Paying attention to public spending – Canadian Government Executive

NEWS

SEARCH

AccountabilityManagement
May 7, 2012

Paying attention to public spending

CGE Vol.14 No.1 January 2008

The furor over the $300,000 that Karlheniz Schreiber allegedly gave to former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney has captivated the media’s interest and focused our attention on the less noble elements of politics. While the debate about the appropriateness and legality of offering and accepting cash gifts while serving as an elected official rages on the front pages of most Canadian newspapers, the business of government continues.

One area where government activity progresses unabated is in the area of spending. For example, during the day that Karlheinz Schreiber appeared before the House of Commons Ethics committee, the federal government spent $427 million of public funds to meet the needs of Canadians and to further the government’s agenda. By the end of the fiscal year in March 2008, the government will have spent $210 billion on a wide range of activities. In the Clerk of the Privy Council’s Annual Report to the Prime Minster, Kevin Lynch noted that the government would spend almost $50 billion in transfers to individuals and $40 billion to other levels of government. As well, almost 17% of the total spending will be used to service the federal debt.

These numbers are large and they also represent a steady increase of overall spending that appears to have had equal support from both the Martin and Harper governments. Overall, Canada has been increasing spending since the expenditure reductions of the late 1990s. For example, since 2000, the government has increased its overall spending by an annual average of 3.8%.

Without offering any comment on the effectiveness of some of these expenditures, given their large dollar value, it is always surprising to note how little public and media interest there is in the general area of government spending.

One reason for the general public lack of interest is the relatively little time that Parliament spends on this topic. If we take the approval of the 2006-2007 estimates as an example, there is very little activity related to the estimates in the Chamber proper. In general, the business of examining expenditures is primarily comprised of opposition days, appropriations bills and special Committee of the Whole examinations. For the 2006-2007 estimates, four appropriations bills were debated and passed and only two departments appeared before Committee of the Whole on their estimates (Human Resources and Skills Development and National Defence).

Since neither the four bills nor the two committee appearances took a full sitting day, the Chamber examined estimates-specific issues for a total of 6 days out of a possible 128 of House of Commons business. With regard to the 24 House Standing Committees, my estimate is that the committees spent 54 of their total 1092 meetings studying estimates (not including budget bills and related legislation). That means only 5% of House of Commons committee time was spent on examining and considering the $210 billion worth of expenditures. Whatever time has been spent over the past year on financial matters, it appears that Parliament has tended to concentrate its efforts on more accountability and financial management.

On the basis of his experience as minister of finance, Mr. Chrétien has often remarked that he found it easier to get approval for billion dollar expenditures than for one million dollars. Why this might be is unclear. Perhaps the scale of the spending intimidates the overseers or the spending is so large that it has little political appeal to members of parliament who are interested in benefits in their own ridings or areas of influence. Or perhaps it is easier to understand smaller amounts of spending.

This issue has not escaped the notice of some political leaders. Senator Hugh Segal, for one, has expressed his concern about the lack of attention paid by Parliament to spending priorities and decisions. In his recent book, he noted: “The core dynamic and symbolic role of Parliament, as agreed to in the Magna Carta in 1215, was the approval of funds and taxation before the king could spend and tax. The Parliament of Canada has not done this in any effective way since the late 1960s. Essentially, when all parties agreed that program and departmental estimates of spending would be deemed to have been reported back from committee to the House by a certain date, whether they were actually approved or not, the control was lost.”

Imbedded deep in the 2007 federal budget, the minister of finance announced his government’s intention to remedy its own decision-making process in order to limit the growth in spending. In short, Mr. Flaherty announced that, in the future, the federal cabinet would look at all government spending before it is put before the House of Commons for approval. He also promised to provide Cabinet with a rigorous analysis of all new spending, something that was common practice in the 1980s but has not been done since the government moved into a surplus situation.

In November’s Canadian Government Executive, David Good, a former senior public official and now a professor at the University of Victoria, commented on some of the work he has done on the “politics of public money.” In the course of his analysis, he has drawn some interesting conclusions about the dynamics around decisions to expend public money. For example, he makes the observation that, over the past two decades, Canadian governments have been centralizing power into the offices of the prime minister.

Previously there was a built in tension between the departments that needed funds to spend on their existing and new programs and those that acted as guardians of the public interest, such as Finance and Treasury Board. The challenge function provided by one set of actors to the other guaranteed that the government would have the benefit of strong analysis and debate among the spenders and guardians. Good notes that, under the current system, the traditional players have been joined by two sets of new players. The first are the priority setters from the Prime Minister’s Office and the second are watchdogs such as the Auditor General and the new agencies recently created under the Federal Accountability Act. He is concerned that additional inclusion of the priority setters and watchdogs will not improve the current system at all.

It is obvious that there are two areas that need immediate attention in order to bring the issue of government expenditures to the attention of decision makers and to the public. First, the announced improvements at the Cabinet level need to be implemented, possibly by creating a Cabinet Committee on Expenditure Review as recommended by Good. Second, it is obvious that Parliament might benefit from taking a more measured look at government spending intentions as well as program outcomes by linking government priorities to spending and then to performance.

Once Cabinet and Parliament become more committed to rationalizing the system, perhaps the media and the public will pay more attention to how their tax dollars are being spent.

David Zussman holds the Jarislowsky Chair in Public Sector Management in the School of Public and International Affairs and the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa (dzussman@uottawa.ca).

About this author

0 comments

There are no comments for this post yet.

Be the first to comment. Click here.

Accountability
 
Cybersecurity professionals have sounded the alarm for years, and they are...
 
Cost estimation is becoming an extremely important skill within government due...
 
In this special episode of CGE Radio, your host John Jones...
 
Security professionals have an obligation to communicate risks and recommendations to...
 
Risk is always present in any undertaking, no matter the size...
 
Cost overruns have become institutionalized in the federal government, according to...
 
Last year, procurement Minister Jody Foote was prompted by the swirling...
 
Professionals, managers, and executives in the cost estimation industry can gain...
 
In this episode, hear from Carl Hammersburg, Manager, Government and Healthcare...
 
A new study from the Conference Board of Canada gives our...
 
In the world that we are living in today, free and...
 
The delivery method developed by Sir Michael Barber, chief adviser to...
 
Rules and accountability are helpful in developing and standardizing processes but...
 
Canadian doctors were told that climate change impacts human health and...
 
Even as talks between the government and federal workers affected problems...
 
The largest effort in 20 years to seek public input on...
 
Ottawa has overhauled the process by which justices are picked for...
 
Please to view this Content. (Not a member? Join Today! )...
 
In this episode, editor-in-chief, Patrice Dutil talks about the need for...
 
As much a 20 per cent of grade seven students in...
 
Please to view this Content. (Not a member? Join Today! )...
 
Upon receiving numerous complaints regarding add-on fees that turn making economy...
 
Are you absolutely clear what the government wants to achieve? Are...
 
Please to view this Content. (Not a member? Join Today! )...
 
Please to view this Content. (Not a member? Join Today! )...
 
Please to view this Content. (Not a member? Join Today! )...
 
Please to view this Content. (Not a member? Join Today! )...
 
Please to view this Content. (Not a member? Join Today! )...
 
Written By Jason McNaught The Public Service Alliance of Canada was...
 
Independence has long been regarded as a cornerstone of the auditing...
 
Canada is a diverse nation, in language, culture, geography, and, ultimately,...
 
Public sector organizations are under increasing pressure to identify all risks...
 
The government of Canada has implemented several measures over the past...
 
Whether at the territorial, provincial or federal government level, internal audit...
 
An organization’s reputation can take years to build but it can...
 
On October 30, Ontario began second reading of the Public Sector...
 
In the well-known children’s story, an Emperor falls victim to the...
 
The Nova Scotia Office of the Ombudsman is a small operation...
 
I think the ombudsman needs to be independent, because without independence...
 
Today’s business environment changes rapidly to adjust to evolving conditions and...
 
The best internal auditors actually are really good managers first. I...
 
The recent controversy about the actions of some staff members in...
 
Most professionals don’t need more than a sentence at a cocktail...
 
Recent research by the Institute of Internal Auditors Canada aims to...
 
When is it that a politician becomes part of the governing...
 
It’s been a busy couple of weeks on the information, privacy...
 
In 1996, a new budget watchdog, the Parliamentary Budget Officer, was...
 
The Ontario government is moving forward with the creation of a...
 
The Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner of Canada (PSIC)...
 
After the Auditor General’s (AG) report was released on April 30,...
 
In the U.K. system, Permanent Secretaries are what we call Deputy...
 
We are living in a period of rapid change and limited...
 
US public sector employees don’t trust their management to do the...
 
The news of Mark Carney’s nomination as the new Governor of...
 
Following Singapore’s independence in 1965, the controversial leadership of Lee Kuan...
 
Over the past few years, the preparation and delivery of the...
 
In healthcare, cost-cutting can result in cutting what is valued most...
 
For over 20 years Colin Bennett has been exploring issues of...
 
Even before controversy shook the organization to its foundation, Ornge was...
 
It will be the largest international multi-sport event ever held on...
 
We’ve all seen the headlines – BC Ferries, Ornge, la Caisse...
 
It can happen, and it’s noteworthy when it does. Government, business...
 
Kevin Page’s mandate as the first Parliamentary Budget Officer comes to...
 
Governments are challenged to meaningfully mitigate the effects of the financial...
 
Canada is facing a huge financial challenge brought on by massive...
 
For the past one hundred years, democratic states have been moving...
 
It’s so much easier and less painful to learn from the...
 
CGE Vol.13 No.7 September 2007 "If the Public Service, as a...
 
When pondering leadership, we immediately think of exercising our influence downward...
 
CGE Vol.13 No.1 January 2007 "How can I be held accountable...
 
CGE Vol.13 No.2 February 2007 Canada’s Performance 2006 is the sixth...
 
CGE Vol.14 No.1 January 2008 The furor over the $300,000 that...
 
CGE Vol.14 No.2 February 2008 Let’s say you’re a senior manager,...
 
CGE Vol.13 No.1 January 2007 Perhaps it’s a legacy of the...
 
The Independent Blue Ribbon Panel on Grants and Contributions called for...
 
Au Canada, le secteur bénévole et à but non lucratif vit...
 
As the global economy struggles to regain some forward momentum, Canadian...
 
This will be a defining budget for Stephen Harper. It will...
 
It is difficult to determine when the debate about the need...
 
For the next few years, the federal government’s overarching agenda will...
 
Much of the current conversation about the federal government’s economic agenda...
 
Bill Greenlaw is the elected president of the Institute for Public...
 
Have you ever asked yourself the question: ‘How would I evaluate...
 
Last fall, Alberta’s Employment and Immigration department posted online the workplace...
 
In 2006 the world was feeling the aftershocks of a number...
 
CGE Vol.13 No.4 April 2007 Robert Parkins, editorial director, met recently...
 
In the past two decades, the nature of the state has...
 
Please to view this Content. (Not a member? Join Today! )...
 
Some title Some author
Some excerpt
 
Some title Some author
Some excerpt
 
Some title Some author
Some excerpt
 
Some title Some author
Some excerpt
 
Some title Some author
Some excerpt
Cybersecurity professionals have sounded the alarm for years, and they are...

Member Login

Forgot Password?

Join Us

Password Reset
Please enter your e-mail address. You will receive a new password via e-mail.