I went to a presentation by the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) yesterday. (The name needs a little work, but it was likely named by committee.) I went expecting to leave annoyed by their incompetence and political hackishness, but left pleasantly surprised. This subgroup of the PBO seems to know what they’re doing.
For those not subjected to this level of minutia, the PBO was started an attempt to create a non-partisan organization to generate predictions about the Canadian economy, the federal budget, and the likely cost of government programs. It was created by the current Tory government under Steven Harper, with the stated goal of improving the transparency.
Something really interesting came up during the discussion, that didn’t really have a lot to do with their main forecasting duties. Someone, probably looking to stir things up a bit, asked how they were being treated by Finance Canada. The short answer – they weren’t getting much help from that direction. The assumption on the part of most of the audience is that this lack of help was a result of a lack of enthusiasm on the part of the Harper government. This may or not be the case, but for now let’s assume it is and try and figure out why you’d create something like the PBO and then not help it achieve its stated goal.
A former student of mine is heavily involved with the NDP in the Maritimes. When they won the Nova Scotia election he was super excited and emailed me with his good news. I congratulated him, but also warned the governing is a lot harder than winning an election. He told me a while ago that, damn it, I was right. The point is new governments don’t really know what’s involved in governing and can’t until they’re in power. The PBO was formed early in the Conservative mandate, likely when the party leadership still believed in things. The subsequent lack of cooperation maybe part of the realization that some of the things they initially believed in may be incompatible with actually running the government.
The nature of the government in its current form can make governing even more of a challenge. Minority government often means resorting to a number of tricks and stunts that would otherwise be avoided. This is done by virtually every party around the world when they are in a minority government situation. Not having the parliamentary strength to over ride objections makes you less likely to support something that can create objections.
A third possibility is that there is a severe personality conflict between the budget officer and a politician and/or high ranking civil servant. Having met the current budget officer and watched how he engages with the media, I can definitely see this happening. The PBO has no place making policy recommendations, but should be providing analysis of recommendations being generated else where.
A cynical possibility is that the current government is just giving lip service to the idea. In this case they want to do as little as possible while being able to claim to improve transparency.
Of course the assumption that the lack of cooperation is coming from the sitting government ignores another possibility. Those who’ve tried to work with the civil service will likely have identified another possible origin of resistance. The civil servants in Finance may resist working with the PBO if they believe they are going to be subjected to extra PUBLIC scrutiny or suffer a loss of authority/power. This would be particularly true if those in Finance had nothing to gain by cooperating. A quick thought about the incentives of the situation make it pretty clear that full cooperation was unlikely.
Whatever the source of the lack of cooperation, the PBO is a good idea. I fan, but I’m starting to think there’s hope for this incarnation of it.