Federal Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard has issued a strong rebuke of Roch Huppé, the Comptroller-General, after he advised a team of government officials reviewing contracts with consultancy McKinsey & Company to “be careful what you write down.”
Mr. Huppé is playing a lead role in the internal review, co-ordinating work by chief financial officers and chief audit executives who are looking at all federal contracts with the New York-based firm. The Comptroller-General is responsible for financial management and internal auditing across the federal government.
He appeared this week with Treasury Board President Mona Fortier at the government operations committee, which is holding public hearings into federal outsourcing to McKinsey. At one point, the committee chair, Conservative MP Kelly McCauley, put a direct question to Mr. Huppé about a Feb. 2 meeting of chief financial officers.
“Did you advise the CFOs – and I’m going to be quoting – ‘Be careful what you write down. It will find its way out through an ATIP.’ Did you say that?” Mr. McCauley asked, referring to an access-to-information request.
“Indeed, I cautioned people that we need to remain, as public servants, very factual in what we say. Writing personal opinions on different subjects in e-mails is not necessarily the place to do that,” Mr. Huppé replied.
Mr. McCauley asked again: “Did you say the words, ‘Be careful what you write down’?”
“Be careful what you write down. Absolutely,” Mr. Huppé said.
Ms. Maynard’s office released a strongly worded response Friday to Mr. Huppé's comments.
“The Commissioner believes that the exchange at the committee meeting further illustrates the importance of leaders setting an example. We cannot create a culture of transparency within the government so long as leaders counsel ‘caution’ for fear that information might be revealed through an Access to Information Request,” the office said in a statement provided to The Globe and Mail.
The office noted that the commissioner has previously called for the implementation of a statutory duty to create a complete and accurate registry of key actions.
“The right of access does not exist without records, and culture change starts at the top,” the statement said.
Mr. Huppé later said he was not entirely sure what he had said in the private meeting.
Mr. McCauley told The Globe that he was dismayed by Mr. Huppé's comments.
“I’m stunned and frankly absolutely appalled by the actions of the Comptroller-General,” he said. “At a time when trust in our institutions is failing, when the Information Commissioner is warning of the culture of secrecy in this government and the access-to-information system has collapsed, here we have one of the most senior members of the public service coaching other senior bureaucrats on how to violate the legislated Access to Information Act.”
He said he has asked the Information Commissioner to investigate the matter.
In early January, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked Procurement Minister Helena Jaczek and Ms. Fortier to review federal spending with McKinsey in response to concerns raised by opposition MPs. The review is scheduled to be completed by June 30.
Federal officials have said the total value of federal contracts awarded to McKinsey since 2015 is at least $116.8-million. Opposition MPs have questioned the spending in light of various controversies the company is facing internationally – including being charged in South Africa in an alleged corruption scandal – and the fact that the former head of the company, Dominic Barton, also led an influential federal advisory council during the initial years of the Trudeau government.
The government operations committee recently tabled a report calling on Auditor-General Karen Hogan to conduct a performance and value-for-money audit of the contracts awarded to McKinsey since 2011. The Conservatives put the recommendation to the full House of Commons, where it was approved unanimously Tuesday.
The McKinsey contracts are part of a broader increase in spending on outsourcing, which rose to $14.6-billion in 2021-22 from $8.4-billion in the 2015-16 fiscal year. The government operations committee is also holding a separate study into the growth in outsourcing.
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