Money Wows

Canada’s budget watchdog is asking MPs to get to the bottom of why the Harper government is spending billions less than it budgets for, or Parliament authorizes.

The federal government held on to more than $10 billion it was expected to spend in 2012-13, with almost half coming from two departments, according to recently-published financial documents.

These were funds Parliament approved and Canadians were told they could expect through a slew of programs in dozens of departments, including the Senate Ethics Officer, disability and death compensation at Veterans Affairs, and weather and environmental services for Canadians at Environment Canada.

The total amount lapsed is almost $560 million more than Ottawa left on the table the year before, although it is down from a recent peak of $11.2 billion in 2010-11, according to annual Public Accounts of Canada financial statements.

When departments don’t spend all their money, Ottawa lets them keep some, allowing them another shot at funding the programs they were expected to.

The rest is dumped into the government’s general bank account, where it can contribute to paying down the deficit. 

This story has been on a slow roll since Monday. It is, of course, taking a backseat to the scandals in the Senate, the Prime Minister's Office and at Toronto City Hall.

I am very interested in this story because since the Conservatives took power I have had questions about what seems to me a huge discrepancy between announcements on literacy spending and what actually seems to be spent. I have asked many people in the field how we can find out what is actually being spent and no-one seems to know. We have all heard about the long delays between the Request for Proposal deadlines and any notice that a project might be funded - on one project I worked on, the gap between the RFP deadline and the roll out of funds was over two years.

In the old days of the National Literacy Secretariat, there was a list of funded projects online so that the field could see what projects had been approved and received funding in any given year. This transparency was helpful to those doing research in the field who wanted to find relevant research for literature reviews, to check for overlap when crafting their own proposals and for making connections and developing partnerships when working on projects. It also let us, and everyone else, know how the announced funding was being spent.

That list disappeared for a while. It seems to have resurfaced as a searchable database but information about projects prior to 2006 have been deleted.
Welcome to the OLES Project Database. This application has been developed to provide Canadians with a transparent and comprehensive reporting tool on literacy and essential skills grants and contributions projects funded since the program's creation in April 2006. The Database will be updated regularly.
A search for projects starting April 1, 2012 and ending March 31, 2013 shows No results found.

Searching for other fiscal year dates shows funding for National Adult Literacy Database (now Copian) and the Ontario Literacy Coalition (now Essential Skills Ontario). Searching by fiscal year dates does not capture projects with multi-year funding. For those you have to know the dates or at least one word in the title. I found the Learning and Violence project by searching "violence". And searching the word "literacy" returns nine pages of results but you have to click on each title to see in which year the project was funded.

This way of displaying funded projects is much less transparent than the NLS lists that corresponded to each year's RFP. It is not as helpful to a field trying to make decisions about research and trying connect research to an existing body of knowledge and it is not helpful to anyone trying to find out where the money went. I don't suppose this report from the Parliamentary Budget Office will help us plan and access research but I hope it will shine a little light on the mysterious spending practices of this government. I would think that the government would want that too; nothing like an information vacuum to start up rumours and conspiracy theories and I don't think they need any more of those at this time :)

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