“...a minister may engage the services of or retain any technical, professional or other advisors, specialists or consultants that the minister considers necessary.” – The Executive Government Administration Act.
In December 2014, Saskatchewan provincial auditor Judy Ferguson released a report that revealed the province had spent $120 million on consultants in 2013-2014, an increase of 288 per cent in the past six years.
She also found inadequate reporting and oversight on services provided.
“If procurement of services is not undertaken fairly and impartially, the Ministry may not select the most suitable consultant, not achieve intended results, pay more than intended, and not receive the best value. Unfair procurements would damage the reputation of the Government,” her report stated.
The auditor’s report provided a summary chart of the spending increases, but not details of individual contracts.
Students in the Investigative Journalism class at the University of Regina’s School of Journalism used the auditor’s report as a springboard to an exercise in examining public documents. The questions they set out to answer were:
- Who are the consultants?
- What do they do, and for who?
- What are they paid?
- Do they have any other connections to government?
The team looked at government ministries. They did not investigate agencies or Crown corporations.
Students started by identifying payments to consultants that are recorded in Public Accounts, a document released annually that details government expenditures. In particular, they examined payments to third parties listed under ‘Goods and Services’ for each ministry. Only a fraction of such third party payments appear in the SaskTenders registry - therefore, public accounts were a vital source.
The students then looked at company websites, tender registries and corporate registries to determine the type of services offered by consulting firms, and who the company board members were. They checked names against public records of salaried government employees, and noted any that were receiving both a salary and additional goods and services fees.
Information was put in spreadsheets, employing a technique called Computer-Assisted Reporting (CAR) to indentify patterns, trends, and crossovers.
Because information requires context, students studied the major policy directions and goals of each ministry. In the spirit of ‘right of reply,’ government officials were contacted to provide opportunity to clarify unclear or unusual findings.