Financial reporting by Canada's senior governments has improved over time, but setbacks and deficiencies threaten accountability to Canadians, says a new report from the C.D. Howe Institute.
In Good, Bad, and Incomplete: Grading the Fiscal Transparency of Canada's Senior Governments, 2021, authors William B.P. Robson and Miles Wu present the C.D. Howe Institute's latest annual report on the accessibility, timeliness and reliability of governments' financial documents. The report's grading reflects how well, or badly, federal, provincial and territorial budgets, estimates and financial statements let legislators and voters understand their governments' fiscal plans and hold them to account.
The report focuses on the budgets governments present around the start of the fiscal year, the estimates legislatures vote to approve specific program expenditures, and the audited financial statements governments present in their public accounts after year-end.
Evaluating the usefulness of these key documents for fiscal years 2019/20 and 2020/21 to a motivated but non-expert reader, this year's report card sees Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia and Nunavut at the top of the class with grades of A-.
Ontario receives a B; Newfoundland and Labrador, Yukon, Prince Edward Island, Manitoba and Quebec are in the C range; the Northwest Territories earns a D+; and the federal government, which had been in the B category since 2018, receives an F.
"The federal government produced no budget for the 2020/21 fiscal year, so scored 0 with respect to all budget information. Its 2020 public accounts did not present a figure for consolidated expense, showing actuarial losses related to its employee pensions below a deficit line that excluded these expenses. It also published its public accounts late," said Robson.
"It earns an F – a signal failure from a government that used to be a leader in fiscal transparency."
The report also includes preliminary grades for 2022, based on budget documents this past spring. Those grades show the federal government and Ontario on track for a C and an A, respectively. New Brunswick, Saskatchewan, Alberta and Nunavut are all on paths towards A-.
"The grades of the top performers reflect consolidated financial statements consistent with PSAS, and budgets, estimates and interim reports prepared on the same basis. All governments can do that. They also reflect presentations that make the key numbers readily accessible early in the relevant documents. All governments can do that. And they reflect timely presentations: budgets presented before the fiscal year starts and public accounts tabled shortly after fiscal year-end. All governments can do that," Robson and Wu conclude.
"There is no mystery to the challenge. If Canadians insisted on better financial reporting from their governments, they could get it."
William Robson took office as CEO of the C.D. Howe Institute in July 2006, after serving as the Institute's Senior Vice President since 2003 and Director of Research from 2000 to 2003. He has written more than 240 monographs, articles, chapters and books on such subjects as government budgets, pensions, healthcare financing, inflation and currency issues.
Miles Wu is a Research Assistant at the C.D. Howe Institute. In his role, he provides research support, literature review, and analysis for various projects and presentations. Prior to the C.D. Howe Institute, Miles had worked at the Information Technology Association of Canada, Queen's Park and Toronto City Hall in both internship and full-time positions.