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Feds’ proposals on PBO, chief statistician roles ‘positive,’ but more details needed, say experts

The Liberal government has not yet indicated specific timing for when legislation to increase the independence of the PBO or the chief statistician will come forward.

Former parliamentary budget officer, Kevin Page, and former chief statistician, Wayne Smith, weigh in on the Liberal government's proposals to make the PBO and Statistics Canada more independent, as explained to date. The Hill Times photographs by Jake Wright

By LAURA RYCKEWAERT

PUBLISHED : Monday, Nov. 14, 2016 12:00 AM

The Liberal government’s proposed changes to make the parliamentary budget officer and chief statistician more independent are important, “positive” steps, say experts, but the “devil is in the details,” and timing for legislation remains unknown.

“This is something that we have been advocating [for] since day one in fact,” said Assistant Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) Mostafa Askari, who’s been with the office since it launched in 2008.

Having the PBO under the larger umbrella of the Library of Parliament “creates tensions,” he said, and the proposal to make it an independent officer of Parliament, among other things, will “enhance” the office’s power and is a “positive step.”

“[Currently] on admin issues like hiring and HR and finances issues, we have to rely on the decisions and the policies of the Library, and in the beginning, specifically in the first few years, you had a lot of problems with the head of the Library at the time. It took us a long time to get approval for staffing of senior people and those kinds of things can create problems,” said Mr. Askari.

  

Former parliamentary budget officer, Kevin Page, now at the University of Ottawa, said the changes would “strengthen” the office, and similarly recalled running into many “back offices issues” when it was being set-up.

“’Why do you need to hire these people?’ ‘Why do you need your own website?’ ‘Why do you want to enter into a contract with this firm?’ In some cases they could be used as obstacles that could prevent you from doing your job,” he recalled.

“We had some difficult early years in terms of working with Parliament, working with bureaucracy, putting out products that maybe people hadn’t seen before.”

Originally promised in the Liberal 2015 election platform, the recent fall economic update, tabled Nov. 1, has provided a bit more detail on the government’s plans to change and strengthen both the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer and the chief statistician.

  

These changes include making the PBO an independent, “properly funded” officer of Parliament, with appointment based on merit, subject to Parliament’s approval, and only removable “for cause,” as described in the economic update. The PBO would be granted greater access to “relevant” information from departments and Crown corporations, “balanced against necessary restrictions, such as protection of privacy, commercially sensitive information and issues of national security.” As well, the PBO’s new mandate would include the costing of party platform proposals at the request of parties.

Meanwhile, the chief statistician’s decision-making authority over the statistical methodology, production and release of statistics would be legislated, according to the government’s proposal, and transparency around government decisions and directives to Statistics Canada would be increased. The National Statistics Council would be replaced with a new Canadian Statistics Advisory Council, and the chief statistician would be appointed on a fixed, five-year renewable term, based on merit, and only removable “for cause.”

In response to questions from The Hill Times, Government House Leader Bardish Chagger (Waterloo, Ont.) said legislative proposals to amend the Parliament of Canada Act to change “the mandate and structure of the PBO to enhance its independence,” will be “put forth in due course.”

Similarly, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains’ (Mississauga-Malton, Ont.) office indicated that there is not yet a date for presenting legislation to make changes related to the role of the chief statistician at Statistics Canada, for which Mr. Bains is responsible.

  

Unanswered questions

Strengthening the PBO is a “very positive” step, said Mr. Page, but the “high-level language” of the fall update leaves questions over just how the PBO’s mandate will be adjusted, including whether it will still be asked to provide independent analysis on the economy and fiscal forecasting, which wasn’t mentioned.

“That’s a very important area. It’s good for Parliament, it’s good for Canadians to have additional data points on where the economy is going,” said Mr. Page, adding he’s hoping it “won’t be an omission in the legislation.”

Accessing government data is something the PBO has long struggled with, even taking the matter to Federal Court in an effort to get access to government spending figures. Mr. Askari said the wording around increasing the PBO’s access to information would be “extremely important,” as right now it’s “very broad and very sort of weak and soft.”

Mr. Askari said information needed to properly do costing, for example, often goes beyond just financial information, like a statement of requirements for procurement projects, like with the F-35s. As well, the PBO is denied information to detailed tax information via the Income Tax Act, he said, limiting the office’s ability to do tax cut analyses.

“There has to be consequential amendments to various acts, including [the] Income Tax Act, that would provide an exception for PBO to have, for example, the AG [Auditor General] has that exception,” he said, noting the PBO can “maintain the confidentiality of the data” while doing its work.

Making the PBO’s appointment merit based and only removable for cause—rather than serving at the pleasure of the government—are also important changes, said Mr. Page, and will help Parliament find new PBOs in the future. When the office was first being set up, following legislation from the previous Conservative government passed in 2006, “nobody wanted to do the job,” said Mr. Page, who was working in the Privy Council Office at the time. It took until 2008 to get the office running.

“Nobody [was showing up] for the interview … they just saw at the time that the office was set up to fail,” he said, leading him to be “strongly encouraged” to step forward.

“If you’re putting out reports with very different numbers, and this could affect the trust or confidence in the government potentially … you could easily be dismissed,” he said, adding he took the job because he saw an “opportunity to build something” and was already at the end of his public service career after almost three decades.

PBO will need additional resources

Mr. Page stressed that additional resources will need to be provided to the PBO, not only if it’s made an independent officer of Parliament, but also if its mandate is going to be expanded to tackle the costing of party platforms. Doing so won’t be easy and will “be a challenge to set that up and deliver quality work that protects the independence of the office,” he said.

“When we get to the budget, when we get to legislation, we’ll see,” said Mr. Page, adding that based on the fact that the Liberal campaign commitments have been reiterated in the fall update, he expects “we’ll see [legislation] sooner rather than later.”

Adding the costing of party platforms to the PBO’s mandate is a proposal that’s caused much concern.

Mr. Askari said that how the process is organized will be important, with clear objectives needed, as it risks the PBO being accused of partisanship—and it’ll require a “lot of manpower,” and access to information that’s currently out of reach, in order to accomplish.

In September, Wayne Smith resigned as chief statistician, charging that Statistics Canada’s independence has been “compromised” since the previous Conservative government’s decision to centralize all information technology services under Shared Services Canada. Despite efforts to “convince” the Liberals to amend the situation, he said in a note to staff that he had “not succeeded.”

Speaking with The Hill Times last week, Mr. Smith said the proposed changes are looking “positive,” though perhaps not “world class,” and he’s “anxious” to see legislation.

“Until we see the legislation, we can’t be absolutely sure, weasel words might be snuck in,” he said.

“Statistics Canada has to have the ability, if Shared Services Canada either refuses, or is unable to, or cannot provide the services at a reasonable price, Statistics Canada should have an alternative power to provide the service to itself or to go to some other party,” said Mr. Smith. It’s an effective veto over Statistics Canada’s work that isn’t addressed in the proposed changes as described so far.

“You can say that the chief statistician is responsible for the methods and the collection and the operations and the dissemination of the data, but if the chief statistician can’t control the informatics infrastructure, they don’t really control those things,” said Mr. Smith. “That needs to be resolved in a clear and unambiguous way.”

Since leaving, he said he’s heard Statistics Canada has gotten a “lot more attention from Shared Services,” and “some of the more immediate issues are being dealt with.”

But, he added, “the fundamental governance issue is still there.”

Having directives and decisions made public would help “protect the chief statistician from inappropriate interventions,” said Mr. Smith, and “ideally” legislation will require such things to be disclosed before Parliament.

The law also needs to be “modernized,” such as allowing researchers “more access to confidential data in secure environments,” and making it “the obligation of business to provide access” to data “clearer”—as well as legislating the protection of the national census from government intervention.

Mr. Smith also said more detail is needed on how “merit” for appointments will be defined, and on what the role of the new advisory council will be and whom it will report to, considering that depending on how it’s arranged, it could “potentially be a back door for inappropriate influence.”

Overall, he said the changes proposed are “more encouraging than [he] would have expected when [he] resigned,” and if outlined in legislation as proposed, it “would be [an] unambiguous improvement in terms of Canada’s national statistical system and chief statistician,” and the office would be “better protected in the past.”

Devil in the details

“My sense is a good part of it is not going to be there [in legislation]… But having said that, progress is progress,” said Mr. Smith.

Conservative MP Alex Nuttall (Barrie-Springwater-Oro-Medonte, Ont.) said the proposals appear “positive,” but the “devil is always in the details,” and he’s waiting to see what’s laid out in the actual legislation before making a final decision.

Meanwhile, Conservative MP Dan Albas (Central Okanagan-Similkameen-Nicola, B.C.) said he’s “concerned” over the proposal to have the PBO do the costing of party platforms. As well, he said increasing access to information for the PBO comes down to a government’s willingness.

“If a government doesn’t want to disclose these things, they have ways of getting around it. So I’d like to see the government act, rather than having to have the media find these things out, I’d like to see a better relationship with parliamentarians,” he said. “The PBO is not the opposition and it is designed there to put information out for everyone.”

While he wants to see details, Mr. Albas said he has no indication of timing for legislation for either changes—to the PBO or Statistics Canada—and said he thinks they were only noted in the fall update “as a little sweetener” to some of the bad news in it.

NDP MP Guy Caron (Rimouski-Neigette-Témiscouata-Les Basques, Que.) said the NDP has long fought for independence for the PBO, and noted more resources will also be needed. But with a year passed since the Liberals stepped into government, he said he doesn’t see why it’s taken so long for a bill to come forward.

“In the meantime the chief statistician actually resigned over a lack of transparency and a lack of independence,” he said.

lryckewaert@hilltimes.com
The Hill Times