Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic

Opening Statement to the Standing Committee on Finance

Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic

22 June 2020

Karen Hogan, Chartered Professional AccountantCPA, Chartered AccountantCA
Auditor General of Canada

Mr. Chair, thank you for inviting us to discuss the planned audit work of our office, including the work on the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. With me today is Andrew Hayes, Deputy Auditor General and Interim Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development.

My appointment as Auditor General of Canada was effective on June 8. I am very pleased to make my first appearance before a parliamentary committee as the Auditor General, and I look forward to supporting Parliament over the next 10 years.

When the Interim Auditor General, Mr. Sylvain Ricard, appeared before this committee on May 12, he discussed our audits of the government’s Investing in Canada plan and the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

He also spoke about the resourcing challenges that our office has been facing, and the difficult decisions that we had to make to delay other planned audit work in order to prioritize the Investing in Canada and COVID-19 audits. Today, I will build on the information that Mr. Ricard provided to this committee.

Our audit of the Investing in Canada plan is well underway. We know that there is considerable interest in this audit. We have been collecting and analyzing a significant amount of information. We have also designed an audit approach that will allow us to provide as much information as possible to Parliament about the government’s implementation and monitoring activities, and the nature of the projects that have been funded under the plan.

With respect to our COVID-19 audit work, we have been focusing on the government’s spending related to health and safety protection, support to individuals and businesses, and other liquidity support and capital relief. We are also considering elements of emergency preparedness and early‑response actions. We expect to be conducting audits related to COVID‑19 for many years.

Although our work is progressing, I think that it is worth noting that physical distancing and remote working arrangements present some challenges for our audits. We have seen that it takes more time and effort to work through the audit processes and to access, receive, and exchange information. I would emphasize, however, that we have seen a willingness and a concerted effort on the part of those that we audit to work with us.

We also know that there is important audit work that will have to be done at a later date. For example, information about the effectiveness of some programs, and corrective actions that the government may take, will only be available for audit in the future.

For both the COVID-19 and the Investing in Canada audits, we are exploring ways to report our findings to Parliament as quickly as possible. At this point, it is likely that we will present specific audit reports to Parliament when they are completed, rather than take the traditional approach of setting a date for presenting a collection of reports.

I would now like to speak briefly about the unanimous motion that was passed by your committee on June 9. We have always considered a unanimous motion from a parliamentary committee to be a very clear message to our office.

The committee’s motion calls on us to audit all federal programs associated with Canada’s COVID-19 response, to conduct all audits requested by the House of Commons, and to complete all previously scheduled audits. The motion also calls on the government to provide us with all the funding that we need to carry out these audits and any other work that we deem to be appropriate.

We viewed the committee’s motion as reinforcing our work’s importance and value to Parliament. We pride ourselves in supporting Parliament to the best of our abilities.  Given our current resourcing and funding levels, we need to be selective when deciding on the audits that we conduct. We will not be able to audit each and every federal program associated with Canada’s COVID-19 response.

When I appeared before the Standing Committee on Government Operations on May 29, I mentioned that, once I was appointed, one of my first priorities would be to assess our funding needs in light of the current circumstances, which includes the significant work that we have been asked to do. At this point, I do not have an updated number to share, but I am confident that we will ask for a budget increase that will be greater than the $10.8 million that we asked for when we submitted our requests for additional funds in 2019 and 2020. That amount was based on assessments that were done in 2017, and a lot has changed since then.

We are currently engaged in discussions with the Department of Finance Canada about our funding. We expect that those discussions will continue over the next few weeks. Although we still believe that an independent funding mechanism is the best long-term solution, we are committed to exploring solutions with senior public servants so that our current funding needs can be addressed as quickly as possible. If we encounter difficulties that cannot be overcome, we will be sure to inform Parliament.

We are not sitting back and waiting though. We have taken steps over the last week to maximize the performance audit work that we can do in the future. In particular, we launched a hiring process last Friday with the intention of significantly increasing the capacity of our performance audit practice. We know that it will take some time to hire and onboard the highly skilled people that we need to do the work that you have asked us to do.

Obviously, we are taking some risks because we have not received a permanent funding increase. On the other hand, if we do not start the hiring processes, we will not have the people in place to do the work. We will keep Parliament informed about our work and the impact on our resources.

Both Andrew and I are happy to answer any questions the committee may have. Thank you.