Monday, April 16, 2018

And still darker: CSE stops reporting budget breakdown

The Main Estimates for fiscal year 2018-2019 were tabled today in parliament and — surprise! — CSE reported even less information than it has in the past.

Instead of providing a breakdown of its spending showing the amounts allotted to the Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) program and the Information Technology Security (ITSEC) program, as it has done every previous year since 2012, this year the agency is providing only a single overall figure, with a paraphrase of the agency's motto, "Protect and Provide Information", offered in lieu of any actual explanation. Maybe we should be grateful that at least it wasn't provided in the original Latin.

In correspondence with me, after the original version of this article was posted, CSE said that the reduction in data was prompted by a change in the way the Treasury Board wants to organize this kind of reporting. To demonstrate their continued openness they tweeted the figures for 2018-19: $407,399,615 for the SIGINT program and $217,494,338 for the ITSEC program.

I commend CSE for doing that, but I still think the change is highly regrettable.

According to the agency, in the future the only routine public reporting of these numbers will be through the government's online data portal INFOBASE, where they will appear only sometime after the end of the relevant fiscal year. They will no longer appear in either the Estimates or the Public Accounts, or presumably in any other form of published paper documentation.

Posting out of date numbers on INFOBASE is certainly better than nothing, especially for people like me who study the history of the agency over a timeframe of decades.

But it is not good for people interested in current policy and plans. If you want to know how much the government proposes to spend in a particular year on Canada's cybersecurity, for example, or even whether that spending will be going up or down, you could very well be out of luck.

And that includes the MPs who will be voting to provide those funds, unless they elicit the numbers from CSE in committee testimony or otherwise. CSE promises that it will be providing those numbers to the committee that examines the Estimates. But even if that does happen every year without fail, it is no substitute for publishing them in a formal document available to all.

So, call it inadvertent or incidental, but this is a backward step, away from transparency.

CSE has repeatedly promised in recent years to increase the level of transparency about its operations, and it has been somewhat more open in certain ways.

But it has a long way to go to get back to the level of transparency that existed in 2011, and this is a step in the wrong direction.

Let's review some of the backward steps since 2011.

The last time CSE appeared in the Department of National Defence's Report on Plans and Priorities was in June 2011. A supplementary document called Section IV: Other Items of Interest contained an entire section on CSE. That document has been memory-holed entirely from the government's website, but I saved a copy back then, so you can read CSE's section here.

In that Golden Age of Transparency, CSE reported not only its 2011-12 total budget, but also a breakdown of its budget into Salary and Personnel; Operating and Maintenance; and Capital spending. It also provided projections of all those figures for the following two fiscal years, 2012-13 and 2013-14.

It also provided a list of the key government intelligence priorities that CSE would attempt to cover during the coming fiscal year and a description of some of the initiatives planned for that year, notably occupation of the building that became Pod 1 of CSE's new headquarters complex and the start of construction of the remainder of the complex.

Finally, the section reported the number of civilian full-time equivalent employees (FTEs) the agency would have in 2011-12 and projected numbers for the two following years (although to be fair the latter numbers, which were identical to the 2011-12 numbers, were probably intended just to be placeholders).

All that ended in November 2011 when CSE became a stand-alone agency. It no longer appears in DND's Report on Plans and Priorities (or Departmental Plan, as it is now known). Nor does it publish its own.

Neither does it publish a Departmental Results Report or an Annual Report (although under Bill C-59 there would be an Annual Report of some kind).

CSE did begin appearing under its own name in the Main Estimates documents beginning in 2012-13.

But almost all of the information that appeared in DND's report was gone. What we were left with was little more than a short boilerplate description of the agency, the overall number for the coming fiscal year only, and — the only new piece of information provided — the spending numbers for the SIGINT program and the ITSEC program. So, one step forward and about ten steps backward.

CSE's public affairs people somehow managed to call this "enhanced" reporting. I suppose that's what public affairs people get paid to do, but for an agency that wants Canadians to take a lot of what they say on trust, this was not their finest hour.

Among the information that was no longer reported was the number of FTEs, but that loss at least was mitigated by the fact that CSE's staff numbers were still being reported on a monthly basis by the Treasury Board Secretariat.

But then that ended in February 2016.

I don't think that change, which affected reporting on staff numbers at all government departments and agencies, was prompted by CSE, and when I had a chance in November 2016 to ask Dom Rochon, CSE's Deputy Chief, Policy and Communications, whether CSE would consider publishing the figures itself, he seemed open to the idea. But it hasn't happened.

So that went dark too.

(To be fair, out of date annual figures are available on INFOBASE.)

And now we're losing formal, and timely, publication of the SIGINT/ITSEC breakdown.

As one who has often seen important information posted and then later removed from government websites, I find its promised publication after the fact in online form, while much better than nothing, far from entirely reassuring. If MPs insist on getting the numbers on the record at the beginning of every fiscal year at committee that will help a great deal.

But it would be better, and much more reliable, to simply publish them as before. Is this really so hard to do?



[This post was updated on 18 April 2018 in light of the information provided by CSE.]

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