By Chuck Black
Federal budgets are sometimes complex creatures which might not be immediately understandable to rocket scientists and the writers at consumer media outlets.
But the suggestion made by Canadian based SpaceQ that the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has “under spent” its annual budget by over $800Mln CDN over the past seventeen years is simply not supported by any real evidence.
|The upcoming RADARSAT Constellation Mission (RCM) is a useful example of how it’s difficult to assess funding without context. As outlined in the October 6th, 2012 post, “The Last Days of the Current CSA President,” the RCM program has been kicking around CSA headquarters since 2004, although initial phase “A” funding for the project only began in 2006. By 2012, as outlined in the May 1st, 2012 post, “Media Reports: CSA “Lost in Space,” RADARSAT “Over Budget” & UrtheCast “Hyped Vaporware,” RCM was over budget and behind schedule. In 2013. the Federal Conservative government under then Prime Minister Stephen Harper responded to the problem, as outlined in the January 12th, 2013 post, “A $706Mln Fixed Price Contract and Hard Launch Date for RADARSAT Constellation,” by negotiating an unusual hard launch date and fixed price contract with RCM prime contractor, the then Richmond BC based Macdonald Dettwiler (MDA). Of course, a fixed price contract didn’t mean that there weren’t extra costs, as outlined in the July 4th, 2016 post, “That 2013 “Fixed Pricing” Contract for RCM Might Not be Entirely Fixed.” It’s also worth noting that funding and accountability problems within the CSA were at the core of the 2012 David Emerson led Aerospace Review which, as outlined in the December 5th, 2012 post, “What the Space Volume of the Aerospace Review Actually Says” recommended removing most procurement functions from the CSA and adding new committees such as the Space Advisory Board (SAB) to oversee CSA activities. Graphic c/o CSA.
And those unspent CSA funds are not lying around in a CSA office somewhere just waiting to be reallocated. Any extra funds likely reverted to the Treasury Board of Canada, the Federal government department responsible for accountability and ethics, financial, personnel and administrative management of the Federal bureaucracy.
But it’s very easy to come to the opposite conclusion after reading the February 14th, 2018 SpaceQ post, “The Canadian Space Agency has Underspent its Budget for the Last 17 Years.” According to the post:
In the last 17 years the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has left $802Mln in planned spending unspent. In the last three years the CSA has under spent its budget by $201Mln.
In 2010 the Conservative government began the process of decreasing the CSA’s base budget from $300 million to $260 million. The Liberal government has not restored the CSA’s annual base budget funding cut. Add these points together and it’s no wonder the space community is concerned.
Those are strong claims, especially given that there is no immediate mention of the project funding normally allocated on top of the base “A” funding, which is used to cover operational expenses, salaries and other overhead.
Lowing the base A funding level is normally considered good for a government department and for taxpayers as well. It means less bureaucracy, over-site and paperwork to deal with for the same amount of project funding.
|To find out what the CSA budget actually is, check out the March 9th, 2017 Federal government document, “CSA Departmental plan for 2017 – 2018,” which covers the CSA mandate, its plans for the year, the estimated budgets and HR requirements, the expected results and a variety of other supplementary data. The next CSA departmental plan is expected to be released in March 2018 and should be available on the CSA “Reports to Parliament” website. Graphic c/o CSA.
Project funding is what defines the success or failure of a government department, since it’s the money which goes to implement projects and programs and has the most effect on public perceptions of effectiveness. Project funding is normally a substantial portion of the overall department funding.
For example, as first outlined in the March 7th, 2010 post, “Feedback on the Throne Speech and Budget,” any reasonable assessment of CSA funding in 2010 would also include the $110Mln CDN allocated by the Federal government over three years beginning in 2009 for next generation Canadarms and rovers, plus the substantial additional funding allocated that year for the RADARSAT Constellation Mission (RCM).
These items are funded on a project by project basis and not from the base funding.
And while it’s common knowledge that the CSA is only allowed to reallocate it’s base budget and is restricted in what it can do with project funding for programs like Radarsat Constellation Mission (RCM) and other programs as listed on the “Government of Canada, disclosure of grants and contributions awards for the Canadian Space Agency,” it’s also generally conceded that CSA subcontractors would prefer less oversight and more project funding.
But that’s not the whole story. Most Federal government procurement includes a “risk reduction” mechanism, where a government department will often hold back a proportion of the final payment to contractors until milestones have been achieved and/or the contract is complete.
Governments do this in an effort to cost costs and maintain leverage over their contractors. These “contingency fundbacks” are normally small, especially when the provider is a large, well respected company performing well understood work.
|Governments and private sector organizations often maintain “contingency funds,” a reserve of money set aside to cover possible unforeseen future expenses. When those unforeseen circumstances fail to materialize, the funds are rolled over into the next project. Image c/o The Canadian Encyclopedia.
But fundback requirements typically increase when the contractor is smaller, inexperienced, a start-up or if the required work contains a large research and development component.
You know. Like the innovative new projects often contemplated by the CSA.
When a project doesn’t pan out, the funding normally is either rolled over into the next year to try again (something called “re-profiling“) or the funding is cut off and the contractor is required to repay the portion of the work considered incomplete.
Sources have indicated that some of the Canadian government fundbacks for R&D focused work hover around 40% or more of the total contracted worth although the average is normally far less. Understanding fundback requirements and how funds are often provided in increments contingent on completing milestones would go a long way towards explaining why the CSA seemingly spends so much less than it gets.
After all, R&D projects don’t always work out the way people intend. When failures happen, good government procurement people spending the taxpayers money do what they’re supposed to do. They cut their losses and retrieve what funds they can.
But that ongoing pot of unused funds also makes it difficult to request additional funding for new programs from the treasury.
For example, as a side effect of the government fundback requirements, CSA contract managers have a reputation of pushing hard to get more work for less money. In most cases, they’re not allowed to dig in to the fundbacks and contingency funds. The end result is that they have a pot of unused, but allocated funds available between December and March of each fiscal year which can’t be spend on other items.
But while bureaucrats and project managers might insist that they need more, a cursory audit would show extra money in the bank and turn any new funding request into an uphill battle.
This is how Federal budgets work. Objecting to this, as seems to be the case with the SpaceQ post, is not the sort of argument which will reinvigorate our CSA or free up additional funds for government funded projects.
|As outlined in the May 17th, 2011 BBC News post, “What is debt ‘reprofiling‘,” the term is common enough in international financial circles and is a type of restructuring, in which known financial responsibilities are stretched out over a longer period of time, but the overall value of those responsibilities remains the same. It’s considered to be a little better than simply modifying or changing financial commitments unilaterally and much better than reneging on commitments previously made (which is also known as taking a “haircut“). Screen shot c/o BBC News.
As outlined in a February 16th, 2018 e-mail from Julie Simard, the strategic manager of communications for the CSA:
As you know, space projects are complex, with changing requirements, and are generally spread over a long period of time. They are in fact the epitome of innovation, in which we constantly push further scientific research, knowledge and technology.
For this reason, and as part of sound management practices, the CSA plans some contingency funds for each project in order to help mitigate risks and ensure their successful delivery. The percentage allocated to the contingency funds varies from one project to another, but also to the project phase.
Contingency funds are released when they are no longer needed, all along the project duration. Contingency funds are necessary and allow the CSA to remain agile, flexible and being able to react to unforeseen situations.
It’s also worth noting that, as outlined in the February 15th, 2018 Space News post, “Canadian Space Agency president not surprised by NASA ISS transition plans,” CSA president Sylvain Laporte is taking a “wait and see” approach to NASA’s plans to end funding of the International Space Station (ISS) in the mid-2020s, in order to help fund the proposed Deep Space Gateway, a follow-on plan which CSA hopes to build a mission around, after the ISS shuts down.
In essence, the CSA is waiting for a mission, not an audit.
Back to you, SpaceQ.
Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog.