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Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page waits to testify before a House of Commons committee on Parliament Hill on March 16, 2011. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)
Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page waits to testify before a House of Commons committee on Parliament Hill on March 16, 2011. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

A glimpse into Ottawa’s search for the next budget officer Add to ...

Potential candidates to be the next Parliamentary Budget Officer were asked to undergo psychological testing, The Globe and Mail has learned.

Ottawa is seeking a different tone from a new PBO after five combative years under the leadership of Kevin Page. The Globe has gathered new details on the highly secretive process that has been under way since Mr. Page, Canada’s first PBO, retired in March after a controversy-filled term.

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A search committee submitted a list of three names to the government in May. It is now up to Ottawa to name one of them to the job and the announcement could be made at any time. It is believed that one of the candidates has since withdrawn. Opposition questions about the independence of the selection process also appear to have led to delays.

The three names have not been made public, but sources say the search committee has taken a close look at Jean-Denis Fréchette, an economist and career researcher with the Library of Parliament. Mr. Fréchette is currently the senior director of the Economics, Resources and International Affairs Division of the Library of Parliament.

Mr. Page had recommended his two most senior aides for consideration – Mostafa Askari and Sahir Khan – who are both assistant PBOs. Sources indicate the two were interviewed, but did not receive the added scrutiny of a reference check and psychological test required of others believed to be in more serious contention for the job.

Psychological testing has been used in the federal public service since at least 2000 to fill some executive positions. It can involve a series of simulated meetings where the candidate is faced with various challenges while being assessed by a psychologist.

Opposition parties had expressed concern in March when the posting for the vacant position stressed the importance of finding a candidate who can achieve consensus, a commodity that is normally in short supply on Parliament Hill.

Reached for comment, Mr. Page said there was no psychological testing done when he was appointed. He questioned whether it is being used this time in order to find a candidate “who will be submissive to intimidation.” He said the current level of secrecy and government interference in the process is such that is should be scrapped in favour of a new hiring committee that is clearly independent.

“I think the current process has failed miserably and dangerously,” said Mr. Page in an e-mail. He added that the next PBO must have government experience working on federal budgets.

Another name that is widely considered to be in the mix is Finn Poschmann, vice-president of research for the C.D. Howe Institute. Prior to joining C.D. Howe in 1998, Mr. Poschmann spent more than a decade working in the research branch of the Library of Parliament, which now oversees the PBO.

It is not clear whether Mr. Poschmann’s name is on the final list or whether he was a potential candidate earlier in the process. He did not entirely rule out either possibility when reached by The Globe.

“It is an interesting post, but it’s a conflicted one because its existence depends on the tolerance of the government of the day and the government of the day has decided that it’s not such a big fan of the PBO and has made that very clear,” he said. “I can’t say a lot more than that other than there are plenty of qualified candidates about and the challenge for the government will be to find a qualified candidate who is willing and able to navigate the political shoals that she or he inevitably will face.”

The selection process is led by the Library of Parliament, which has refused to identify the individuals on the panel. The Library referred questions about psychological testing to the Privy Council Office. The PCO did not respond to questions from the Globe.

The Globe first reported that the panel includes a senior official from the Privy Council Office. The Globe has since learned the individual is Eileen Boyd, Assistant Secretary to the Cabinet. The Globe has also confirmed an iPolitics report that a Conservative staffer who is chief of staff to the Government House Leader is on the panel. Other members, according to sources, are Conference Board Chief Economist Glen Hodgson, as well as a retired public servant. The initial search for candidates was conducted by Renault Foster, a headhunting firm, which sat in on some panel meetings.

The government does not need the support of the opposition parties to appoint a new PBO, but all-party support would be an obvious benefit given that the position serves all sides of the House. Finding that consensus appears highly unlikely. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair has described the process as “fraudulent” given the heavy role of the executive branch on the selection panel meant to fill a key position serving the legislative branch.

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