Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise this evening to speak on this most auspicious occasion, the debate on the first main estimates of the government.
Other members have talked about how the government has demonstrated its resolve to restore order to Canada's fiscal house. I would like to talk about another pledge that we made to Canadians: to provide government services that Canadians want and need in an affordable and efficient manner. We promised to work to eliminate overlap and duplication with other levels of government and to ensure that the Canadian taxpayer is not paying twice for the same or similar services.
The government is very serious about keeping these pledges and about restoring the faith of Canadians in their government institutions. It is equally serious about ensuring that a public service that has been cut repeatedly over the last 10 years is still able to deliver quality, responsive services to their clients.
I would like to talk about some of the many management initiatives of the government that will enable us to keep our promises to Canadians. As the February budget announced, the government will release a declaration of quality service by the end of the summer. This declaration will be a service scheme for all public servants to follow. It will describe what the government views as good government service. It will tell Canadians what kind of service and treatment they can expect to receive when they telephone a government number, visit a federal office or write to a government agency.
This declaration will provide clear direction to all public service employees about the kind of service the government wants Canadians to receive from all federal offices. While we may not be able to deliver all services in line with the declaration right now, an achievable but challenging target is one way of getting there.
The declaration is only one part of the government's plan to tell Canadians what they can expect when they use a government service. It will be a broad government-wide vision of quality service.
Just as important as the declaration are the service standards that each department and agency of government are expected to produce. Service standards will build on the quality pledge included in this declaration and go even further. Written in plain language they describe the particular services and programs of each department. They will talk about the actual level of service that Canadians should expect to receive, such as how long before the telephone is answered, applications are processed or letters are responded to. They will include some measures of the cost of the service or program so Canadians can judge if they are getting value for money.
Finally, service standards will include simple, easy to use complaint mechanisms so Canadians have an effective avenue of redress if they are not satisfied with the service they are receiving.
Service standards should be developed in consultation with the program's clients and employees. The government believes consultation with Canadians is an important step in restoring faith in federal institutions. To this end we are determined to develop an effective consultation process.
By talking to the people who actually use or deliver the service, government managers get a better idea of what is most important to their clients. When asked clients generally offer worthwhile suggestions on how the service could be improved. By finding out what Canadians value, government managers can concentrate their energies and efforts where the return in terms of increased client satisfaction is the greatest. They can use the information to eliminate or reduce services that no longer meet the needs of today's clients.
Service standards are real. Mr. Speaker, when you filed your income taxes this year you will have noticed in the guide the declaration of taxpayers' rights. This is not new. What was new was a statement by the department that even at the height of income tax processing in April and May returns can normally be processed and cheques or assessments returned within four weeks. This gives Canadians a very concrete idea of what they can expect.
Enquiries Canada, part of the Canada Communication Group, has a number of service standards in place. For example, phone calls are answered, with a bilingual greeting I might add, in three rings or 16 seconds 85 per cent of the time. Any inquiry requiring further research is answered by the research team within 24 hours and the research officers do the callbacks to the clients themselves.
Correspondence received by Enquiries Canada is answered within 48 hours.
As we can see, this is a real and concrete description of the services that are being offered, something Canadians can monitor to see if the organizations are continuing to meet these targets.
The inspections branch of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has developed draft standards that are based on consultation with clients and staff. One set deals with how the department will handle complaints. Complaints involving health and safety of fish products will be investigated immediately. Trade complaints or complaints involving quality or consumer fraud will be investigated within three working days.
This is an example of how the department is becoming more sensitive to the service needs of its clients.
My final example of the service standards comes from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. The department has established a single access food labelling service for the Canadian food industry. The service consolidated food labelling activities involving the former departments of consumer and corporate affairs and agriculture under four different pieces of legislation. The new service will complete a label assessment within 10 working days.
These are all examples where federal departments and agencies have clearly spelled out for Canadians the level of service they can expect to receive. We can monitor their performance and see if they are meeting their targets. We can discuss their targets with them. For the first time we will know what response we should expect from a government department or agency.
Of course, developing service standards is only one step in more efficiently delivering effective and affordable programs. One way to really improve the services that Canadians are receiving is to eliminate the stovepipe mentality resulting from separate government departments. Based on clients' perspective, related services from a number of departments and agencies can be provided in one location. That is what the Canada Business Service Centre concept is all about, one stop shopping for the business client.
CBSCs provide a comprehensive access point for information, assistance and referrals on all federal programs and services to business.
In the last budget this government made a commitment to open at least one centre in a major urban area in each province this year. Furthermore, we are working with the provinces and the private sector to develop a single access point for federal, provincial and community-based programs and services of interest to business clients.
Clients have access to CBSC services by telephone and facsimile transmission, in person and in future electronically from home or business. Aside from some start-up funds to offset technology investment, CBSCs are being established within existing operating resources.
Since these estimates were tabled on February 24 the Canada-B.C. Business Service Centre has officially opened, this in addition to three CBSCs in Halifax, Edmonton and Winnipeg which have been up and running for some time. Four new centres will open in the early summer in Montreal, Fredericton, St. John's and Charlottetown. Most of these will operate in conjunction with provincial services and one will even have the participation of the local chamber of commerce. The remaining centres will open in the early fall.
Harmonizing federal and provincial services in one location is a giant step forward. However, it is even more important to determine that the programs and services that we are delivering are still relevant to the needs of today's Canadians. To that end, the budget announced a series of program reviews. The most
fundamental and far reaching of these is the government's review of Canada's social security system.
The Minister for Human Resources Development is leading this review. He has already launched a dialogue with Canadians and the provinces on our social security system. The entire range of social programs and issues will be covered in this review. They include unemployment insurance, training and other employment programs, the Canada assistance plan, security for families and children, assistance for persons with disabilities, post-secondary education and student loans.
The Standing Committee on Human Resources Development will begin consultations on the action plan in the very near future. Members of this House will be invited to undertake their own consultations.
Redesigning services and programs to meet the real needs of Canadians is absolutely imperative to ensure that the most valued services and programs are delivered efficiently and affordably. However, it is just as important that public servants are ready and equipped to deliver these services.
As part of this broader re-engineering effort, the government released the blueprint for renewing government services using information technology. The blueprint contains a vision of how the government can use today's information technology to deliver responsive and affordable services. It identifies the need for a government wide electronic information infrastructure to support service delivery renewal.
The common infrastructure will allow the development of knowledgeable employees free from organizational constraints and able to answer questions and deal with the programs of a number of federal governments.
The blueprint is one of many approaches to advancing the one-stop shopping concept and eliminating the stovepipe attributable to government organizations.
The government is taking other measures to ensure that taxpayers' money is spent wisely, with true consideration given to real need. For example, with the introduction of operating budgets managers were provided with one sum of money to cover employee costs and operating and maintenance costs. This eliminated the person year control system. This person year control system often acted as a barrier to improving services to Canadians by not allowing managers to achieve the right input mix of staff, services and equipment.
To cut down on the wasteful year end spending practices that we often read about in the Auditor General's annual reports, departments were allowed to carry forward from one fiscal year to the next 2 per cent of their operating budgets. There was therefore no need to rush out and purchase computers or lab equipment that departments did not need right away but knew they were going to need in the next fiscal year.
This government is currently evaluating whether the 2 per cent carry forward has been effective in eliminating the so-called year end spending binge or whether it needs to be increased to 5 per cent. I am confident that the President of the Treasury Board will advise us of the results of this study in due course.
Departments and agencies that are closely located are starting to share common services like meeting rooms, libraries, internal mail distribution, to free resources that have been used in this kind of duplicative and costly overhead. To date there are over 200 such initiatives being discussed or implemented in every province across the country.
We are streamlining and updating our payments and procurement processes through the use of modern technology. This will have tremendous benefits both in terms of cost avoidance and in terms of better service to those firms that want to sell goods and services to the government.
In conclusion, let me assure hon. members of this House that the government intends to keep its pledge to deliver the services Canadians want and need in an affordable and efficient manner.
I have talked today about a number of management initiatives the government is pursuing. The list is just a start. It is just a beginning. As we look at how we are serving Canadians and delivering our programs, as we continually strive to learn and improve, other such initiatives will follow.