Mr. Chair and honourable members of the committee, I thank you for inviting me to appear before you today as the committee considers my office's budgetary submission for the 2017-18 Main Estimates.
As you mentioned, I am accompanied today by Sandy Tremblay, Director of Corporate Management.
I will begin by briefly describing how I have organized my office and its operations to support my mandate of administering the Conflict of Interest Act, which applies to some 2,250 public office holders, and the Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons.
I will next review our historical budgetary requirements, with reference to some of our activities in the past year, and to the internal management framework that I have put in place to ensure the effective, efficient and economical use of public resources.
Against this background, I will then discuss our current budgetary requirements.
My office conducts a range of activities in support of my administration of the act and the members' code. I've organized it into five divisions.
We provide confidential advice to members and public office holders, review their confidential reports, maintain internal records of that information, and administer a system of public disclosure. These activities are handled by the advisory and compliance division. It's our largest division, reflecting my primary goal of helping members and public office holders to meet their obligations through education and guidance.
In 2016-2017, beyond the initial compliance processes for the 315 new reporting public holders and some 200 members of the House of Commons, advisors in my office had almost 2,400 communications with members and public office holders.
We also undertake education and outreach and conduct public communications and media relations. These activities are conducted by the communications, outreach, and planning division, which also contributes to policy development, compiles research, and coordinates my office's interactions with Parliament and external organizations.
Although prevention is the major focus of my office, we also investigate possible contraventions of the act and the members' code. The investigations division has responsibility in this area. The legal services division also makes a critical contribution to examinations and inquiries, as well as providing strategic legal advice on all facets of my office's work.
Since I last appeared before you, I have released four examination reports. Two examinations and one inquiry are ongoing, and one examination is suspended. We dealt with 45 case files in the past fiscal year and had no remaining case assessments to complete at the end of the year.
Another activity area relates to the administrative structures, processes, and services required for the organization to operate. The corporate management division oversees the development and implementation of internal management policies and the delivery of services and advice on human resources, finance, information technology, information management, and the management of office facilities. It also administers service agreements with external partners.
General administrative and logistical support for all these activities is provided by my own small team in the commissioner's office. My office has a total of 50 indeterminate positions, two of which are currently vacant. Last year I reduced my already-small management team by one position, and it now includes just four senior managers. As well, two new positions were added to the office to enable us to fulfill compensation and financial managements function internally.
Services in these areas were previously provided by Public Services and Procurement Canada and by the Library of Parliament under service agreements. We continued to contract with the House of Commons for information management and information technology services. We outsource other services to reduce costs where appropriate, such as classification, commissionaire services, the employee and family assistance program, and auditing.
As an officer of the House of Commons, my independence from the government of the day is assured in several ways, including my status as a separate employer. As an entity of Parliament, my office is not generally subject to legislation governing the administration of the public service or to Treasury Board policies and guidelines. I have, however, taken steps to ensure that we respect the principles followed in the public service and in Parliament to the greatest extent possible in staffing matters and other aspects of resource management.
In the past fiscal year, in addition to building our in-house compensation and financial management capacity, my office strengthened its internal management framework through a variety of measures. For example, we took steps to improve the way we organize and manage electronic records, implemented a more comprehensive security program, and purchased a video conferencing system that would enable us to conduct interviews remotely during examinations and inquiries.
We also entered into a new agreement with the Canada School of Public Service that gives our employees access to a wide range of learning opportunities.
When we were required to start using new content management software for our intranet site, we took the opportunity to reorganize and expand this key internal communications tool.
This fiscal year, while continuing the day-to-day work of administering the act and the members' code efficiently and effectively, we will build on recent initiatives in a variety of activity areas. This includes a major upgrade of our case management system and the replacement of our human resources and finance systems.
My office, which was created in July 2007, maintained an annual operating budget of $7.1 million in its first five years of operation, with no increases. In years six and seven, I was able to offer small overall budget reductions. In each of the past two years, I sought and received a slight upward adjustment in order to cover an increase in contributions to the employee benefit plans, as determined by the Treasury Board. In 2016-17, my office was allocated an operating budget of $6.97 million.
Even accounting for these variations, every year we have returned some surplus funds to the federal Treasury. Our estimated surplus for 2016-17 is in the order of $600,000. I have always maintained a reserve to allow my office to respond to exceptional circumstances that could significantly impact our workload. The reserve is also intended to provide for IT projects associated, for example, with the office website, our client management database, the public registry, and our intranet.
This year, I am seeking a budget of $6.9 million. This amount is slightly down from the $6.97 million that my office received last year. The decrease results from lower employee benefit plan contributions. The employer contribution was reduced from 16.8% to 15.7% in accordance with the percentage set by the Treasury Board. I have budgeted for a reserve of $400,000 in 2017-18, the same as last year.
Given the nature of my mandate, salaries remain by far our largest budgetary expenditure. Non-salary expenditures are mostly related to the standard costs of running an office and the costs of outsourced services.
I thank the committee again for inviting me to discuss the budgetary requirements of my office, and I direct its attention to the availability of detailed financial and other information on my office's website and in my annual reports.
This concludes my opening statement. I will be pleased to answer your questions.
Good afternoon, Mr. Chair and committee members.
I'm pleased to be here today to discuss the main estimates and outline the priorities for the coming fiscal year. I'm joined by Charles Dutrisac, director of finance and acting chief financial officer.
My mandate has three components. The first is to maintain a registry of lobbyists. The second is to develop and implement educational programs to foster awareness of the Lobbying Act. The third is to ensure compliance with the act and the Lobbyists’ Code of Conduct.
Overall, the 2017-18 main estimates for my office provide for about $4.4 million, which is essentially the same amount as last year. I have a complement of 28 full-time employees, and salaries continue to represent about two-thirds of my expenditures.
As I have previously said before this committee, I run a lean but effective organization. In past years I was able to streamline operations without compromising the effectiveness of my office and my ability to deliver on my mandate.
Some of the accomplishments I want to highlight for last year include an increased number of new registrations in the registry. This is partly the result of the Office of the Commissioner's outreach and education activities over the years. There are more registrations, and the registrations are disclosed on time.
Another achievement I am proud of is my office’s entry onto social media platforms. Using YouTube, Twitter, and LinkedIn is valuable for reaching out to more people.
Finally, three individuals were convicted in court this year of offences under the Lobbying Act, demonstrating that there are significant consequences to breaching the act. This brings the total to four individuals convicted under the Lobbying Act.
Looking to 2017-18, I am pleased to share our plans for this fiscal year. My focus continues to be on initiatives that offer value for money to Canadians and on improving the efficiency of our operations. I have chosen to expand the use of technology to improve services and enhance transparency in a cost-effective manner.
The first program I want to talk about is the registry of lobbyists. The registry is the primary source of information on who is lobbying federal public office holders and the topics addressed. A team develops and maintains the online registry. A dedicated team also provides guidance and advice to support registrants. I've allocated seven full-time employees and about one million dollars to this program.
One of the priorities this year is to improve the accessibility and usability of the registry of lobbyists and my website. This year we will lay the groundwork to make both work better on cell phones and tablets. Part of the website renewal includes a content review and incorporating more plain language into the site. New features will be added to the registry, including better search functions.
Reaching out to lobbyists, public office holders, and other stakeholders to educate them about the requirements of the Lobbying Act and the Lobbyists' Code of Conduct is an important component of the work conducted by my office. I believe individuals are more apt to comply with the act and the code when they understand their obligations. As public officer holders are the targets of lobbying, the program also provides outreach to them to ensure that they are aware of the lobbying regime and their obligations.
My staff and I conduct a wide range of outreach and education activities, including group presentations, individual meetings, and webinars for new registrants. These online presentations are a cost-effective method to reach people, particularly when they are located outside of Ottawa.
I also publish interpretation bulletins on the act and guidance on the code on my website in order to provide clarification to stakeholders. I continue to look for ways to make outreach and education activities more effective. The evaluation of my outreach and education program is under way and should be completed by the summer. This evaluation may offer new ideas and avenues for improvement.
One tool that I improved is the website. As I mentioned earlier, I'm laying the ground work to update and renew our website, incorporate more plain language, improve the accessibility and usability of the site, and incite greater compliance.
A budget of about $900,000, including salaries for seven full-time equivalent employees, has been allocated to the outreach and education program.
The third component of my mandate is to ensure compliance with the Lobbying Act and the Lobbyists’ Code of Conduct. My team conducts administrative reviews and investigations into suspected or alleged breaches of the act or the code. Suspected breaches may be identified internally through the review of media reports and other public sources of information. Allegations may also come from complaints I receive from external sources.
I take all allegations seriously and will initiate an administrative review to find out more about suspected breaches. When an allegation is founded, I decide on the appropriate compliance measure, including whether a formal investigation is necessary. Since becoming commissioner, I have initiated 173 administration reviews, have tabled 10 reports on investigation in Parliament, and have referred 14 cases to the RCMP.
My office also reviews requests for exemptions from the five-year post-employment prohibition on lobbying. I grant exemptions when doing so would not be contrary to the purposes of the act. Since the coming into force of the act in 2008, my office has completed 79 exemption reviews, and I have granted 38.
My investigations directorate continues to leverage technology to improve compliance monitoring and verification activities. This coming year, we will roll out a new automated system to verify the accuracy of monthly communications reports. Designated public office holders will be able to review selected monthly communication reports quickly by confirming their accuracy directly in a web browser.
A budget of about $1.1 million, including salaries for eight full-time employees, has been allocated to manage the compliance and enforcement program.
Finally, a range of internal services support the programs I've just described and enable me to meet my corporate obligations.
A budget of about $1.4 million has been allocated to internal services. This amount includes the salaries for six full-time employees. It also covers the cost of agreements I have with other organizations to provide services, such as staffing and other human resource services, financial management, and support for the information technology infrastructure.
Approximately two-thirds of the operating budget allocated to internal services is spent to acquire services from other government institutions. This approach has been adopted by most small organizations, because it provides access to a broad set of expertise in a cost-effective and timely manner. It also allows me to meet my accountabilities as deputy head under the Financial Administration Act.
In 2017-18 my office will continue to strengthen its management accountability framework. My office will also continue to collaborate with counterparts and other agents of Parliament.
In 2016 the office expanded its service agreement with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner with respect to hosting IT services. The office will implement its IM/IT strategy to streamline internal operations and procedures and support more efficient and effective delivery of my mandate. This will help to establish a strategy to improve business intelligence opportunities and support reviews and investigations through a better integration of the case management system with other office activities and applications.
I would like to conclude my remarks by confirming that I am able to meet the demands of my mandate with my current funding. I do this by making the appropriate trade-offs to deliver on my mandate effectively and efficiently.
This may become more difficult to do in the near future. Over the years there are fewer discretionary funds available. Increased pressures, such as demands by government departments to contribute to central services, the relocation of the office scheduled for 2019, or changes to the act following a legislative review could impact my office's ability to deliver on its mandate.
My seven-year term ended in June 2016, but I've been commissioner for almost nine years. My appointment has been extended twice, until June 2017, to allow for the selection of a new commissioner.
I am proud of all that I have accomplished. I have built a strong team of professionals that is committed to upholding the Lobbying Act. My accomplishments have only been possible thanks to their dedication and professionalism.
Mr. Chair, I welcome any questions you or the committee members may have.
Both British Columbia and Alberta have the ability to issue administrative monetary penalties. I think when you're looking at administrative monetary penalties, it's more about trying to correct behaviours than about penalizing things. That's when you get into the courts.
It's about the commissioner having the ability to look at something such as late filings. When you look at transparency and the impacts of late filings, whether or not something is put online on time, those are not things that would warrant going to the RCMP, which is why I introduced the education and monitoring. We do follow up after a year and monitor those individuals who were subject to education and monitoring. If someone were continuously to be a repeat late filer and have a number of monthly communications that were late, I still wouldn't see that as something the RCMP would probably go after, because at the end of the day, transparency would have been achieved, and registrations would be up on the website.
We're looking at having a stronger regime and having the commissioner be able to say there is a penalty here if you continue to be late. I would see continuing to use a lot of the messages we do now and looking at each case, determining the merits and deciding whether the appropriate measure is just to educate and monitor.
I've also seen that the City of Ottawa now uses what it calls compliance agreements, in which, as I understand it, both parties agree that there's been a breach and that they will endeavour not to do it again. The commissioner agrees that they will not proceed further. There's a signed agreement.
Elections Canada, I believe, uses something as well.
That's another avenue. When the act is coming up for review, I think those are examples of how the act could be strengthened on that side to help the commissioner have a better continuum of tools.
We're over five minutes, Mr. Dubourg.
We've gone a bit beyond the committee's sitting time, but we wanted to make sure that we got in the full rounds of questions.
Madam Commissioner, thank you very much. I'm sure this is going to be the last time you appear before this committee in your official capacity, much like the Ethics Commissioner, who was here before you.
I want to wish you all the best and thank you for your years of service. As I said to her, I'll say to you: it's not easy to be in the crucible of Ottawa in a high-profile position. You and your office have conducted yourselves in an admirable way.
Ms. Karen Shepherd: Thank you.
The Chair: We thank you for your years of service and wish you the best. We know that we can call upon you in the future and allow you much freer range, shall we say, to discuss some of the things that you'd like to discuss as you continue to guide future parliaments as we improve ourselves on a continual basis.
Thank you very much.
Colleagues, we'll see all of you on Thursday.
The meeting is adjourned.