AccountabilityManagementThe Last Word
January 15, 2013

Oversight of government spending

Over the past few years, the preparation and delivery of the federal budget has become an early spring tradition that is eagerly awaited by the media and major stakeholder groups in the country. It is one of the most anticipated events on the political calendar, the culmination of almost 12 months of analysis by Department of Finance officials and other key federal departments that have been facilitated by a steady stream of lobbying and consultations.

The primary purpose of the budget is to give citizens an overview of the state of the economy and to request from Parliament approval to impose new taxes or to modify existing ones in order to finance the government’s spending plans. While the budget speech is seen as the highlight of the budget process, the real content of the budget is contained in the detailed estimates of government expenditures and revenues for the upcoming year and a description of the “ways and means” the government plans to give effect to its plans.  

Historically, the media are mostly interested in the details surrounding revenue generation such as tax changes and are far less preoccupied with the government’s spending plans for the next fiscal year, even though in 2012 the federal government spent more than $270 billion. While the media has no obligation to examine spending, each fiscal year members of Parliament are obliged to examine the spending plans of the federal government and approve all expenditures before it can disburse funds.   

However, despite many efforts to reform the process to examine spending, most observers would acknowledge that scrutinizing annual spending is far less systematic or exhaustive than the analysis of the budget. In the view of Kevin Page, the Parliamentary Budget Officer, Parliament is only “at best giving perfunctory attention to spending” since no more than 90 hours, this past year, was devoted to the review of government spending. Recently, retired Senator Lowell Murray concluded his distinguished career as a parliamentarian by describing the process of approving government spending as an “empty ritual.”

Indeed, Professor Paul Thomas has pointed out, “there has never been a golden era when Parliament was effective in examining the spending proposals of government in any systematic, comprehensive, and in-depth manner.” In fact, all legislatures around the world grapple with this challenge.  

There are a number of problems with the current system that are undermining Parliament’s ability to be useful. First, the estimates that are submitted by the government of the day for scrutiny are misleading since the structure of the documents does not mirror actual program spending. Second, a lot of the relevant information is incomplete and there is no linkage established between spending and results. In effect, this means that the mountains of information that are dumped in the laps of busy MPs and poorly trained staff are rarely used for their intended purpose.

Parliament has looked into this problem three times over the last 30 years. Most recently, in June 2012, MP Pat Martin as Chair of the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates submitted a report entitled Strengthening Parliamentary Scrutiny of Estimates and Supply. He noted that despite many improvements introduced in 1997, no discernable progress has been evident in spending oversight. Some recommendations from the Martin report are to introduce a systematic review of individual departmental spending (every five years, for example) and to use evaluation reports and other evidence of outcomes to justify spending.

All of these recommendations are useful, but as Paul Thomas has pointed out, competitive, disciplined political parties dominate Parliament where collaboration or informed discussion is actively discouraged. As a result we need the leaders of our political parties to agree to minimize the amount of partisanship in the committees and to free the members to act in the public interest when they scrutinize the government’s spending plans. This is a lofty objective but it seems that failing to examine where tax revenues are being expended is a significant missed opportunity.

The Government Operations and Estimates Committee is the appropriate place to start a new practice of working collaboratively in examining the federal government’s spending plans. Given that the media has little interest or expertise in playing an oversight role, it falls to parliamentarians to do one of the major tasks for which they were elected.  

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

About this author

Avatar

David Zussman

David Zussman is a senior fellow in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and is a Research Advisor to the Public Sector Practice of Deloitte.

0 comments

There are no comments for this post yet.

Be the first to comment. Click here.

Accountability
 
What are the key initiatives to support government innovation and change?...
 
Buying Social. Responsible sourcing. Ethical procurement. Sustainable procurement. Whatever name you...
 
In this episode, Lori Turnbull discusses the positive side of disruption,...
 
The Annual Financial Report of the Government of Canada Fiscal Year...
 
According to a 2018 study led by Dr. Michael McGuire, Senior...
 
Imagine your favorite world class service provider replacing the Board of...
 
When Mark Zuckerberg checked out of Harvard for California’s Silicon Valley,...
 
In his article, Gaming the System, How the misuse of data impedes...
 
My observation is people often take the view, “no one else...
 
The recent 2018 Senate Report examining the Government of Canada’s Phoenix...
 
Human services agencies play a vital role in society, providing a...
 
Tornado warnings broadcast a few weeks ago in Eastern Ontario and...
 
Canada’s international reputation for welcoming and integrating newcomers is unparalleled. At...
 
A few years back, consultants with ghSMART told us the biggest...
 
On today’s show, J. Richard Jones sits down for a chat...
 
Procurement modernization has been a Government of Canada (GC) policy priority...
 
It takes a lifetime to build a reputation and just moments...
 
Over the past two decades, codes of ethical conduct have become...
 
Earlier this year the Canadian government took a crucial step by...
 
On the global scene, technology has revolutionized and automated the work...
 
Over the past decade, major Canadian procurement projects have encountered increasing...
 
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has, on many occasions, expressed his commitment...
 
In this episode, CGE radio show host J. Richard Jones speaks...
 
There is growing pressure on governments around the world to be...
 
Public servants are responsible for providing advice and support to the...
 
Today, the challenges facing governments are increasingly shifting away from traditional,...
 
Management in the Government of Canada is continuously searching for new...
 
Rankings of public sector entities has been big trend for quite...
 
Canadian Government Executive media through its upcoming TechGov event is providing the...
 
Ships docked in a harbour may not be going anywhere; however,...
 
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) in issuing its annual review of...
 
There’s no shortage of organizations claiming to have a digital transformation...
 
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...
 
July 27 was pay day some federal public workers that finally...
 
The Senate committee looking into Canada’s Syrian refugee program wants the...
 
In this episode, editor-in-chief, Patrice Dutil talks about the need for...
 
Yes, according to the former head of the Canadian Security Intelligence...
 
As much a 20 per cent of grade seven students in...
 
A Quebec superior court judge facing allegations that he helped commit...
 
In a move meant to the strengthen liability and compensation regime...
 
We often read news articles about rampant drug addiction and suicide...
 
Upon receiving numerous complaints regarding add-on fees that turn making economy...
 
Are you absolutely clear what the government wants to achieve? Are...
 
Veterans Affairs Canada is not adequately managing the drug component of...
 
Whether responding to emergencies back home or assisting regular troops abroad,...
 
Some public servants will have to request their departments for emergency...
 
A landmark Supreme Court ruling has paved the way for some...
 
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunication Commission (CRTC) yesterday heard from several...
 
At least one prime minister has resigned, another in under fire,...
 
It appears it was not just the Mounties that were affected...
 
A while back there have been numerous media reports about the...
 
Performance auditing can lead to more efficient, effective, and economical program...
 
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...
 
In recent months, the attention of Canadians has been focused on...
 
Some title Some author
Some excerpt
 
Some title Some author
Some excerpt
 
Some title Some author
Some excerpt
What are the key initiatives to support government innovation and change?...