Mr. Speaker, the Privy Council Office responds that the provision of information to parliamentarians by public servants is done on behalf of ministers in support of ministerial accountability to Parliament and in a manner consistent with public service values and ethics.
Public servants recognize that elected officials are accountable to Parliament and that a non-partisan public sector is essential to our democratic system. Thus, public servants are expected to carry out their duties in a non-partisan and impartial manner and to support ministers in their accountability to Parliament and Canadians.
These principles are reflected in the government-wide guidance on provision of information to parliamentarians that is provided to public servants in the following documents: “Accountable Government: A Guide for Ministers and Ministers of State”, 2011; “Accounting Officers: Guidance on Roles, Responsibilities and Appearances Before Parliamentary Committees”, 2007; “Guidance for Deputy Ministers”, 2003; and “Notes on the Responsibilities of Public Servants in Relation to Parliamentary Committees”, 1990. The first of these documents sets out the Prime Minister’s expectations and guidance for members of the ministry and, by extension, the public servants who support them. The remaining documents were prepared by the Privy Council Office as guidance to public servants.
The primary method by which public servants provide information to parliamentarians is through appearances before the open all-party forum of parliamentary committees. As the guidance documents describe, public servants appearing before committees do so on behalf of their ministers and must endeavour to maintain public service impartiality and non-partisanship. Specifically, the guidance indicates that the information provided by public servants should consist of non-partisan, factual explanations of government policies and programs; that confidential information should not be disclosed; that questions of a political nature or that engage policy debate or disagreement should be referred to the minister; and that appearances should be coordinated with the minister’s office.
As indicated in “Accountable Government: A Guide for Ministers and Ministers of State" and "Guidance for Deputy Ministers”, deputy ministers and other departmental officials may, in addition to committee appearances, be asked by their minister to provide factual briefings to parliamentary caucuses on, for example, the technical details of legislation that the government intends to introduce. Such briefings may be initiated by the minister or come in response to a request from a parliamentary caucus. In either case, the guidance makes clear that briefings organized for one caucus are to be made available to other caucuses and that the leaders or House leaders of the parties should be kept informed. The conduct of such briefings is subject to the same general guidance described above with respect to appearances before parliamentary committees.
Departmental officials may also sometimes receive requests for information from individual parliamentarians of all political affiliations. As described in “Guidance for Deputy Ministers”, responses to such requests should be coordinated with ministers’ offices and respect the principles of ministerial responsibility and public service impartiality.
The guidance described above is consistent with the “Communications Policy of the Government of Canada”, which is issued by the Treasury Board and applies to all departments and agencies. The policy encourages departmental officials to communicate openly with the public about the policies, programs, services and initiatives they are responsible for, in a manner that is non-partisan and consistent with the principles of parliamentary democracy and ministerial responsibility. As noted in the policy, ministers are ultimately accountable for the presentation and explanation of government policies, priorities and decisions to the public and are the principal spokespersons for the Government of Canada and its institutions.
To the extent that individual departments, agencies or crown corporations adopt particular practices to coordinate the provision of information to parliamentarians, these are expected to conform to the guidance described above.