In 2006, a new budget watchdog, the Parliamentary Budget Officer, was created under the Federal Accountability Act to improve the transparency and credibility of the Canadian Government’s fiscal forecasting and budget planning. The mandate was to provide parliamentarians with independent information and advice on economic, fiscal, and budget issues.
Kevin Page was appointed as the first PBO two years later. Trouble is, his economic and deficit forecasts were often more accurate than the Government’s. His penchant for ‘speaking truth to power’ in public, while courageous and refreshing, embarrassed the Government and met with resistance. The Prime Minister’s Office continued to centralize control over an emasculated bureaucracy.
Mr. Page completed his term of office last March. He sounded off about the need for change at the recent IPAC Conference in Montreal. In a provocative and sometimes flamboyant keynote, he observed that we live in an age of insecurity where government practices the politics of fear, accrues democratic deficits, and withholds information out of self-interest.
Hovering between the eccentric and the inspirational, Mr. Page called for open, connected, coordinated government. He pressed for urgent public service renewal and reform. He grounded his hypothesis in these words from speculative fiction novelist William Gibson: “The future is already here¾it’s just not very evenly distributed.”
Delegates reflected upon how what traditionally passes as accountability has changed. A host of issues need to be probed:
- The relevance of the principle of ministerial responsibility;
- The centralization of power at the expense of central agencies and departments;
- The impact of constrained transparency on accountability;
- The implications for combating corruption and promoting integrity;
- The consequences for public service capacity and development; and
- Citizen trust and confidence in government.
Beyond Mr. Page’s new fiscal studies institute at the University of Ottawa, where do we take the fight from here?
John Wilkins was a Commonwealth diplomat and a career public servant in Canada. He is Associate Director with the Public Management Program in the Schulich School of Business at York University (email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org).