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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

5 p.m.

Executive Director, Expenditure Operations and Estimates, Expenditure Management Sector, Treasury Board Secretariat

Sally Thornton

Just with regard to the change management—because we really are getting into some major changes and opportunities with open data, electronic things that are accessible, searchable, and where you can extract information—technology will not be the solution.

First and foremost, people are going to have to understand what information is available, but also we need to understand clearly what you need to fulfill your role. Technology is not going to magically, all of a sudden, provide it without that clarity of thought and direction, so I very much appreciate the committee taking the time to look at this now and I hope we get some clear direction.

5 p.m.

NDP

Mathieu Ravignat NDP Pontiac, QC

One of the departmental representatives that the committee has heard from said this: “the future-oriented financial statements…exist for a specific reason, since they include projections for the future, but they are based on accrued items. I have not yet made any decisions based on the information in those statements, which came into force recently. But that does not mean that I won't do so down the road.”

Does it often happen that financial statements are not seen or considered? Could you give us any general information as to why the minister was asked to produce future-oriented financial statements?

5 p.m.

Assistant Secretary, Expenditure Management Sector, Treasury Board Secretariat

Bill Matthews

Those are indeed the pro forma or future-oriented financial statements I spoke to. Departments are preparing those now, and have been for a couple of years. They're not finding them useful for their own purposes. They were already producing forecasts in terms of what they were going to spend.

The accrual-based statement for revenues and expenses is of some utility. The balance sheet, forecasting what your assets are going to be at the end of the year, is of no use to them. That reporting mechanism was put in place in response to a recommendation from the Office of the Auditor General that we move to accrual appropriations. What the government responded with was that we would start providing additional accrual-based information to parliamentarians, and we would assess, after a number of years, what the experience had been with parliamentarians and if they found the information useful.

Departments have told us loud and clear that future pro forma balance sheets are of absolutely no use, with some mixed response on the statement of revenues and expenses in terms of forecasting that.

5:05 p.m.

Conservative

The Vice-Chair Conservative Mike Wallace

Our next questioner is Mr. Cannan.

May 14th, 2012 / 5:05 p.m.

Conservative

Ron Cannan Conservative Kelowna—Lake Country, BC

Thank you, Mr. Chair; outstanding job, as always, filling in as our chair.

Thanks to our witnesses.

I echo my colleagues around the room that it's a great several months we've been spending with all parties working collaboratively. It's been a non-partisan issue. We want to get this information in a more usable format.

I spent nine years in local government—the same with Mike—looking at and studying this, trying to make it more user-friendly.

I want to pick up where my colleague Mathieu had a comment, looking at all the different changes within the agricultural budget. Would he, as a member of Parliament, go to Bill with his question, or to Sally, or...?

Do we have a point person—someone from the Library of Parliament, let's say, or an analyst, perhaps, would be one suggestion—to help provide information to a member of Parliament who has a question?

5:05 p.m.

Assistant Secretary, Expenditure Management Sector, Treasury Board Secretariat

Bill Matthews

Where a member of Parliament has a question specific to a departmental spending profile, the best way to approach it is to work through the department itself. What you see in the main estimates for Agriculture Canada is as a result of their submission of material into the centre. They're in the best position to respond to those questions.

5:05 p.m.

Conservative

Ron Cannan Conservative Kelowna—Lake Country, BC

Would the Library of Parliament or an analyst have any assistance in that?

5:05 p.m.

Assistant Secretary, Expenditure Management Sector, Treasury Board Secretariat

Bill Matthews

They can do some research in terms of the documents that are out there. They're actually quite useful. They know where to look for main estimates and quarterly financials and RPPs. Researchers can be quite useful on that front, absolutely.

5:05 p.m.

Conservative

Ron Cannan Conservative Kelowna—Lake Country, BC

Okay.

Mr. Nevison, in the finance department, I really applaud the application of the budget online. It's been very helpful. I'm just wondering, thinking about combining the two, is there a way of maybe using hyperlinks within the budget, to sort of overlay the estimates?

5:05 p.m.

General Director, Economic and Fiscal Policy Branch, Department of Finance

Douglas Nevison

Yes, I think that's something we could look into. Again, building this crosswalk between the two sets of documents would be very helpful to people, I think, so that's something we could certainly look into.

5:05 p.m.

Conservative

Ron Cannan Conservative Kelowna—Lake Country, BC

Another issue—as we said, we had several different witnesses—is that with regard to the estimates, about one third of the $90 billion is discretionary, right? The other two-thirds are statutory.

Is there any review process in place of that two-thirds, the statutory funding?

5:05 p.m.

Assistant Secretary, Expenditure Management Sector, Treasury Board Secretariat

Bill Matthews

I'll let my colleague from Finance comment in a moment.

The budgets could make changes to statutory programs, but if they are status quo.... I guess by leaving them status quo, the budget in fact has looked at them. But there is no committee that I'm aware of that studies statutory spending.

5:05 p.m.

General Director, Economic and Fiscal Policy Branch, Department of Finance

Douglas Nevison

No, I'm not aware of any either.

5:05 p.m.

Conservative

Ron Cannan Conservative Kelowna—Lake Country, BC

One of the recommendations was to have a ten-year review of statutory funding or statutory budgeting. Is that something that you think would be a reasonable request of the committee?

5:05 p.m.

Assistant Secretary, Expenditure Management Sector, Treasury Board Secretariat

Bill Matthews

It's an interesting one, because when you look at the work of the committee in studying estimates, the key is to do the work to study the Appropriation Act, which is just for the voted items. That's absolutely paramount.

As you said, though, the statutory spending does represent two-thirds of spending. It's a significant amount of money, something that's worth looking at. As to how often you do it, I'm not sure.

5:05 p.m.

Conservative

Ron Cannan Conservative Kelowna—Lake Country, BC

Is that something that maybe Finance could give us some guidance on?

5:05 p.m.

General Director, Economic and Fiscal Policy Branch, Department of Finance

Douglas Nevison

No, I think that's exactly the right point. If the committee thought that was worthwhile, then it's worth considering.

5:05 p.m.

Conservative

Ron Cannan Conservative Kelowna—Lake Country, BC

I mean, we just did the whole strategic review, the deficit reduction action plan, and went through and looked at it from an operational perspective. That in some way, I guess, is looking at overall budget, but there is nothing in place to go to a zero-based budget. Some corporations or municipalities or provinces in the past have looked at zero-based. It's not something the government's ever looked at.

5:05 p.m.

Assistant Secretary, Expenditure Management Sector, Treasury Board Secretariat

Bill Matthews

I would distinguish between the work of committees on strategic review and the deficit reduction action plan, because that was an internal government exercise to identify savings. That's different from a committee actually studying the spending. To my knowledge no committee is studying statutory spending at the moment.

5:05 p.m.

Conservative

Ron Cannan Conservative Kelowna—Lake Country, BC

That's something we should definitely think about in our recommendations.

Sally mentioned that technology isn't the panacea, because if you don't know the information is there.... I like the idea of an index. Is that something you're already looking at doing, or should we put it on our recommendations list?

5:10 p.m.

Executive Director, Expenditure Operations and Estimates, Expenditure Management Sector, Treasury Board Secretariat

Sally Thornton

To the extent there's consensus on specific recommendations, please put it forward. Something we are looking toward right now is alphabetical, largely because of concerns we've heard here and from Canadians. We're also looking at.... I wouldn't call it analysis, in that it's not information, but it highlights the major changes in initiatives, vote changes, and the horizontals.

But if there's something that helps you focus your attention sooner, please let us know. Then in terms of crosswalks or links to others, let us know if you have a consensus on something, or if you would like us to explore it.

5:10 p.m.

Conservative

Ron Cannan Conservative Kelowna—Lake Country, BC

Thank you very much. I appreciate all your work.

5:10 p.m.

Conservative

The Vice-Chair Conservative Mike Wallace

Monsieur Blanchette.

5:10 p.m.

NDP

Denis Blanchette NDP Louis-Hébert, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

When I began this job as a member of Parliament, one of the things that surprised me was that there were not just one or two supplementary estimates, but three. Is that not at least one too many?

5:10 p.m.

Assistant Secretary, Expenditure Management Sector, Treasury Board Secretariat

Bill Matthews

There are the main estimates, and in the last few years we've had supplementary estimates (A), (B), and (C). If you went back further you would see that in some years there were only two, so it was (A) and (B).

Sorry, I may have misunderstood the question, parts I, II and III of the estimates....

I'll just finish my thought on the supplementary estimates. That's largely a function of the urgency of departmental spending. If you're curious about the actual content of the main estimates themselves, part I is the government overview. It's quite useful in setting the context for what's in the main estimates document. Part II is by department and is quite useful in looking at changes for the department itself. Part III is on the reports on plans and priorities and the departmental performance reports.

That's why we say there are three parts to the estimates. But I'm not clear if your question was on that part or the fact that we have supplementary estimates (A), (B), and (C) as well. I'm not sure if I answered your question.