Critics slam government’s ‘secretive,’ ‘shadowy’ handling of millions in taxpayer-funded consulting contracts

Posted on May 9, 2013 in Governance Debates – news/investigations – Disclosing details about what public is getting for their money should be mandatory, critics argue, after Star investigation finds 90 per cent of the $2.4 billion paid out in the past decade comes with no description of the work done.
May 09 2013. By: Jesse McLean Investigative News reporter

The federal government should be required to provide descriptions of the work done for the millions of dollars it routinely spends on management consulting, opposition critics say.

“It is taxpayers’ money being spent and I think the taxpayer has the right to know what his or her money is being spent on,” said Liberal MP John McCallum.

“I don’t think there is any reason not to give that information.”

The call for greater transparency comes after a Star investigation revealed most federal departments are not following government guidelines that encourage them to “provide a brief description of each contract so that the public may benefit from additional context.”

Meanwhile, at least one federal agency that once went the extra step and provided details of consulting work now doesn’t. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada said an increased workload forced it to focus only on disclosing basic information.

While the government’s public disclosure sites show it has paid $2.4 billion for management consulting in the past decade, 90 per cent of those contracts come with no description of the actual work done.

In fact, the Treasury Board Secretariat, the department that published the guidelines, doesn’t even bother following the recommendation to provide additional information.
In a statement, the department said it can’t release “third-party proprietary” information or information considered private.

New Democrat critics call it “a lame excuse.”

“There is no reason some information can’t be had to make sure taxpayers are well informed,” said Treasury Board critic Mathieu Ravignat.

New Democrat MP Charlie Angus said the government should require the disclosure of descriptions, as well as whether the contract was competitively tendered.

“This is an extraordinary amount of money that is being handled through a very secretive and shadowy process,” he said.

“They can’t simply leave it up to the departments to decide whether or not to tell you.”

Right now, federal departments and agencies are required to offer only the slimmest of details on the contracts they have dished out. In most cases, agencies only post the vendor’s name, a reference number, the dates affiliated with the contract, the amount spent and a generic explanation of the kind of work done — for example, management consulting.

In a statement, Treasury Board President Tony Clement did not answer the Star’s question on whether descriptions of the work should be mandatory.

“The government has a responsibility to use taxpayers’ dollars as efficiently as possible. Some government contracts are with private sector companies to deliver or improve services without maintaining an expensive government bureaucracy,” Clement said.

“Our government recently took steps to provide taxpayers with even more transparency by requiring public disclosure of any contracts with former public servants receiving pensions.”

The head of the Canadian Association of Management Consultants said he welcomes “all initiatives to increase transparency and ensure proper spending and fair practices.”
“The taxpaying public deserves to have some level of knowledge. Unfortunately, what happens when there is no knowledge, people’s minds are very creative and they think that the worst is happening,” said Glenn Yonemitsu, CEO of the association, which is made up of more than 3,100 management consultants.

Over the years, the amount of information government agencies are disclosing about management consulting contracts is shrinking, the Star has found.

In 2005, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada included descriptions of consulting work it contracted out: $23,000 for a “consultant for speech writing” in one case, and in another, $25,000 for an “internal audit on contracting and procurement.”

But for two other of the agency’s contracts awarded since August 2012 worth more than $100,000? No explanation.

With limited resources to deal with “the continuously growing list of mandatory disclosures and reporting,” the board focuses on disclosing only required information, spokeswoman Julie Leroux said.

The Office of the Auditor General of Canada is among the few federal departments and agencies that still include an explanation of the work done in its contract disclosure.

“We believe that these additional descriptions . . . enhance the transparency of our operations and our overall accountability,” spokeswoman Céline Bissonnette said.

Data analysis by Andrew Bailey

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