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Canada's first parliamentary budget officer, Kevin Page, is pictured in April, 2012. The position is currently held on an interim basis by Sonia L’Heureux. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)
Canada's first parliamentary budget officer, Kevin Page, is pictured in April, 2012. The position is currently held on an interim basis by Sonia L’Heureux. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

A case for breathing life back into the Parliamentary Budget Office Add to ...

In recent weeks, well-respected and influential commentators have implied that the functional end of the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) may not only be impending, but desirable.

For instance, a recent commentary from former Statistics Canada chief economic analyst Philip Cross states that “the time may be near to shutter the PBO” – an office created to provide parliament with independent analysis on the government’s finances and Canadian economic trends.

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This suggestion takes a large and dangerous leap beyond his previous column, where he merely recommended the PBO establish a clean slate by selecting the second parliamentary budget officer from outside the office.

Independently – and perhaps surprisingly – a key element of Mr. Cross’s argument appears to be shared by Canada’s first parliamentary budget officer, Kevin Page, whose five-year term ended earlier this year. (His permanent successor has yet to be named; Sonia L’Heureux is filling the role on an interim basis.) Both seem to think that since the PBO can no longer function effectively, it may be best for the office to die quickly, rather than cling to life support for an undetermined period.

But while they share bleak outlooks for the PBO’s future, they disagree on what pushed the PBO to the brink of extinction and what should be done about it.

Mr. Cross’s argument contains a dislike of what he views as Mr. Page’s adversarial style and partisanship. But more substantively, he worries that no qualified PBO replacement will be found and that senior staff will leave, rendering the office ineffective. This concern stems from Mr. Page’s new university position, which seeks to create an institute to perform analysis similar to the PBO’s.

Mr. Page thinks that the PBO will be ineffective for different reasons – the main one being that he thinks this government is intent on obstructing the PBO’s operations and ultimately dismantling it. As evidence, Mr. Page points to an appointment process to select the next parliamentary budget officer that has “failed miserably and dangerously,” and the government’s repeated denial of information needed for the PBO to perform its analysis, among other concerns.

Both of these accomplished men may be wrong, but for different reasons.

Both rightly highlight staffing challenges. Given the current turmoil, they suspect the parliamentary budget officer position may not be filled by the best candidate Canada can offer. This is a real concern, not only for the top position in the office, but also for other staffing (though the latter might be addressed by filling more positions via multi-year employee exchanges with related institutions).

Mr. Cross’s biggest mistake is failing to distinguish between an individual (Kevin Page) and an institution (the PBO). While the two are often linked, they are fundamentally distinct. One can be described by legal text in the Parliament of Canada Act; the other has a bald head and glasses. Any attack on Kevin Page should not be misconstrued as an attack on the PBO’s very existence.

For his part, Mr. Page rightly emphasizes the crucial need for government information. And his plan to create a new think tank is courageous, ambitious and should be welcomed. But since this institute will have no legislative power, it doesn’t address the fundamental information problem. This endeavour should be presented as a complement to the PBO (and the numerous think tanks that already perform in-depth, policy-relevant research on Canadian budget issues), but it can never be an adequate substitute for a well-functioning PBO.

And certainly both pundits are premature in determining that the PBO will not function effectively in the future. It’s far too early to write it off as irrelevant even before the next leader has even started the job. It’s also unhelpful.

So if we shouldn’t kill the PBO, and if we can’t properly replicate it outside of Parliament, what concrete steps might move the existing office forward?

In a recent commentary in the Institute for Research on Public Policy’s Policy Options, I describe a strategy the next parliamentary budget officer could adopt to help oversee a relatively smooth transition. Among other suggestions, this plan contains four key elements:

1) prioritizing the office’s limited resources within its large mandate (aided by an independent advisory panel);

2) building bridges with the government’s central agencies and the deputy ministers of key departments;

3) encouraging two-way information exchange between the PBO and the government to start moving this relationship to a more positive place; and

4) working more closely with parliamentary committees and the Senate.

Personally, I’m less pessimistic than others about the PBO’s long-term viability. I hold out hope that our institutions are stronger than the individuals who inhabit them. And I think that even as the PBO will not function perfectly in the future, it will continue to fill a gap in our parliamentary system that needs to be filled.

Stephen Tapp is research director at the Institute for Research on Public Policy (stapp@irpp.org or @stephen_tapp on Twitter) and former senior economist at the Parliamentary Budget Office. These views are his own.

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