Estimates Reform helps you follow the money

April 17, 2018

Do you understand the process the government uses to spend your tax dollars? If you're a little foggy about it, you're not alone. Many Canadians don't understand how public money is directed to programs and services, or how to track government spending.

That's why, over the past few years, we have taken steps to demystify the process and make it easier for people to hold the government to account for its spending decisions. Specifically, we have made changes in four areas: the timing of the Main Estimates, the vote structure, accounting methods, and the information we provide Canadians.

Timing of the Main Estimates

One of these changes is better aligning the timing of the Main Estimates and the federal budget. The Main Estimates provide the spending plans for each government organization for the coming year.

Previously, the Main Estimates had to be tabled on or before March 1, which meant they generally did not include the new spending initiatives announced annually in the federal budget. This made it more difficult for parliamentarians and Canadians to see how money announced in the Budget was being allocated to departments.

For the next 2 years, the government can table the Main Estimates in Parliament as late as April 16. Pushing back the deadline to April 16 allows spending initiatives in the federal budget to be included in the Main Estimates, making it easier for parliamentarians to follow the money and see how the government intends to spend Canadians' tax dollars in the coming year.

Purpose-based votes

The various Estimates documents tabled throughout the year are organized on the basis of how the government will spend your money. Parliament approves and controls spending authority through individual appropriations or votes. These votes define the general types of expenditures a department can make, for example, program, operating and capital expenditures, and grants and contributions.

This structure allows for better oversight of government spending and has worked well, but we can make it even better. Instead of always specifying "what" the government spends money on, we want to know what it hopes to "achieve" when it spends money. We currently have a pilot project underway to bring us closer to "purpose-based" votes.

Accounting methods

We are also reconciling the accounting method used in the Budget, called "accrual accounting," with the accounting used in the Estimates, which is "cash-based." In accrual accounting, financial transactions are recorded in the period in which they are considered to have been earned, whether or not the cash or equivalent settlement is complete. In cash accounting, transactions are recorded in the period in which they are settled by the receipt or payment of cash or its equivalent. Comparing them is like comparing apples and oranges.

To resolve this issue, in 2016 we began publishing a reconciliation of the accrual-based Budget and the cash-based Estimates. This worked well, and that's why we've continued this practice, including the publishing of a similar reconciliation for fiscal year 2018 to 2019 in this year's Main Estimates. This makes it possible to better link the numbers in the Budget to those in the Estimates, and better track the implementation of Budget items.

Planning and results information

In 2016, we also introduced the new Policy on Results. Now Canadians and parliamentarians can learn what the government expects to achieve through its spending.

Unlike purpose-based votes, which are about how expenditures are presented, the focus of the Policy on Results is the entire system of reporting results and performance. It determines how results are reported, monitored, and so on, and establishes clear roles and responsibilities for key players involved in delivering this information. Once it is fully adopted, it will provide a clearer picture of the impacts of departmental spending and the resources needed to produce them.

Another tool, GC InfoBase, pulls together over 100 departmental financial reports on a single website. This searchable database provides quick and easy access to detailed information on government spending and people management. This makes government operations more transparent and gives Canadians, including parliamentarians and the media, an easy way to find information.

Our vision

We have taken important steps to strengthen oversight of government spending. By making the Estimates process more logical and providing clearer, more easily accessible information on departments' reports, results and resources, we are enabling Canadians to better hold their government to account for how it spends their tax dollars.

The Honourable Scott Brison

Scott Brison
President of the Treasury Board

Minister Brison, the Member of Parliament for Kings–Hants (Nova Scotia), has been elected to Canada’s House of Commons in seven general elections. He was a key spokesperson on economic issues and served as the Critic for Finance as well as Vice-Chair of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance.

He served as Minister of Public Works and Government Services, and Receiver General of Canada, and was the youngest member of Prime Minister Paul Martin’s Cabinet. He also served on three Cabinet committees: Treasury Board, Domestic Affairs and Expenditure Review.

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