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A Canadian flag flies over Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, March 21, 2011.

Ottawa is spending 6 per cent more on staff this year even as public servants warn they are being asked to bear the brunt of the Conservative government's restraint efforts.

Meanwhile total government spending is on track to come in 3 per cent below the year before, which would be a far deeper cut than anything the government suggested in last year's budget.

The Parliamentary Budget Office has reviewed all official spending estimates for the fiscal year that ends March 31 and compared the totals to 2010-11.

It found government-wide spending on personnel will be $39.1-billion this year, up from $36.8-billion the year before, while total government spending is on track to come in 3 per cent lower.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty – who meets Monday with private sector economists – has said Ottawa is only looking to slow the rate of growth, not to cut federal spending in absolute terms. Mr. Flaherty's 2011 budget and November fiscal update forecasted spending would rise every year.

The PBO and the public faces a challenge in being definitive on spending trends because the spending requests to Parliament – the estimates – use a different accounting method than Finance Canada's budget documents. The final word on how much was spent in a fiscal year comes about six months after the fact in the fall Public Accounts.

The March 29 budget for the fiscal year that starts April 1 will announce the results of a government-wide effort to find at least $4-billion a year in permanent savings through a process called the deficit reduction action plan. But reports of job losses at federal departments were common throughout the past year as they implemented previous spending reduction plans called expenditure review.

In the past year, staff cuts have been announced at the Bank of Canada, the Canada School of Public Service, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Environment Canada, Fisheries and Oceans, Service Canada, Industry Canada, the National Gallery, the National Research Council, Natural Resources, Public Works, Treasury Board and Western Economic Development Canada.

The major federal public-service unions were not able to immediately explain why Ottawa is spending 6 per cent more on personnel costs.

The PBO says part of the increase appears to be tied to an agreement between Ottawa and the unions that ends the practice of paying severance to public servants who leave their jobs voluntarily. The agreement included a provision in which public servants could receive cash payments for the severance they had accumulated to date.

A study is currently underway at the Commons government and operations committee where MPs are looking at ways to improve the process in which Parliament reviews and approves spending by federal departments.

Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page recently appeared as a witness. He said that while departments give MPs lots of reports and numbers, that doesn't mean they are being transparent.

"Is it not time to say that so much of the information we put in our estimates' books represents simulated transparency at best?" he asked. "Transparency whose purpose is to obfuscate and confuse, not to support accountability."

There are several different ways of measuring the size of the federal public service.

Treasury Board's statistics on the population of the federal public service shows a 0.2 per cent decline between 2010 and 2011, from 282,955 to 282,352. The 2011 numbers are 13 per cent higher than the 249,932 public servants working in 2006 when the Conservatives first won power.

Statistics Canada lists federal general government employment at 416,418, a number that includes reservists and full-time military personnel. A larger category called "federal public sector" includes federal business enterprises, such as Crown Corporations. Statistics Canada reports there are 526,699 people employed in the federal public sector, which is a 9.6 per cent increase over 2006 levels.