Good Bye Parliamentary Budget Officer

Kevin Page, the Parliamentary Budget officer (PBO), has just announced that he will not seek reappointment in 2013. This will end an experiment in “transparency and accountability” that was doomed from the beginning. Since its creation, PBO has been in a constant battle with the government over his independence, his inadequate budget, and his lack of staff.

This is ironic given it was the Harper government that promoted an independent PBO during the 2006 election. But after two years, no one should be surprised, given the government’s dislike of independent research and opposing opinion. When the government confronts disagreement with its preconceived views, and facts that don’t support these views, its modus operandi is simply to get rid of the source of disagreement and to ignore the facts

This was not always the case. Liberal and Conservative governments in the 1980s and 1990s, wanted their public servants to provide their best advice, regardless of whether that disagreed with the government; they wanted policy options costed; and, they were even willing to defend research in public. There was no need for a PBO. Regrettably, evidenced-based policy decisions are becoming increasingly scarce and this is unlikely to change in the near future.

Since 2008 the PBO has prepared five economic and fiscal updates, and over 20 research reports. It has also provided assessments of cost estimates of policy initiatives proposed in legislation. The PBO has appeared before both House and Senate Committees on 8 occasions in three years, more than most Deputy Ministers, let alone Ministers. The PBO has done all this with a staff of only 11 and a budget of only $2.8 million. Currently the PBO has a staff of only 9. The PBO has publicly defended the Parliamentary Budget Office research and policy conclusions, something that has no doubt made him very unpopular with the government.

Even this small budget was at risk. The government planned to cut the PBO budget to $1.8 million for 2009-10 after the publication of the Afghan costing report and PBO’s first economic and fiscal assessment. The budget was restored only after the PBO submitted an “action plan” in response to recommendations made by the joint House and Senate Committee for the Parliamentary Library. Some of these recommendations actually reduce PBO transparency and Independence.

How does this compare with other OECD governments? According to a 2007 OECD survey of its 30 member countries, along with another 8 non-OECD countries, 16 reported that they had “a specialized budget research office/unit attached to the legislature to conduct analyses of the budget”. The largest independent budget office is the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) in the United States. The CBO, has a budget of $45 million, and employs about 250 professionals. From its very beginning the CBO has expanded its functions far from what was originally envisaged to become a nonpartisan, independent, objective, analytical agency.

A strengthened and more independent Parliamentary Budget Office would promote greater understanding of complex budget issues; it would force the government to defend its economic and budget forecasts; it would promote a straightforward and more understandable and open budget process; it would promote accountability by commenting on the government’s projections and analysis; finally, by being nonpartisan, it would provide research to all political parties. This would be especially important in minority governments, which seems to be the likely situation in Canada in the foreseeable future.

The position of PBO was created in the Federal Accountability Act of 2006, but the office was not established until March 2008. It wasn’t easy to find someone to take the job of PBO when the government was watering down its commitment to an independent PBO. It won’t be any easier this time around unless the independence of the PBO is strengthened not weakened. At a minimum the PBO should be appointed by Parliament and dismissed by Parliament, not by the Prime Minister.

Without strengthened independence established by legislation, it will be impossible to find a qualified professional to become PBO. In the meantime the position of PBO can now be added to the growing list of “hard to fill” government positions, just behind Chief Statistician.

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