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Good post, Livio.

I hadn't heard about the PBO's trouble getting info. Could you suggest any links I can use to reduce my Ignorance Quotient on this issue?

Just go into Google News and search "Parliamentary Budget Officer" or "Kevin Page".

On a related note, Crooked Timber will be publishing a series of posts on the growing push for "Open Data" and its implications for politics and government:


Hopefully there will be some discussion of the appalling Canadian situation, which you've articulated very well.

There is a rich irony in this in that transforming society so it is more "legible" to the state has been a central project for states for centuries (see James C Scott's "Seeing Like a State). On the upside, blocking information is a protection mechanism that equally goes back and implies a feeling that there is a more powerful force than oneself. So, in an odd sort of way, it is nod to fear (and so the power) of democratic accountability.

For those interested in information and "Seeing Like a State", Tom Slee (author of "No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart", who has commented here before) has an interesting post at Crooked Timber.

A more able opposition would have been out there getting the legal opinions and threatening to take the government to court thereby preempting the PBO.

This is rarely, if ever done in Canada. It's a waste of political parties' dollars. As a contributor to the NDP, it is certainly a waste of the money I have donated to the party.

MP's can request documents through a procedure which complements Question Period. It's used frequently. Further, outright lying to the House is illegal so you have to have at least the bare colour of truth to your claims. There is Question Period and by convention the Finance Committee is chaired by a member of the Opposition so as to provide a strong counterbalance to the government's power of the purse.

Political parties have access to much cheaper tools than lawsuits.

Second, we are recovering from one of the greatest political upheavals in modern history at the Federal level. The NDP is fighting tooth and claw over the F-35 estimates in committee, but of course it has gotten little coverage.

In fairness the media in Canada is in shock. There are a plethora of pundits, reporters and editorialists who made their career being Liberals. They just can't or won't talk about the NDP. Genuine NDP pundits are very rare and often inexperienced, they almost never got the time of day from corporate media before.

I doubt this problem of commentary will resolve itself before the next election. If, as I hope and suspect, the NDP at least maintains its Official Opposition status (or dream of dreams actually forms a government, almost certainly a minority one), the media may start to bring itself around.

Lastly, it isn't so much that the NDP or Liberals are ineffective, it's that the Conservatives have a special contempt for the Public Service, they want it cut, don't trust its senior leadership and see it as riven with Liberal supporters who see the Liberal Party as the Natural Governing Party and the Tories as interlopers to be tolerated at best. This has some truth actually, much as it pains me to say it.

I'm afraid I'll have to self-identify as one of those who "don't get what all the fuss is about", specifically with respect to what the PBO is asserting as his need-to-know. The central question to my mind is, "Does the PBO need item-by-item program cut details to accurately forecast spending, or is it sufficient for him to work with the numbers the government has allocated for each department in the budget?"

As I understand it, the PBO was created to serve a similar function to the Congressional Budget Office in the US: essentially to sanity-check budget cost projections for new spending initiatives (it's worthwhile observing that the US has no equivalent to our Treasury Board Secretariat, where that happens in the Public Service). I don't suppose anyone imagined in creating the PBO that it would be used to challenge budget cut projections.

It seems self-evident to me that in many departments the Pubic Service hasn't yet worked out exactly what programs will be reduced/cut to meet the budget targets, nor exactly who's positions will be made redundant (and since the approach seems to be to achieve reductions through attrition, there's no particularly compelling reason to make those decisions "today"). Of course the government doesn't want to say, "Well we don't know, exactly" when asked how its targets will be met, but that doesn't mean that just because they haven't finished a thorough line-by-line analysis of a $170B budget that the targets can't be met (as will be asserted by the Opposition).

I would suggest that the PBO is attempting to fill the constitutional role of the Opposition in demanding this information, but is that truly the role of the PBO? I don't buy into the newspaper-friendly PBO-vs.-government paradigm playing out in the media, since I rather suspect the Conservatives are more happy to have the PBO exist than not (they created it, after all, and then augmented its budget many times). I believe that it's a simple matter of a diligent bureaucrat doing what he feels is right and a government who's trying to do a necessary job navigating though politically tough waters (the real opposition for them is not the Official Opposition, but the Public Service that has been heel-dragging on a large number of government priorities).

That being the case, it doesn't really serve much purpose to try to study motivations: the real question is whether or not the PBO needs what he's asking for to fulfill his mandate, and whether his mandate is truly what he seems to believe it is. I don't have the insight to answer those questions.

"Just go into Google News and search "Parliamentary Budget Officer" or "Kevin Page"."

As usual, the standard media coverage sucks; there is more discussion of style and spin than substance.
Is that all you got?

"Is that all you got?"

Well, I'm afraid it does not seem to have made the New York Times or The Guardian yet.

The issue of the government's combativeness on this is certainly depressing, but as with so many other things about this government, I am of the "meet the new boss" school of thought. Those over 30 may remember the infamous centralization and message control that occurred under Chretien; the only difference with the Tories is that they are more overtly neurotic about it. I know the PBO wasn't around in the 90s and early oughts, but when Chretien had faced information requests of this type during his reign, he usually said, "Whatever", let people do their thing, then went on to ridicule and harass any critics, and defended his gangsta ministers in the House. The only difference between that era and the current one is that we have gone from Anitsocial Personality Disorder to Paranoid Personality Disorder. (And, frankly, if Harper tried to strangle someone in public, he would have been sent fleeing to Miquelon; the last guy just laughed it off.)

It is true that the context has changed and information is more available. But so is misinformation. And since the latter is more readily crafted and controlled, everyone--governments, opposition parties, and outsiders--have a greater incentive to develop misinformation than to dig up and review real information.

I agree with Billiam that there is much going in the civil service (according to my sources) that is simply unresolved and highly uncertain, and reliable information may not yet exist. I think this also has to be looked at in organizational terms where a relatively new entity (PBO) simply does not have enough history behind it for its role to be relatively settled in government, in contrast to the CBO in the US.

Hi Simon,

In 2008, the PBO worked with the government's central agencies to establish a formal information protocol. The details are available here:

All formal PBO info requests and government responses to-date can be found here:

I'm surprised we haven't seen a post about this: http://www42.statcan.gc.ca/smr09/smr09_039a-eng.htm

Bob Smith: darkness is the new standard.

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