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PBO’s term ends March 24, feds dragging feet on finding successor

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Unfortunately, I doubt we'll see this position filled anytime soon. If I was betting man I'd put my money on a handful of stealth changes coming this spring, and some positions fading to black. Like this department being dismantled in the name of saving taxpayers money.

Our country needs more folks like Kevin Page in gov't.

http://www.hilltimes.com/2013/01/14/feds-dragging-feet-on-finding-successor

Canada’s Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page, known in some parts as “dead man walking†for his hard-hitting, critical reports on government spending, will finish his term on March 24, but he says government appears to be dragging its feet on finding his successor.

“None of us know what’s going on,†said Mr. Page.

Mr. Page’s five-year appointment ends on March 24, and he has said that he would not be asking the government to renew his term.

“That process that starts to identify names hasn’t started yet, to my knowledge,†said Mr. Page.

The PBO works under the Library of Parliament, so Parliamentary Librarian Sonia L’Heureux is responsible for leading the search for Mr. Page’s successor. She is to work with a panel of experts, likely to be made up of former senior public servants and public administration experts, to interview candidates, and to come up with a short list of three.

Those three names will be submitted confidentially to the government through Government House Leader Peter Van Loan (York-Simcoe, Ont.), and the government will make the final decision, said Privy Council Office spokesperson Raymond Rivet.

The Privy Council Office would not confirm if the government has started its search for a replacement. The Library of Parliament did not respond to a request to interview Ms. L’Heureux.

In September, the Library of Parliament asked the Parliamentary Budget Office to update the qualifications for the position. Mr. Page said he did so and he has not heard what became of the information.

“What we strengthened is the language around knowledge and experience,†Mr. Page said of the revisions.

“This office is more than one person, but the next Parliamentary budget officer needs to be a person who has the experience and the knowledge, worked in the federal budget community and central agencies, knows what it’s like to put together a budget. That’s important, to decide what priorities need to be looked at for Parliament,†he explained.

Mr. Page is the first Parliamentary budget officer, and he was appointed in the spring of 2008. The position was created under the Federal Accountability Act, and pays between $139,900 and $164,500. The Parliamentary Budget Office has an annual budget of $2.8-million and a staff of 14.

“The government undertakes publicly-advertised, competency-based selection processes for most full-time and leadership positions appointed by the governor-in-council,†said Mr. Rivet.

The position does not appear on the government’s public service careers website, nor does it appear on any of the leading Canadian job search sites.

Consistent with other high-level government hiring processes, the Library of Parliament is likely to hire an executive search firm to help identify candidates, but a search of the government’s contract tendering website, Merx, did not indicate that a search firm has been chosen.

While the PBO is not involved in the selection process, Mr. Page said he has a few candidates in mind.

“I think I’ve made sure that we have succession opportunities. We have people in this office who can definitely take over and make sure the office continues to grow,†he said.

“Mostafa Askari, Sahir Khan and Chris Matier are three names of people with vast experience in the public service, working in central agencies, they have built this office over the past five years, are great public servants and are willing to take the job,†he added.

Mr. Askari is currently an assistant PBO and director general of economic and fiscal analysis. Mr. Kahn is also assistant PBO and the office’s director general of expenditure and revenue analysis, and Mr. Metier is the senior director of economic and fiscal analysis. They have each been with the office since its early days.

“It takes a special type of public servant to want to do this work given the weakness of the legislation. In my view, Mostafa Askari, Sahir Khan and Chris Matier are three names within the office that have the experience, that are willing to work in an environment even with the weak legislation,†he said.

After the PBO faced a $1-million budget shortfall in 2009, some say because Mr. Page was too independent and outspoken during his first year on the job, both the NDP and the Liberals began calling for the job to be made independent. Currently, the PBO serves at the pleasure of the Prime Minister, noted Mr. Page.

The NDP has introduced private members’ bills to make the PBO independent, but they haven’t made it past first reading.

“What we need is some real clarity on the position and its role within the Library or as a separate officer of Parliament. It’s been a murky, debatable, position,†said Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett (St. Paul’s, Ont.), a longtime member of Parliament’s Standing Joint Committee on the Library of Parliament.

It’s important to have strong Parliamentary watchdogs, said Carleton University public policy and administration professor Christopher Stoney.

“The bigger problem is that our Parliament is not doing a good job of holding anybody to account. … For better or for worse, we’ve shifted toward this sort of outside watchdog type of role. Given that we’ve done that, I think these positions have to have teeth and oversight, otherwise we’re left with no Parliament and no effective watchdog,†he explained.

Mr. Stoney said that the PBO’s work on costing government programs, such as the F-35 fighter jet program, has been “stellar.â€

“I think that Kevin Page has really revealed an awful lot in his time in office, at a large personal cost. He’s been called ‘dead man walking’ for a long time now. Anybody that kind of crosses this government is likely going to be given a hard time,†he said.

Ms. Bennett said that there’s no question that Mr. Page’s work has been “exceedingly important†to Parliamentarians.

“Things like the estimates, things like costing out bills, doing these things that allow us to do our jobs, and allow us to be accountable to Canadians,†she said.

During his tenure, the Parliamentary Budget Office has released reports costing the price of Canada’s mission in Afghanistan, the government’s crime legislation, the sustainability of Old Age Security, and purchasing the fighter jets. In the case of the F-35s and others, the government has tried to discredit his work when it contradicts their own numbers.

Last year when the PBO requested information from departments on how they intended to enact billions of dollars of spending cuts, Mr. Page was first stonewalled by Clerk of the Privy Council Wayne Wouters, and then told by Treasury Board President Tony Clement (Parry Sound-Muskoka, Ont.) and others that the request was outside of his mandate.

Mr. Page and the NDP are now at the Federal Court, asking for legal clarification of his mandate. The group appeared before the court Jan. 10.

“If we’re not working on the major files, we’re not being useful for Parliamentarians,†said Mr. Page.

He added that he is proud of the PBO’s working style.

“The way we’ve operated, in a very open and transparent fashion and a very analytical fashion, it’s the brand that we built at the office. We feel very proud about it. If somebody, like an Askari, a Khan or a Matier takes over, they were part of building this office, they believe in this brand,†he said.

The concern is the government will appoint someone less zealous than Mr. Page, who has built and defined the office, said Prof. Stoney.

“If they bring in somebody to do a sort of dampening, lowering of expectations, and turn it into a paper-shuffling department, then his legacy will be really gone,†he said.

Mr. Page said that he hasn’t heard anyone in the bureaucracy’s financial community express interest in the job, though there are a number of qualified people.

“I think part of it is they see the challenges, they see the opportunity, the dynamic, the cultural divide around transparency and the weakness in the legislation.

“A lot of these are career public servants, they fear as well that there’s no public service career after this job for them, potentially, if they do the job correctly. I think there’s some ambivalence in taking on this type of role,†he said.

Ms. Bennett said candor would be an important quality for Mr. Page’s successor.

“The ability to speak truth to power is something that obviously has been a real strength of Kevin Page. I think that we also want someone who understands the role of Parliament in our democracy and the need for Parliament to be able to hold the government to account. That it is someone who does believe that transparency and accountability is the hallmark of a democratic institution and a democratic country, and is prepared to play that role fearlessly,†she said.

If the government doesn’t appoint an interim or permanent Parliamentary budget officer in time, the work of the office would be frustrated, said Mr. Page. He said that while the PBO is under the Library of Parliament, the ability to present reports or speak for the office rests with the PBO and not with Ms. L’Heureux.

“Somebody needs to be in this position,†he said. He added that he would be willing to stay on past the end of his term while the government makes a selection.

When auditor general Sheila Fraser retired in 2011, deputy AG John Wiersema stepped in for six months before a successor was found. Former Public Service Commissioner Maria Barrados and former Senate Ethics Officer Jean Fournier also stayed on in their posts for several months before their replacements were named.

Ms. Bennett said she is worried about the apparent lack of progress: “The concern that I have, and that Kevin Page has articulated, is it doesn’t look like anything’s started. When will they begin the process of looking for somebody?â€

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