Preserving independence: The fight for financial information – Canadian Government Executive

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September 3, 2012

Preserving independence: The fight for financial information

Kevin Page’s mandate as the first Parliamentary Budget Officer comes to an end in six months. During his tenure there has been much debate about the role of this new independent watchdog. He discussed the nature of independence and the Parliamentary Budget Office with editor-in-chief Toby Fyfe.

Based on your experience, you have suggested we need to think of two types of independence when discussing arm’s length arrangements like the PBO. Can you elaborate?

One type of independence is how we do our work. We want our primary clients, Parliamentarians, to know that our work has not been tainted or politicized through the government, the bureaucracy or the Official Opposition. So when we cost wars or fighter planes, or provide fiscal projections, they know that this is our work and they hold us accountable for its quality. It’s really not much different from the kind of independence we want the Auditor General or the Bank of Canada to have. We want to know they are not being politically or even bureaucratically interfered with in delivering their core mandates.

The other aspect of independence is the link between the delivery of this mandate and the accountability for resources. In our case, we got out of the gates poorly because our legislation situated us within the Library of Parliament. There was a lot of difficult discussion early on as to whether this would lessen our ability to deliver products, whether we would have to adopt the Library’s business model, whether we could have a website or whether we could control our human resources plan.
 
And that is important because administrative tools have an impact on our ability to deliver our goods, which I am responsible for. They can be levers which prevent you from delivering on your mandate. I think that link is broken in our case. So we’re hoping for legislative reform.

Recently you threatened to take the government to court for refusing to release information on departmental budget cuts. Is that part of the independence issue or simply a case of the government not wanting to release information?

It is related to independence. We work for all Parliamentarians, including members of the government, and they have fiduciary responsibilities around budget and appropriations bills. We want to make sure they have financial information when they vote on these authorities.

In Budget 2012, the major measure was a restraint package. It was significant, freezing operational and direct program spending for five years. Our view was that if it was a major measure, and since Parliamentarians will start approving appropriations department by department this year, then we needed to have data in front of them: what program activities are going to be implicated; what public servants are going to be affected; how are you going to maintain service levels? We cannot help Parliamentarians hold government to account if the government says, “We do not have a plan,” because without one they are not providing the baseline by which Parliamentarians can hold it accountable.

Is this ongoing struggle of PBO independence a matter of whether the legislation is weak or whether the government got cold feet after creating it?

It’s been a mixed bag of experience over four years. There have been times when we did get information quickly like the G8-G20 summit, when we were asked to provide a costing of security. And then there have been other types of inquiries where we have really struggled: we didn’t get much information on crime and limited and late information on the F-35.

If it’s in the interests of the government and accountability officers to give us information, it comes quickly. If it’s not in their interest, meaning it can be used in the accountability context to make their lives difficult, the information comes slowly if at all.

There are two issues. The first is, do our access-to-information provisions need to be strengthened and second, do we have a culture in place that supports openness? On the culture side, I knew in the beginning it would take time to build the trust with this new institution. It’s going to take years, maybe two mandates of this office, to show people it does quality work, not political work. In terms of the access provisions, I think if you have a culture of openness, of open government, and a culture that respects Parliament and the traditions of the Westminster system, I think a lot of this goes away.

You’ve said that “one of the key principles underlying responsible parliamentary government is that the House of Commons holds the ‘power of the purse’.” One could argue that the ability of the House to scrutinize appropriations and supply has been dwindling for a long time: are you trying to turn back the clock?

I think we have to turn back the clock. I think we have to ask ourselves, did we design a system to prevent Parliamentarians from doing their role? We constructed information documents that are mostly communication documents so they can’t hold us to account. As non-partisan public servants – and I was one for 25 years – we should have been providing information to Parliament when they asked for it and we did not do that. We basically took them out of the game.

So the question is: do we want to put them back in the game and what’s in it for the government, for Parliament, for Canadians, to have MPs given back this fiduciary responsibility? The best way to undermine Parliament is to starve it of information. We pretend we give them volumes of documents, but if they’re not useful, if they can’t be used in the accountability context, then we’re just pretending.

While you say the PBO’s role is to increase parliamentary accountability, Donald Savoie would argue that extra-parliamentary organizations such as yours and agents of Parliament undermine it.

I can’t speak for the other agents of Parliament but I could never imagine a parliamentarian doing this kind of work. Whatever work we do, there are models and assumptions. For me, to think a finance critic is going to have access to resources that can do this kind of model-based work, I don’t understand that. So the question is asked: are we usurping the role of Parliament? They need financial information, and if they don’t get it from the public service they need to get it from somewhere else.

You were the first PBO and you set up the office. What would you do differently? Any regrets?

I wouldn’t say regrets per se. The experience has been difficult but positive. Change is disruptive. We got letters from the Speaker in the first year saying, we don’t agree with your business model; I think they misinterpreted how we interpreted independence. That part has been a big struggle and if there had been a way where we could have said, here’s what a legislative budget office does, here’s why you need to be independent, here’s why you need to be completely transparent, if we could have had that discussion more when the Accountability Act was being discussed, say from experts from other countries or the OECD, I think it would have helped and smoothed the transition.

I don’t think this office will survive under the current legislation. This position is effectively chosen by the prime minister yet people see it as a watchdog; most people would say that doesn’t make sense, Parliament should play a role in the appointment of this person. I think the idea that we report through another office, that’s also a disconnect. We’ve had four and a half  years, and now people can ask if they want to h

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