and as this committee knows, the main estimates do not reflect decisions from the budget.

That's also the other consideration on—

4:10 p.m.

Liberal

John McCallum Liberal Markham—Unionville, ON

But I've read that particular parliamentary rule, and it doesn't preclude information being released in any other way. It doesn't have to come through RPPs.

So what rule would that be breaking?

4:10 p.m.

Assistant Secretary, Expenditure Management Sector, Treasury Board Secretariat

Bill Matthews

I'm not sure on the rule front. The other thing I would point out, though, is that since the 2005 budget, the additional reporting is now done by departments. The biggest addition is around the quarterly financial reports, which didn't exist back then.

My own suggestion is that if departments can take advantage of existing reporting mechanisms once they've gone through the process of notifying unions, employees, etc., to share information.... From my perspective, it's better to use existing tools than to do ad hoc reports. It's just easier to manage.

4:10 p.m.

Liberal

John McCallum Liberal Markham—Unionville, ON

I must say I'm feeling a little bit frustrated, because some of our witnesses have said that Canada is a bit of an outlier. Most OECD countries have managed to align their budgets with their estimates in a way that isn't super-complicated and doesn't take years and years to bring about.

I accept your point about accrual versus cash accounting, but when you say that sometimes it would take several years to go through Treasury Board, meaning that even if the budget were well in advance of the estimates....

If you had, say, two or three months, to what degree would you be able to align the estimates with the budget?

4:15 p.m.

Assistant Secretary, Expenditure Management Sector, Treasury Board Secretariat

Bill Matthews

It depends, Chair, upon the nature of the items. If you have a new program in a budget, because of budget secrecy and other things, you may not see work started on a new program design in earnest until the budget is actually tabled. We do have examples of cases where it's two and three years after a budget before money is actually ready to be spent.

So that is a consideration. It's not the norm, but two to three years is not uncommon.

4:15 p.m.

Liberal

John McCallum Liberal Markham—Unionville, ON

Why can all these other countries do it and we can't?

4:15 p.m.

Assistant Secretary, Expenditure Management Sector, Treasury Board Secretariat

Bill Matthews

Part of it is that some of the other countries have cash in both documents. And not every country has a Treasury Board, which actually requires a rather detailed expenditure plan before you can actually go through the estimates.

You have to understand the control that Parliament is exercising over the spending. In our case, Treasury Board is the authority for expenditure approvals, and before you get into the estimates you have to make that step. In other countries, the nature of the estimates document is not the same.

4:15 p.m.

Liberal

John McCallum Liberal Markham—Unionville, ON

Okay.

Another thing you said was that to change a vote structure from where it is today to a program basis might take three to five years. I would have thought that the departments would already be doing their accounting on the basis of their program spending. You wouldn't need to reinvent the world to do this. Wouldn't much of that data already exist?

4:15 p.m.

Assistant Secretary, Expenditure Management Sector, Treasury Board Secretariat

Bill Matthews

We have, Chair, data by program. Departments certainly plan by program. I'm thinking more along the lines of how you actually control spending, and I'm talking here about financial systems and controls.

The current controls are built around capital, operating, and Gs and Cs. So you're actually looking at changing systems to make sure that the controls are put in place, and that's the key challenge there.

4:15 p.m.

Liberal

John McCallum Liberal Markham—Unionville, ON

So that would take three to five years to change?

4:15 p.m.

Assistant Secretary, Expenditure Management Sector, Treasury Board Secretariat

Bill Matthews

Well, if you think about the process we go through in preparing the mains, it's a long process. I acknowledge that. So I'm conservative because I'd be the one stuck with the responsibility for implementing this, but three to five years is not unreasonable, no.

4:15 p.m.

Conservative

The Vice-Chair Conservative Mike Wallace

That was a small “c” conservative.

4:15 p.m.

Liberal

John McCallum Liberal Markham—Unionville, ON

Okay. How much time?

4:15 p.m.

Conservative

The Vice-Chair Conservative Mike Wallace

You have 30 seconds.

4:15 p.m.

Liberal

John McCallum Liberal Markham—Unionville, ON

I'll leave it at that. Thank you very much.

4:15 p.m.

Conservative

The Vice-Chair Conservative Mike Wallace

Thank you very much. Our next questioner, from the Conservative party, is Ms. Adams.

May 14th, 2012 / 4:15 p.m.

Conservative

Eve Adams Conservative Mississauga—Brampton South, ON

So if you were to move to a program-based review, which is how every minister is actually already implementing every program that they are undertaking, you think in order to create sufficient oversight it would take you three to five years?

4:15 p.m.

Assistant Secretary, Expenditure Management Sector, Treasury Board Secretariat

Bill Matthews

You need to understand that the information is largely out there now, but it's provided for information purposes. So we would actually be asking departments to change their control structures and their financial systems to effectively respect the new set of rules. That's not something you would do overnight. It's also—

4:15 p.m.

Conservative

Eve Adams Conservative Mississauga—Brampton South, ON

Politically though, the minister would already have that level of oversight, one would imagine.

4:15 p.m.

Assistant Secretary, Expenditure Management Sector, Treasury Board Secretariat

Bill Matthews

They may have the political oversight, but from a controls perspective, blowing your vote is a significant event and it's not one anyone takes lightly. So you do want to make sure the control structure is actually built into departments to respect whatever it is that Parliament is controlling on.

4:15 p.m.

Conservative

Eve Adams Conservative Mississauga—Brampton South, ON

Of course.

Going back to the question of statutory and quasi-statutory and discretionary, is there a way, perhaps, of pulling out that information in supps? We certainly have quite a challenge when parliamentarians do not understand the nature of quasi-statutory programs.

They reviewed their supps in one of our committees, over at VAC, and they were very alarmed to see a reduction in program spending, not understanding what quasi-statutory meant. Try as we might to explain or provide some education as to what quasi-statutory meant, they were convinced—absolutely convinced—that there would be a program reduction, no matter how much we explained to them that it was quasi-statutory and that means that if there are people who need this program, the money will be spent. We simply go back and we update our forecast. These are the numbers that our best folks in our department are projecting. This is the number of folks we think will actually need to use this type of service, and so that's why we've come up with this forecast. If at any point that number is incorrect and we need to go and request a top-up, that will be requested.

Is there a way of highlighting that so that people can feel reassured? So we still have the parliamentary scrutiny of expenditures, but we're not having these inane debates where people just simply don't understand what's being presented to them?

4:20 p.m.

Assistant Secretary, Expenditure Management Sector, Treasury Board Secretariat

Bill Matthews

Thanks. That's an interesting question.

The quasi-stats present a challenge and we can probably do a better job of describing programs. Because from a parliamentarian's perspective, there's statutory, which means no vote necessary, and there's voted. A quasi-stat is a voted where there's little discretion involved. If someone qualifies for a benefit, he gets it, but the department still has to go through the step of going to Department of Finance and Treasury Board authorities and getting their estimates topped up.

So we can likely do a better job, in the descriptions of the programs, of highlighting what is considered a quasi-stat and what is not.

4:20 p.m.

Conservative

Eve Adams Conservative Mississauga—Brampton South, ON

I'm all for the debate, and I'm all for the parliamentary oversight. It's just an enormous waste of time, though, to be arguing that the sky, in fact, is blue when we can all clearly see it's blue.

Now moving forward, how would you guide us and what would offer as your best counsel on where we could be reducing red tape? You mentioned one area. Are there other areas?

4:20 p.m.

Assistant Secretary, Expenditure Management Sector, Treasury Board Secretariat

Bill Matthews

The reporting burden that I mentioned was.... There are significant amounts of documentation in the RPPs and DPRs, as well as online, that support those documents. If members are not finding them useful in terms of helping out—

4:20 p.m.

Conservative

Eve Adams Conservative Mississauga—Brampton South, ON

You mentioned the forecast. Was there anything else?