Good morning, Mr. Chair and members of the committee.
Congratulations, Mr. Chair, for your election as chair.
I am pleased to be here today to discuss the main estimates. As you will note from my presentation, I am running a very lean operation, while delivering on my mandate.
I would also like to take the opportunity to highlight some of my accomplishments, and to outline my priorities for this fiscal year.
I am accompanied this morning by Monsieur René Leblanc, deputy commissioner.
Since my office was created, I have made my operations more effective within the restraints of my limited budget. After three and a half years, the OCL is a lean but efficient operation which allows me to be effective at delivering on my mandate as outlined in the Lobbying Act.
The annual operating budget for my office is approximately $4.6 million, including the contribution to the employee benefit plan. I employ a staff of 28.
Our funding has remained constant since the office was first established. However, due to the cost containment measures included in budget 2010, like all federal institutions, I have absorbed the growth and salary costs from collective bargaining and other increases. This has put pressure on my budget, particularly on my salary envelope.
Now let me turn to what I consider to be the core of my business for ensuring transparency: the registry of lobbyists. Currently, there are more than 5,000 registered lobbyists and information on about 3,000 active registrations. These figures have remained fairly stable since 2008. A budget of approximately $1.1 million, including salaries for six full-time staff, is dedicated to maintaining the registry, providing guidance and technical support to registrants, and responding to inquiries.
In the last few years I have focused on streamlining registration processes to make it easier for lobbyists to comply with the act. The time it takes to process a registration has been reduced from more than 20 days to three days.
New system features were also implemented to facilitate access to the information in the registry. System failures and downtime are an extremely rare occurrence, and a rigorous data assurance program has been put in place to further strengthen data integrity.
This year, my priority is to upgrade key features of the system, focusing in particular on search and reporting capabilities. This will make it easier for users interested in mining the wealth of information that exists in the Registry.
Let me now turn to outreach and education, which is a key component of my mandate. The Lobbying Act is a complex piece of legislation and the time and resources I invest in outreach is essential to fostering a culture of compliance. I allocate approximately 20% of my annual budget to public education activities, including salaries for 7 full-time staff.
Regularly, I reach out to a broad range of people, focusing especially on lobbyists and public office holders. Many of these contacts are face-to-face but, in the last year, we have renewed our presence on the web. This is the most effective and economical tool for public education.
The OCL website was redesigned to make it easier to find relevant information. Both the website and the Registry of Lobbyists were made fully compliant with the accessibility guidelines.
They are now more accessible to people with disabilities. This year, I want to build on that success. I plan to take a more strategic and long-term approach to assessing and meeting the needs of all stakeholders.
I would now like to turn to my office's compliance function.
Review and investigation activities absorb roughly 25% of my budget, including salaries for the equivalent of nine full-time employees. The number of administrative reviews I close is now keeping pace with the number I open. Since I became commissioner, I have completed a total of eight reports on investigations, five of which were tabled in Parliament in 2011-2012. More are coming. I have also referred several files to the RCMP, although no charges have been laid.
When I became commissioner on July 2, 2008, I inherited an inventory of 40 administrative review files and six investigation files. Thirteen of the original 40 administrative reviews remain in my caseload and all six investigations have been dealt with. Since becoming commissioner, I have initiated 79 administrative review files and completed 78.
In the coming year, I plan to improve my office’s approach to case management and further refine the way investigative work is prioritized. I have made progress on this front, but more can be done.
With respect to internal services, I have no choice but to acquire the majority of the expertise from other organizations. The service arrangements I have put in place are working well. They provide me with the broad range of expertise I need to meet my accountabilities as deputy head and they are cost effective.
Since I became commissioner, I have focused on ensuring that I provide value for money. Setting up effective corporate functions takes time. The first internal audit in my office's history was completed this March, covering the key internal controls over financial reporting. Planning is now under way to establish a program evaluation function and an audit of the lobbyist registration system is planned for this year.
These activities are critical to my ability to offer further evidence of both the effectiveness of our programs and the adequacy of my internal operations. They will also help me identify where further efficiencies can be made.
In July 2011, agents of Parliament were encouraged to adhere to the spirit and intent of the government's strategic and operating review exercise. Like the rest of my colleagues, I committed to undertake a review of my office's operations and present the results to this committee, and that has been done. In view of the exceptional situation, but also in the spirit of good management, I undertook a review of my office.
In my letter of last December to the Speaker of the House and copied to the President of the Treasury Board, I indicated that I was operating a lean and efficient operation, and that I did not have any money to give up. I nevertheless proposed that if the government decided to reduce my budget by 5%, I would absorb this budget reduction by deferring the development of new technology features in the registry of lobbyists. This proposal was accepted and announced in the last budget, and will take effect in April 2013.
Registered lobbyists may not be pleased about my deferring improvements on some aspects of the system. However, in my opinion this is the least risky approach to avoid compromising the system's integrity. I want to ensure that critical work gets done in order for lobbyists to comply with the act and Canadians to know who is lobbying the federal government.
In order to reduce the cost of maintaining the lobbyist registration system, I indicated that I would explore the possibility of hiring assistant specialists to reduce the current dependency on consultants. Essential maintenance work will continue to be performed on the registration system to ensure that downtime and system failure are kept to a minimum.
The strategic and operating review experience clearly indicated that I'm running a very lean and efficient operation. In order to ensure that I can operate within my budget allocation, I will continue to re-evaluate the demands being placed on my organization and make difficult decisions, as required, to ensure that I can deliver on my mandate as Commissioner of Lobbying and head of this organization.
Mr. Chair, this concludes my remarks. I look forward to answering any questions you and the committee members may have.
Of course, in our review of the Lobbying Act we recognized that the vast majority of lobbyists are working within the rules and that some who may not be aware fully of the rules are not necessarily out to.... You could assist them.
But there are people for whom it would be in their interest. For example, there's Bruce Carson, who was pitching a project worth $250 million. So if you got 10%, that's $25 million, and the only penalty you would face was having to write an essay. It would be worth his while to fly beneath the radar.
I mention Mr. Carson because he was able to secure three meetings between the company he was representing and officials at Aboriginal Affairs, and it also appears that this company was given the inside track on funding dollars before any other company was made aware.
Given the fact that people like him will be flying under the radar because of the financial interest and the payoff, do you think there's a responsibility on designated public office holders like, for example, Minister John Duncan, to say which kind of meetings are being set up so we know that if, on the one hand, Conservative Party insiders are undermining the system, there's at least a way to catch these guys?
Commissioner Shepherd and Mr. Leblanc, thank you for joining us today. As always, it is a pleasure to have you here with us.
I would just like to start with a short preamble. Today, we are looking at the main estimates, and what concerns your organization is the issue of lobbyists' registration. There has actually been an increase from last year. There has been an increase in education, research and internal services. However, this little document, as interesting as it may be, does not really say much. But this other document is trying to say something.
Actually, we are surprised when we look at the overall situation of your offices and people who are there to check whether the work is done properly and with honesty. For example, over the next three years, cuts are anticipated for the Auditor General of Canada, Elections Canada, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, the Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner and the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada. There are also cuts affecting the Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying. Those cuts are not huge, but it is still money that you have to come up with over the next three years. In fact, $200,000 from a budget of just over $4 million is still substantial.
Could you tell me what impact the Conservative government's budget choices will have on your ability to do your work properly?
So this brings us to the end of the last round of five-minute questions.
We will now continue with the vote on vote 45. I would first like to say that we have heard from the last commissioner today.
We still have to pass vote 20 under Parliament. This vote has to do with the Senate ethics officer. Over the past few years, he has not once appeared before the committee to give testimony. In addition, the mandate of the Senate ethics officer is coming to an end. The new officer has not been appointed yet.
If you don't have any questions about this vote, we can pass it at the same time as vote 45.
Any questions on vote 20?
||Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying
||Vote 45—Program expenditures..........$4,193,000
||Vote 20—Program expenditures..........$702,000
Shall vote 45 under Treasury Board and vote 20 under Parliament carry?
(Vote 45 agreed to on division)
(Vote 20 agreed to on division)
The Chair: Shall I report the votes on the main estimates to the House?
Some hon. members: Agreed.
The Chair: Perfect.
We are now going to proceed with what was scheduled from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. under committee business.
Mr. Boulerice, would you like to move your motion?