Skip to main content

By last count, University of Moncton economist and public policy scholar Donald J. Savoie says the federal government has 14 "officers of Parliament" whose primary function - as apparently distinct from everyone else in public service - is to tell the truth. The tabulation is not necessarily precise because some officers of Parliament (hereafter: OOPs) have not yet attained the full autonomy that only time can bestow. One such novice OOP is the Parliamentary Budget Officer, who oversees a 15-person unit of the Library of Parliament. But OOPs are highly fashionable. They will certainly multiply in size and in number.

Dr. Savoie is no fan of these parliamentary watchdogs that exist solely to monitor other people's work - on the apparent assumption that senior public servants cannot be trusted faithfully to discharge their responsibilities. Legally independent of the government and only notionally answerable to Parliament, OOPs are (in Dr. Savoie's judgment) an elite corps of largely meddlesome bureaucrats with, in most cases, little real work to do.

Who watches these watchdogs? Donald Savoie, for one, watches them. As one of Canada's most eminent authorities on government, he speaks with authority. In Moncton, he holds the Canada Research Chair in Public Administration and Governance. Author of more than 30 books on public administration, and editor of many more, his reputation is international - reflecting a lifetime of public policy research and academic positions at Harvard University, Oxford University and the London School of Economics.

Dr. Savoie says some officers of Parliament - the Auditor-General (since 1868) and the Chief Electoral Officer (since 1920) are two - warrant the independence that comes from working for Parliament rather than for the government. He believes, however, that most of the others should be either disbanded or compressed.

Most of the current officers, he says, are costly as entities unto themselves. But they impose further costs as well - often because of duplicated work - on the "whole machinery of government." How much do they cost? The government puts the direct cost at $175-million a year. But this number, he says, tells only a small part of the story. Every government department and every government agency must equip itself to respond to the departmental intrusions of all the watchdogs. In his judgment, OOPs cost Canadian taxpayers more than $1-billion a year.

"Think of it," Dr. Savoie says. "Officers of Parliament and their staff get up in the morning thinking of ways to be relevant and visible. They do not deliver services to Canadians. The only way they can be relevant is to stand above the fray and pass judgment on what everyone else is doing. They are watchdogs with conflicting mandates who, at times, must think very hard to come up with things to do. There is no reason why we couldn't collapse these 14 officers into four or five - as they have done in Britain and Australia."

It is precisely this kind of waste, Dr. Savoie says, that persuades Canadians that the federal government is incapable to getting its expenditures under control.

Yet another consequence, he says, is the erosion of crucial decision-making incentives in the senior levels of the public service: "It is difficult to ask bureaucrats, who tend to be risk-averse in the first place, to take any risks when 14 officers of Parliament and their staffs - accountable to no one except, perhaps, God - are looking over their shoulders every day."

The Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) is a good example of an unnecessary function? Formed in 2007 to conduct independent analysis of (among other things) the federal budget, the PBO crunches the same numbers that the Finance Department crunches - a function performed also by the Bank of Canada, by all of the commercial banks, by all of the big accounting companies, by all of the big brokerage houses and by all of the important think tanks from coast to coast.

When Ernst & Young analyzed federal budget surpluses in the 1990s, incidentally, it determined that Finance Department budget projections were more accurate than private sector projections - which, given the department's access to the best minds in the country, was hardly surprising. When economist Tim O'Neill analyzed the department's budget surpluses in 2005, he advised the government that no new agency would have any greater luck in "forecast accuracy" than existing institutions. Everyone errs in making fiscal forecasts, of course, regardless how sophisticated the forecaster. These errors are rarely sinister. Across the border, the Federal Reserve (annual budget: $450-million U.S.) errs in its economic forecasts, too - and it has never correctly anticipated a recession.

In his next book, Power: Where Is It?, Dr. Savoie examines and appraises the OOPs phenomenon. He notes, somewhat ironically, that his report will be a little dated. The government created "a few more" OOPs in the time it took to publish the book after he finished writing it. (The book will be released in May).

Interact with The Globe