The past, present and future of the Parliamentary Budget Officer

Let us return to first principles and imagine a '21st century Parliament'

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

A policy paper from the IMF considers several international budget officers and councils, including the parliamentary budget officer.

The PBO has earned a reputation for good quality independent analysis for its research, costings, and forecasting work. The strategy of being front and center on the fiscal policy issues of the day, combined with transparent reporting, and an active media approach, has proven successful in raising the media profile and the influence of the council. It has, however, also placed the council at the center of many high profile disputes with the government resulting in the PBO turning to the courts for clarification on issues related to its institutional set up and independence.

Last week, Philip Cross—whose previous concerns in regards to the PBO I considered in February—suggested that Kevin Page was bent on undercutting the office of the parliamentary budget officer on his way to setting up an institute of fiscal studies at the University of Ottawa. I can’t see into Mr. Page’s heart, so I can’t know his intent. He says he wants to see a strong PBO and that both his new institute and the PBO could contribute to a world blessed of multiple data points (I spoke with both Mr. Page and Mr. Cross for a review of the current situation that will appear in the print edition that reaches newsstands tomorrow). Whatever his intent, the suggestion that Mr. Page has erred in criticizing and commenting on the selection of his successor is worth considering, at the very least in terms of how a non-partisan public office holder should comport themselves and whether Mr. Page should have, for the sake of the future of the PBO, taken a more demure approach. You could, for instance, argue that Mr. Page should have taken a wait-and-see approach, or even begged off entirely on commenting. But questions about the standards of decorum and manners to be applied here don’t render moot the questions that linger around the office. Should the membership of the selection committee be secret? Should the chief of staff to the Government House leader be a member of that committee? And what does the future of the PBO look like? It’s entirely possible that the PBO will persist and Mr. Page’s successor will prove a valuable and important contributor to our system of responsible government, but there are legitimate points of debate here.

It is always useful to return to the foundational text: the Conservative party election platform of 2006. “Governments,” the great book reads, “cannot be held to account if Parliament does not know the accurate state of public finances.” This is basically the principle to which Mr. Page has come to pledge himself. “The executive is well taken care of,” he told this magazine three years ago. “The question is how you close the gap for other parliamentarians.”

A year and a half ago, he testified before the House committee on government operations and estimates.

Do we want the House of Commons to have the “power of the purse”? If we did, and we thought it was truly important to be respectful to our Westminster roots, our Constitution, and the Financial Administration Act, we would build accountability and the estimates and supply process around this principle. What happens when we repeat things like the power of the purse belongs to the House of Commons but we behave in a totally different way? Could it be that our respect for our institution is diminished?

As he put in an interview with me in March, the playing field needs to be levelled and the ship needs to be turned around.

I think the public servants, like me for 27 years, know the system is broken. And know that the playing field is nowhere near level. Know that the House of Commons does not really have the power of the purse. That we’ve titled the information so that it just serves the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister. I think one of the reasons why nobody wanted to be the parliamentary budget officer was because nobody really wanted to try to tilt that playing field. They were quite happy, because it served everybody. It served the prime minister. It actually serves bureaucrats to have it this way too because the phones don’t ring. Aaron’s not calling people, looking at spending going up and down relative to authorities because he doesn’t have access to information. So once you try to level the playing field, that’s a lot of change. And it’s a big fight. And there’s no way, a legislative budget officer, after five years, is going to win that battle. I like that quote from the theologian Niebuhr, who says, “nothing worth doing can be achieved in one lifetime.” I think when you’re dealing with institutions, this takes a long time to turn this boat in a different direction. But it needs to be turned.

Of the specifics of Mr. Page’s time as the PBO, you can perhaps debate to what degree he helped or furthered this cause. (Should he have somehow been more diplomatic in his public and private dealings? I honestly have no idea. Maybe it would’ve somehow helped. Maybe he approached the job exactly as we should have hoped.) Of the position that exists on paper, it might be necessary to improve or clarify the legislation that governs the PBO’s mandate, independence and ability to demand information. But of the basic principle (that the House of Commons should be fully and robustly holding the government to account for the expenditure of public funds) and the general diagnosis (that the House of Commons is not presently able or willing to fully and robustly do so) there is surely little room for dispute. At the absolute very least, it could probably be agreed on all sides that the House of Commons could be a more empowered legislative body, either capable of producing on its own or blessed of more rigorous analysis of public policy. Thus the debate is really about how to go about realizing the ideal of responsible government and how or to what degree the PBO should be part of that.

The practical questions here are many, but it is probably to be conceded that establishing a parliamentary budget officer was likely never going to be without complications, whatever the tone, demeanour, persona or approach of whoever inaugurated the office. Introducing a new check on the process of formulating public policy was bound to result in new opportunities for conflict and the general debates about what the office should do and how it should do it were not likely to be short and easily resolved. For fun, it might be worth considering how the various partisan sides of the debate around Mr. Page and the PBO would have reacted if their positions were reversed. If the Conservatives had been in opposition these last five years, would they have championed Mr. Page’s efforts? If the New Democrats or Liberals were in government, would they have approached the questions and issues raised by Mr. Page any differently?

Put another way, what is the ideal manner in which the PBO’s analysis should be received? Mr. Page hinted at one concept of utopia in our interview last March.

So, in a sense, I think some of the controversy, the profile was more demand driven. A huge gap was created by the lack of transparency and also the need for more information around the economic and fiscal environment. I think we filled the gap. The fact that the other side, basically the public service side or the government side, did not respond with analysis meant that they actually elevated our profile. So I think in a different time, or at a time hopefully in the future, when PBO does its work, which is really just adding and subtracting numbers, the public service does its work, shows its numbers, there’s no profile in this environment and then we sort things out in calculations. So I think we occupied a space and we were elevated effectively, I think to a large degree, by a lack of transparency by the public service and the government.

So imagine a world in which the PBO would release its analysis and the government would release its analysis and then perhaps other sources would offer their analyses and so there would be various numbers from various sources. I’m not sure this would result in a harmonious utopia of dignified consideration. There would still be disagreements and there would then be news stories about how “different people say different things about complex question of democratic social cohesion.” But it might also be a slightly better situation than the world we presently inhabit. It might result in a better, more interesting and more productive debate.

Mr. Page has this idea of a “21st century Parliament, where there’s lots of information,” with multiple data points and sources of analysis and information. Here is his response when I asked him last week to define a 21st century parliament.

I would be inspired if we actually had power of the purse, we had a Magna Carta principle like power of the purse resting with the House of Commons, but we had it activated in a 21st century world. So we had all kinds of analysis. We have these crazy debates now around carbon taxes versus regulation and other market-type systems to regulate the use of carbon. If we actually deconstructed this stuff for parliamentarians and showed them what tax systems could look like and did some of this work and used other countries, then they would be making decisions as opposed to saying, well, you just want to raise taxes. You move away from the soundbites.

In a 21st century world, we’d have multiple data points on, say, the fighter plane issue or the Old Age Security issue. The politicians would be debating, not a number—has PBO got it right? Has Finance got it right? But they’d be like, we have all this information in front of us, we have a pretty good sense of numbers now thanks to multiple data points on what this stuff is going to cost us. Now, again, in the case of the fighter plane, do we really want stealth? Do we want a strike fighter? Do we need drones? What is defence capability? We have all these costings now. Like PBO could’ve costed Euro fighters and F-35s and Super Hornets or whatever, we could’ve done all those planes, and then we could’ve costed drones and we could have costed mixtures of stuff. And we could work in a very collaborative way on some of these numbers with think tanks and everything. And then parliamentarians get to talk about priorities and policy directions because of all this analysis. That’s a 21st century environment for people that look at fiscal stuff, but I think also there’s policy people. If you were speaking with [Alex] Himelfarb: he looks at me and says, Kevin, you just hang out with calculators. But the real issue is where do you want to go and how do you link this up with what you want the country to mean? Then you get smart people like Himelfarb working with bean counters like me and then you’ve got like a really strong system that’s generated.

I think, to me, it would be a level of debate that has all kinds of analysis around it. It would be accountability where you have people in opposition having decision-support information that they can use to hold the government to account. They would have all this information released proactively. They wouldn’t have to use access to information requests. You create a culture where this information is just shared. Where competition of ideas and information is actually good. Right now, there are people saying, Kevin, we’re worried about your tone? But what would the tone of the parliamentary budget officer be if he put out a report, but there’s already five other reports out there. Finance has put out a report and the chief actuary’s got a report and different institutes around Ottawa and the country have got numbers out. PBO would be just another number. We’d be on the list of numbers … it’d this richer analytical framework. That’s positive. I think what happened to PBO and why PBO sort of stood out is we were like the only people out there. We were the lone data point on these big issues. And that wasn’t right. But I don’t think change happens easy.

There is a lot to consider and debate in all that. But we can start with two questions: is this basically something we’d like? And, if so, how do we go about getting to something more like this? And of the parliamentary budget officer, for all the complications and controversies, you can ask one question: how can it contribute to getting us closer to the ideal of perfectly responsible government?

(Further reading: Previous thoughts on the Page Era and the PBO are here and here. Here is a post on Mr. Page and the controversial decision to release an audit of the Afghanistan war during the 2008 election, including an explanation from Mr. Page. Here are Stephen Gordon’s thoughts on the PBO’s mandate. Here is Pat Martin’s speech on Mr. Page’s time as the PBO and the state of government accountability. Here is my exit interview with Kevin Page and here is what he wrote upon exiting his post. And for information on the PBO’s dispute with the Harper government over what information about the government’s budget cuts the PBO is entitled to have, see here, here and here.)

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