All right. Thank you very much.
Second, the minister has agreed that we can go directly into questions if we have concurrence from this committee. Do committee members agree that the minister's speaking notes be taken as read and appended to the evidence of today's meetings?
Some hon. members: Agreed.
The Chair: We are agreed.
[See Appendix—Remarks by the Honourable Carla Qualtrough, Minister of Public Services and Procurement]
The Chair: That gives us approximately 40 minutes then, colleagues. If we were to go to the regular rounds of seven and five minutes, we would not be able to get all the questions in. Would we agree to have five-minute questions for everyone? That would allow more committee members to ask questions.
Some hon. members: Agreed.
The Chair: That said and the agreement being in hand, we would ask the government side, starting with Madam Mendès, to start our five-minute rounds of questions.
Thank you for the question and, of course, thanks for having me and our officials here to answer your questions. We will of course endeavour, as always, to give you the best and most considered answers we can.
I'm pleased to say that we continue to make progress on the Phoenix file. We have decreased the backlog by about 209,000 cases since January 2018, which represents about a third—a 33% reduction—of the backlog in that time period. We've increased the number of people working at the pay centre and in our regional offices to around 1,500 employees, plus an additional 200 employees working in the client contact centre.
We now have, as of last Friday, transitioned all client departments serviced by the pay centre to the pay pod model. I was in Moncton for the last transition, where it was quite a significant accomplishment for our public servants. I'm pleased to announce that the early pods, pod zero and pod one, are at a 48% reduction in their respective client departments. We are seeing results—of course, as I've said many times to this committee, not as quickly as we would like.
I would say that client and customer morale is up. Certainly, public servant morale is up. I felt that first-hand last Friday in Moncton.
Overall, we are seeing a steady decline. We are cleaning up files. The pay pod model is definitely proving to have been the special sauce, if you will, in taming this dragon.
Sure. Thank you, Minister and Mr. Chair.
In terms of the deadline being missed, the member raised the issue that the 30-day deadline was missed. He's quite right. The department has a window where it can ask for an extension and we missed that window, so the opportunity for an extension was lost. The 30 days was not respected.
The reason we missed the window is that we discovered, in the 200-and-some pages of documentation, which I'll come back to, that some of it does belong to another department. That means we have to consult with the other department, and that's a perfectly legitimate reason for an extension, but we missed the window.
Of the 200 pages, a lot of it is various headlines, news media, and not what I would call real information or new information inside the department.
What is going to happen in the next couple of days? We will release the information that is PSPC-specific and then for the information that is an exchange between ourselves and our colleagues at National Defence, as they have a role here, we'll get their consultation, and that will come later.
That's an update on that issue, Mr. Chair.
Thanks to everybody for being here.
As a national capital region member of Parliament, I too have been getting a lot of calls with regard to Phoenix. I think it's important to remember the fact that it wasn't you, Minister, who issued the contract for IBM; it was these guys over there, and one of the members was sitting at the cabinet table.
I think it's important to remind Canadians that, yes, we have to deal with IBM, but when you buy a Mazda, you have to go to the Mazda dealer; you don't go to Ford to get it fixed, and I think we're stuck having to deal with IBM, despite the warnings that they were given at the time. I just think it's important to remind those who are suffering under Phoenix about the facts at hand.
Minister, many of my constituents are government workers who commute to Ottawa or Gatineau. My riding runs along the entire Ottawa River, so some of them live in Rockland, Cumberland, Russell or even Embrun, and traffic is a serious concern for many public servants. A lot of people want to know what is happening with the interprovincial crossing. The Chaudière Bridge was closed because of flooding, so that made congestion worse. The last bridge that was built east of the Macdonald-Cartier Bridge is in my neck of the woods, in Hawkesbury. I believe it's 110 kilometres from downtown Ottawa.
Can you give the committee an update on the crossing?
Thank you for the question.
We know there's a demonstrated need for an additional crossing in the NCR. We also, as a government, have a responsibility to build and maintain interprovincial crossings.
With that in mind, in budget 2019 we signalled an intention to address this in a number of ways. We're going to be refreshing existing studies. We know there have been some very good studies done, but we need to make sure they remain up to date and the information remains relevant. We're going to develop what we're calling an “integrated provincial crossing plan”, and we're going to replace the Alexandra Bridge. Those are the three pillars of our plan around the NCR bridges.
We're working with our partners including, as you can appreciate, the City of Ottawa, the City of Gatineau and the two provinces. There are a bunch of players at these tables.
In the meantime, of course, we have to continue with our rehabilitation work on the Chaudière Bridge and the existing Alexandra Bridge.
A lot is going on, and we're very excited this is finally happening for your region.
Mr. Chair, I'd like to thank the committee for inviting me to appear a second time to discuss the 2019-20 main estimates.
This is my first appearance before the committee as President of the Treasury Board and Minister of Digital Government. It's a great honour to be here in that capacity. I have enjoyed my time here as the parliamentary secretary over the years.
I am pleased to have with me some officials from my department: Peter Wallace, Secretary of the Treasury Board Secretariat; Karen Cahill, Assistant Secretary and Chief Financial Officer; and, Glenn Purves, Assistant Secretary, Expenditure Management Sector. I'd also like to highlight the presence here of , the Parliamentary Secretary to the President of the Treasury Board and Minister of Digital Government.
After my remarks, my officials and I would be happy to answer any questions you might have.
Mr. Chair, on April 11, I tabled the 2019-20 main estimates, which provide information on $300 billion in spending to deliver programs and services this fiscal year. This includes new measures announced in the federal budget.
These main estimates are made up of $126 billion in planned voted expenditures and $174 billion in statutory expenditures. They detail the government's plan to support the middle class, as presented in budget 2019, including historic investments in housing, skills training and our most vulnerable seniors.
This is the second year in a row that the main estimates include measures announced in the budget. We have been able to do this in part by tabling the main estimates in mid-April, after the budget. As you all know, this new sequencing is part of a two-year pilot initiative that was put forward by this committee to make it easier for Canadians and parliamentarians to track government spending.
We launched the pilot with the tabling of last year's main estimates, by including a single central vote to implement all spending measures and departmental allocations announced in the 2018 budget, vote 40. This approach allows for enhanced transparency and full alignment between the main estimates and budget. However, parliamentarians, including the committee members, expressed their desire for more rigorous oversight by having the appropriate parliamentary committees scrutinize new spending associated with budget measures.
You also asked for better alignment between the main estimates and the departmental plans. As you know, Mr. Chair, our government greatly respects the work of parliamentary committees, and with this year's main estimates, we've responded to these concerns and other feedback from the Parliamentary Budget Officer. We've also implemented some changes to this year's main estimates following this committee's excellent report on the estimates reform process.
What we have provided parliamentarians, and what you are considering today, is the result of our ongoing work to better align the budget, the main estimates and the departmental plans. This year's main estimates include all of the $6 billion in new voted measures announced in budget 2019. They are presented in 194 separate measure-specific votes listed under individual departments. These votes have been referred to the appropriate parliamentary committees, that is, the committees that normally review a department's work, and because they are presented as individual votes, this new mechanism provides more detail and granularity for tracking and oversight than ever before.
In his April 29 report to Parliament on the main estimates, the PBO described these new measures as “important improvement to the process”. In addition, committee reviews of these measure-specific votes has been supported by supplementary information provided to Parliament at the end of April. This is information that could not be included in the departmental plans for timing reasons, which were well advanced when the budget was announced, and they were also tabled on the same day as the main estimates.
In addition, the government will continue to provide detailed online reporting of funding allocated to these individual votes, as well as progress reports in the 2019-20 supplementary estimates. I am pleased to announce that the first such report is already available online.
In summary, the use of the 194 measure-specific votes provides clear linkages between Table A2.11 in the budget plan and the main estimates and the departmental plans, taking into account the supplementary information provided at the end of April.
Mr. Chair, this is about the ongoing and continuous improvement of the estimates process. We've come a long way from two years ago when there was no alignment between the budget and main estimates. I'd like to remind the committee that we are working to improve a system that we inherited, which The Globe and Mail said, prior to our reforms, was “bad to the point of absurdity”.
As the PBO noted in his report:
In summary, it is clear the Government has taken steps to improve the Estimates process from the previous year; however, there are still changes which could be made to further improve parliamentarians’ oversight role in scrutinizing government spending.
We have always maintained that Canadians and the parliamentarians who represent them have the right to know how public funds are being spent and to hold the government to account for its spending. These ongoing reforms will help them exercise that right.
By creating these linkages, the government is making it easier than ever for parliamentarians and Canadians to know where the money is going.
I'd like to turn now to that portion of the main estimates that applies to my department. As the employer and expenditure manager for the government, the Treasury Board Secretariat is seeking Parliament's authority for $7 billion in planned spending.
The main funding requests of the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat are as follows.
First, we are requesting $259 million under vote 1 for program expenditures.
Second, we are requesting $36 million, under votes 45, 50 and 55, to implement three measures announced in the budget. They relate to advancing gender equality, ensuring proper payments for public servants and implementing Federal Public Service Dental Plan amendments.
The remaining votes relate to the role of Treasury Board ministers as the employer and financial manager for the government.
There is $750 million dollars in Treasury Board vote 5 for government contingencies for urgent or unforeseen expenditures that cannot be covered by other departmental votes.
There is $327 million in Treasury Board vote 10 for government-wide initiatives. This is to support horizontal initiatives like the early learning and child care initiative, a liquefied natural gas investment in Kitimat, the implementation of the new accessible Canada act, and the implementation and administration of the proactive pay equity legislation.
There is $2.7 billion in Treasury Board vote 20 for public service insurance.
There is $2.2 billion in Treasury Board votes 25 and 35 for operating and capital budget carry-fowards, and $600 million in Treasury Board vote 30 for payless requirements such as maternity and parental allowances, and severance pay.
In conclusion, Mr. Chair, in our system of government, the ability of parliamentarians to hold the government to account is of the utmost importance. We've made important improvements to the main estimates over the past two years to do just that. The effect is to highlight new government spending so that parliamentarians and Canadians can scrutinize the expenditure of tax dollars in greater detail.
Thank you again to the committee and the chair for the invitation to appear today. I'll be pleased to take questions from the committee.
Thank you for raising the topic of the budget implementation vote from last year, which I saw as a step forward from what we had before.
Before, we had a situation where the estimates were tabled first and the budget was tabled afterwards, so the estimates had no relation to the decisions being made by government through the budget as to what spending would be added for the year. That was the disconnect that you as a committee were aiming to improve.
It was improved by the budget implementation vote, by taking all of those budgetary items and putting them in one budget implementation vote, which was broken down by departmental and program intention for those funds so that when they were approved by Treasury Board and forwarded to the departments they could be tracked monthly online.
The committee's concerns that this was not going far enough were very valid. It was an important first step, but we needed to do more. That is exactly what Treasury Board did this year. It took the budgetary funds, broke them into the individual departments' allocations and named what program they were for. They were not discretionary funds for that department; they were targeted to a purpose outlined in the budget. Those funds are now scrutinized by the appropriate committee.
From my perspective and that of Treasury Board, this is another step forward, and a big one, in the direction Parliament has been asking for, which is to have faster and fuller ability to follow the money and to be accountable to Canadians for government spending.
Order. Just a minute, please.
I won't be docking any time for this.
Number one, we simply can't both have witnesses and questioners speaking at the same time. I have been listening carefully. Mr. McCauley has asked a couple of direct questions.
Minister, I think it would be beneficial to this committee if we get direct answers, as opposed to corollaries in response to the question that's posed. Mr. McCauley, if I am hearing correctly and if I recall correctly, has asked a couple of specific questions about what the costs would be of the contracts that have already been announced—just what would the costs be—and if the costs are not available to you at this point in time, I think this committee would appreciate a written answer so that this committee has the information it has been asking for.
Hon. Joyce Murray: Okay, but—
The Chair: With that, we'll go back to Mr. McCauley.
You have about a minute left, sir.
Is it five minutes? Okay.
My questions are about changes to the presentation of the estimates. In particular, I appreciate that at the very least now, department-specific items are going to go to the appropriate committee for study.
However, as I have said throughout this process, that doesn't mean a lot of people can get answers to the questions they want to ask. I think parliamentarians want to be able to ask good and detailed questions about particularly new program approvals, so that applies especially to new budget items.
I think the PBO concurs in that analysis, in terms of it being good that these particular committees are now going to have to look at those votes. It says specifically that, “While these are important improvements to the process, it does not address the issue of parliamentarians voting on items which have yet to be scrutinized or refined by the Treasury Board.”
Further, if you look at GCpedia, which is a place where civil servants can go to get answers to questions they might have related to their work, there is a question: “I don't recognize some of the budget measures. How do I have them removed from my main estimates?” The response on GCpedia is, “TBS worked with the Department of Finance to identify the spending measures that require appropriations.” It goes on, in question 4: “I don't agree with some of the amounts and descriptions of the Budget measures. How do I have them revised in my Main Estimates?” The answer is, “Amounts cannot be adjusted.”
Presumably, those departmental officials are going to be reporting to committees and having to answer questions. Clearly, there's a bit of concern.
Another question that was asked, question 7, read: “Most of my organization's Budget measures have not yet been approved by Treasury Board. What can I say about those measures at a committee appearance?” The answer is, “Give brief, high-level responses.... Avoid referring to policy questions or program design issues that have yet to be discussed in Cabinet or Treasury Board.” As a parliamentarian who is going to be approving funding for these new programs, one of the major issues, as recognized by the Parliamentary Budget Office, is....
In the old system, for all its faults—and it was not a perfect system—by the time that parliamentarians were being asked to approve funding, departments had done their homework. They knew what the program was. It had gone through the detailed and rigorous costing process at Treasury Board. Parliamentarians could ask questions about the program, and the answers at least existed in principle. Even if parliamentarians might not have been able to get a straight answer about the program from the minister or departmental official, at least we knew that the answer was there. If you maybe put the question the right way, you might be able to unearth something, or if you filed the right kind of request, either an Order Paper question or an access to information request, you might get the answer.
The changes to this year's estimates notwithstanding, we're in a position where we've moved from a system where detailed answers about what the government intended to do with the money existed, to a system where those answers do not exist. In fact, civil servants are asking the question, “If I don't know where this money came from or how it ended up in my budget, can I get it out of there?” The answer is, “No.” Then a further question, “What kind of answer do I give?” And the answer is, “Well, just stick to the high-level stuff, because we know you don't have it figured out. You may not have even known that it was going to be in your departmental estimates.”
How, as a parliamentarian, am I supposed to have confidence in the revised estimates process when I know that the departments appearing before my committee don't actually know how they're going to be spending the money they're asking me to approve? Why should we accept that?
Treasury Board also has an oversight function. If departments came to Treasury Board and said, “We don't yet know how we're going to spend the money. We don't know how many FTEs we're going to need. We don't know where we're going to house the space. We don't know how much of the program money is going to be used for direct transfers to Canadians, because they fall into a certain category. We've got a ballpark idea of what we kind of want to do. We think this is a pretty good number, and when Treasury Board approves the money, we'll tell you later what we did with it. We'll write you a report and send it your way. Then, if you have questions, the money will be out the door. It's already spent. There's nobody to go back on that. But you'll know how it was spent, because once we spend it, we'll know how we were going to spend it.”
Surely you wouldn't accept that standard at Treasury Board. Why do you think parliamentarians should accept a lesser definition of oversight?
Congratulations, Minister, on your new appointment here. It's not easy because of all the different aspects of it. It's huge, and certainly it's a large responsibility.
I want to get back to one of the questions raised by my colleague Mr. McCauley.
The background to this is that, during the Victoria Day week, I met with a man, a public servant. He told me that he was a veteran. He had been in the armed forces for about nine or 10 years, I think he said, and he's now been in the public service for a couple of years.
He told me that he now doesn't get credit for the nine or 10 years he was in the military, and it makes a difference. Your responsibility, or the responsibility of the government, is everything from pay equity to making sure we know where the money is getting spent.
He said he's not given credit for that, and it makes a difference to him. If he has seniority in the public service, let's say 10 years or 15 years, he might get an extra week's vacation. There are benefits.
I wasn't quite aware of this decision. Apparently, as I've been told since, Treasury Board approved it. You've probably approved a lot of things, and this is just one component of it, but we want to do what we can. Everybody talks about doing what we can to support the people in our military and our veterans. We can get into criticisms as to who did what, when, and all of that kind of thing, but it seems to me that this is something important and that we should do what we can to support those members of our military who have retired and go into the public service.
I'm hoping that you will have a look at this. Again, I think you would probably get unanimous consent among all political parties if this were reversed and we said, “Yes, okay, if you've served in Canada's military, yes, that should be credited towards your public service”. We could spend all our time criticizing each other, but I think you would agree. I bet if I canvassed people around the table, they would say, “Yes, if you've served in the military, you should be credited, and you should get this benefit”.
I think, Mr. Purves, you said you were going to be looking into this, or maybe you've gotten some notes on it. Again, this kind of stuck in my head when I met with somebody about this. First of all, when he said this, I said, “No, no, we want to accommodate our military people. We want to give them credit for that”, but there is a challenge here, and so I'd like to hear your thoughts on that.
Thank you for your comments and your input here today.
I want to get back to a subject that we raised with your counterpart, , with respect to the Privacy Act. I'm sure you are aware that, and I quote:
Personal information under the control of a government institution shall not, without the consent of the individual to whom it relates, be disclosed by the institution except in accordance with this section.
I'm quite concerned about a number of incidents that have taken place over the last number of months. Some of them have gotten a lot of publicity—the trial of Admiral Norman—with the information that has been released. I was concerned, for instance, having been a member of a group that gave advice to the government with respect to the appointment of a Supreme Court of Canada justice. The leakage of information about different individuals, I think, was a concern to everyone.
It's hard to pick up the paper and not see something else. I mentioned this to your colleague. It says last week that the office of innovation minister alerted Irving that Globe and Mail journalists had asked the department whether an investment in an Alberta french fry plant was counted as an industrial benefit requirement.
In a sense this continuous leakage undermines people's confidence in our system, and there is legislation that makes it an offence to release any information. I'm just wondering how concerned you are about this and what is being done.
I asked about it, and she said they had sent out a message that they can't be doing this kind of stuff, releasing all this information, but I think it perhaps goes beyond that. It's a greater concern.
What are your thoughts?