We'll call the meeting to order. This is the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics, meeting 150.
Pursuant to Standing Order 81(4), we are considering the main estimates 2019-20, vote 1 under Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying, vote 1 under the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, vote 1 under the Office of the Senate Ethics Officer and votes 1, 5, 10 and 15 under the Offices of the Information and Privacy Commissioners of Canada, referred to the committee on Thursday, April 11, 2019.
With us today we have, from the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, Mr. Mario Dion. With the commissioner, we have Sandy Tremblay, director of corporate management.
In the second hour, we're going to have the Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying. With us will be Nancy Bélanger, Commissioner of Lobbying, and Charles Dutrisac, director of finance and chief financial officer.
Mr. Dion, it's good to see you. You have 10 minutes.
Mr. Chair and honourable members of the Committee, first of all I would like to thank you for inviting me to appear before you today as the Committee considers my Office's budgetary submission for the 2019-2020 Main Estimates.
As the Chair said, with me is Sandy Tremblay, our Director of Corporate Management.
As you know, the purpose of my appearance today is to discuss the current budgetary requirements of the Office. For context, I will begin by reviewing some of the projects and activities we undertook last year, as well as some of the activities planned for this fiscal year.
I will start with our mission, because it is key; it is the basis of everything we do. The Office established a mission a little more than a year ago, and it describes what we do.
Our Office provides independent, rigorous and consistent direction and advice to Members of Parliament and federal public office holders. That is the first thing. Second, it conducts investigations. And third, where necessary, it makes use of appropriate sanctions in order to ensure full compliance with the Conflict of lnterest Code for Members of the House of Commons and the Conflict of Interest Act.
Last year, we implemented a rolling three-year strategic plan to guide our projects and activities in support of our mission. It identified three key priorities, those being to improve communications and outreach, to modernize technology and information management structures, and to maintain operational excellence. It also identified how we would achieve them.
One key priority is to build and improve communications and outreach processes to help Members and public office holders understand and meet their obligations under the Code and the Act.
Education and outreach have been a key focus of my approach as Commissioner for a year and a half now. We strive to ensure that Members and public office holders are fully aware of their obligations. As for the methods used to do that, I intend to go beyond the traditional classroom approach and instead leverage new media technology for presentations and other educational uses.
We looked at all of the educational materials that our Office has issued over the past 12 years, in fact since it was established, to explain how the rules of the Code and the Act apply. The goal was to simplify that material and make it a more effective source of information for Members and public office holders.
Last year, we revised and updated 12 of those documents, condensing their content into seven new information notices that explain various requirements of the Act. This year, we will focus on modernizing and simplifying the instruments that relate to the code governing the conduct of members.
Our new educational tools included two webinars about gifts that I hosted with my colleague the Lobbying Commissioner, who will be appearing immediately after me. We adopted a more proactive approach with our use of Twitter to communicate directly with Members and public office holders. We also produced a few short videos to provide additional channels to reach our stakeholders.
That was it on the communications and outreach side of things.
A second priority in our strategic plan was to modernize technology and information management structures. Last November we launched a new version of our case management system. All the information from our old system was migrated to the new one. Our upgraded information technology infrastructure is compatible with existing systems and allows the office to explore new technology options for delivering our mandate. We are still dealing with technical and procedural issues but I am confident that they will be resolved by the end of this fiscal year.
We're also presently working on the development of a new website that will make it a more effective source of information for members of Parliament and public office holders. It will be mobile-friendly, which is not the case now, so that it better reaches our busy stakeholders on the device platforms available today. We're planning to launch our new website before the October 2019 election.
Our third key priority identified in our strategic plan is to maintain operational excellence with a focus on our people and on the tools we have at our disposal. In my first year I took steps to ensure that our office invested in employee training and professional development, and provided the tools and equipment employees needed to perform their jobs. I also acted to ensure that we offered a respectful, diverse and inclusive workplace.
I was asked last year whether I'd be making recommendations in my annual reports to strengthen the regimes that we administer. At this time last year, with only a few months of experience, I did not feel ready to do so in the annual reports. I did express the hope last year that the committee would invite me to present my thoughts on possible amendments last fall. Otherwise, I would include something in this year's annual reports.
Indeed that is what we'll do shortly. Next month, June, the office will be tabling its two annual reports: one under the act and one under the code. We have drafted some potential amendments that would strengthen the operation of the act in the event that there is another review of the legislation, and we will include some of those key points in our annual report under the act.
Our strategic plan also provides my organization with a guiding document. It's used to align our priorities as we deliver on our mission to provide independent, rigorous and consistent direction and advice, and I will report on our achievements under the strategic plan in future annual reports to Parliament.
Investigations continues to be an area where there is a lot of interest on the part of the public and parliamentarians. We've been very active in relation to investigations. In 2018-19, we issued eight investigation reports: five under the act and three under the code. There are currently four matters that I have yet to report on, and our investigation team must balance confidentiality, integrity and procedural fairness with work that is very complex and time sensitive.
Our Office conducts its operations in support of its mission with a total of 49 full-time positions. The Advisory and Compliance Division accounts for over one-third of our staff resources. This total is reflective of their daily interactions with those individuals-over 3,000 who fall under the Act or Code. Those interactions form the majority of the work the Office undertakes in compliance, accounting for over 2,000 calls or inquiries last year.
The remainder of the Office falls into three broad categories: corporate services, which Ms. Tremblay directs, communications, directed by Ms. Rushworth, and investigations and legal services. A daily demonstration of rigour, professionalism and guidance on compliance matters is what we are aiming for.
I have complete confidence in the quality of work and the integrity of all members of my senior management team and indeed in all the Office staff.
Unless there are unexpected increases in the demands on our resources, I expect our office will be able to implement its mission in this upcoming fiscal year with a budget of $7.1 million. It represents a slight increase of 4% from the last fiscal year. The base budget has been unchanged in the 12 years of existence of the office. This is the first actual increase of 4%, and it's needed this year to enable our office to prepare for the election while continuing to ensure operational excellence.
There has traditionally been a significant increase in the workload whenever there is a general election, and we wanted to be ready and to prepare for it. Election readiness is a key focus of our activity already at this point in time. We've started to hire term employees to help with the increased workload. We're also updating letters and information kits for, potentially, new members of Parliament, for people who, in the future, will be joining offices, ministerial offices, and so on and so forth. All of these elements flow from our strategic plan and will enable the office to better serve its stakeholders in a busy election year.
As part of this planning we always have a reserve. We have $100,000 that we do not allocate in order to face, in a nimble way, important changes and what the needs would be.
I am confident that we'll be able, with this budget that is before you, to operate efficiently, effectively and also economically in carrying out our mission.
Mr. Chair, this concludes my opening statement. I'll now be happy to discuss any questions the committee may have. Thank you.
Good afternoon, Mr. Chair and members of the Committee.
I would like to start by acknowledging that we are meeting today on the traditional territory of the Algonquin nation.
I am very pleased to have the opportunity to discuss with you the Main Estimates, our accomplishments of the past year and our ongoing priorities. I am joined by Charles Dutrisac, Director of Finance and Chief Financial Officer.
It has been an extremely busy year for us. Just this week, we moved to a new location, designed as an activity-based workplace. This move was a demanding endeavour and would not have been possible without the incredible dedication of members of my team and the professional expertise of employees of Public Services and Procurement Canada and Shared Services Canada. I sincerely thank them for their commitment in ensuring the success of this project.
To mark this success, we are planning an open house in June, so you can soon expect an invitation to visit our new office.
The Lobbying Act mandates that I maintain our Registry of Lobbyists, ensure compliance with the Act and the Lobbyists' Code of Conduct and foster awareness of both the Act and the Code. To carry out this mandate, we developed last year a three-year strategic plan that included four key results areas. I will set out some of our accomplishments and current priorities for each of them.
The first key result is A Modern Lobbyists Registration system. The Registry enables transparency by giving Canadians access to information about federal lobbying activities. On any given day, there are about 5,500 active lobbyists registered. This past year, lobbyists used our system to report details of more than 27,000 communications with designated public office holders.
To make it easier and faster for lobbyists to register, we have streamlined the registration process for new registrants. In the next year, we will improve the system to make it more user- and mobile-friendly for the registrant. This will assist in information becoming public more quickly.
We will also continue to benefit from the recommendations following the evaluation of our client services. Overall, the evaluation concluded that our approach with clients is effective and contributes to increasing compliance. Some recommendations related to the Registry and outreach activities will need to be assessed.
The second key area is effective compliance and enforcement activities. I have streamlined the investigation process to address allegations of non-compliance while continuing to ensure that decisions are fair and impartial and meet the necessary procedural fairness requirements.
Allegations of non-compliance are now dealt with in two steps. First, a preliminary assessment is undertaken to evaluate the nature of the alleged contravention, to obtain initial information and determine whether the subject matter falls within my mandate. Following this assessment, and when necessary to ensure compliance with either the act or the code, an investigation is commenced. ln the last year, 21 preliminary assessments were closed, of which four led to investigations. There are currently 11 ongoing preliminary assessments.
With respect to investigations, I recently tabled a report to Parliament related to sponsored travel provided by 19 different corporations and organizations. I also suspended and referred three investigations to the RCMP, as I had reasonable grounds to believe that an offence had occurred under the act. Thirteen other investigations were ceased, and as of today there are a total of 15 investigations in our active caseload.
Finally, with respect to the five-year prohibition on lobbying, we are developing an online tool to simplify applications for exemptions by former designated public office holders.
The third area is an Enhanced Outreach and Communications for Canadians.
This past year, we provided 70 presentations to lobbyists, public office holders and other stakeholders in addition to the webinars offered in cooperation with the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner. We also updated our guidance on the rules pertaining to the code.
The priorities for this year will include updating and redesigning our website to make it easier for visitors to find information. We will also use the data on information requests that we receive to analyze needs. That will enable us to develop targeted communication products and tools .
I will continue to develop recommendations for the next statutory review of the Act to enhance the federal framework for lobbying.
Our last but certainly not least key area is an exceptional workplace. It is important to me that the employees of my office feel valued, understand the importance of their work and that they be proud of working at the Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying.
The results of the public service employee survey certainly indicate that we are in the right direction to be an employer of choice. When it comes to employee satisfaction with their workplace, the 2018 survey results placed the office among the top five of all federal departments and agencies.
We implemented and will continue to support our mental health strategy. We are also creating a career development program tailored to the reality of a small office.
The office delivers on its mandate through the invaluable work of 27 dedicated employees.
The 2019-20 main estimates for the office are about $4.8 million. With the exception of $350,000 dedicated to the relocation simply for this year, this is essentially the same amount since the creation of the previous office in 2005. Personnel costs represent about 70% of the expenditures, so $3.4 million. The remaining $1.1 million operating budget is used to acquire program support and corporate services, including HR, finance, IT and contracting services, as well as to cover miscellaneous costs. Fifty-five per cent of the $1.1 million is to obtain services from other government institutions. This approach provides access to a wide range of expertise in a cost-effective manner.
Looking ahead, I have concerns about the current budget envelope. Our fiscal reality is attempting to operate with a budget established in 2005. The amount of $4.5 million may have been sufficient at that time, but today it means there is practically no flexibility to reallocate financial resources, hire additional human resources or to make the necessary investments in systems with today's price tags.
The registry is a statutory requirement and is vital for transparency. Constant investments are required to ensure that the registry remains up to date with evolving IT standards and to enhance the accessibility of the information.
The work that is being performed by the office has also evolved in complexity, litigiousness and level of scrutiny.
I am therefore studying the cost implications and will make the necessary funding requests in the fall to ensure that we can adequately meet our mandate.
The Lobbying Act continues to be an important and relevant piece of legislation. Ultimately, it is essential to me that the work of the Office is done in such a way as to provide value-for-money to Canadians and to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our operations.
I want to end by recognizing the unwavering engagement and resolve of the employees of the Office who, more often than not, are asked to go well beyond what is required of their position. I so very much appreciate their input and support in assisting me to enhance the accessibility, transparency and accountability of the federal lobbying regime.
Mr. Chair and members of the committee, I thank you for your attention and welcome your questions.