2009 Fall Report of the Auditor General of Canada Matters of Special Importance—2009
2009 Fall Report of the Auditor General of Canada
Matters of Special Importance—2009
I am pleased to present my 2009 Fall Report to the House of Commons. The Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development is also presenting a report.
This Report addresses a wide range of issues typical of the challenges facing government today:
- coordinating appropriate responses to emergencies, such as pandemics and terrorist attacks;
- selecting foreign workers at a time when industrialized countries are competing to attract qualified labour;
- providing effective international aid;
- supporting the transition to electronic health records;
- increasing First Nations’ control over land management as a critical component of their future well-being;
- buying military vehicles to protect our troops in Afghanistan from improvised explosive devices;
- ensuring that income tax legislation is clear and up to date; and
- knowing whether government programs are achieving their intended results or need to be adjusted.
The Main Points from our chapters on all of these issues are included at the end of these comments.
While the issues are diverse, a common message emerges in several of our chapters: how important it is, when the government designs programs, develops policies, and makes commitments, that it fully analyze the practical challenges of implementing them successfully. Our findings show that this is not always the case.
Despite good intentions, there are examples of policies adopted, programs launched or changed, and commitments made without a full analysis of the risks involved, the resources needed, the potential impact on other players, and the steps required to achieve the desired results. We also see examples where there is no long-term vision or strategy to guide a department’s overall programming, and others where there is no ongoing evaluation of program effectiveness. The result can be a fragmented approach to programming in response to a problem of the day, creating other problems that were not anticipated.
A prime example is immigration programming, described in Chapter 2, Selecting Foreign Workers Under the Immigration Program. Canada has an ongoing need for permanent and temporary workers with various skills, and it must compete with other countries to attract them. It is critical that the government’s programs to facilitate the entry of these workers into Canada be designed to meet the needs of the Canadian labour market.
We found that Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) has made a number of key decisions without first properly assessing their costs and benefits, potential risks, and potential impacts on other programs and delivery mechanisms. For example, program changes in recent years have resulted in a significant shift in the types of workers being admitted permanently to Canada. We saw little evidence that this shift is part of any clear strategy to best meet Canada’s labour needs. A strategic roadmap for the future, such as the national framework the Department committed to develop in 2004, would help to provide a clear vision of what each program is expected to contribute to the economic objectives for immigration.
In addition, the Department did not carry out sufficient analysis to support its strategy for reducing the inventory of applications to enter Canada under the federal skilled worker category. While it is too early to assess their full impact, there are indications that the measures taken might not have the desired effect.
This chapter also provides an example of how not fully considering the way a policy will be carried out can lead to problems in implementing it. The Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations state that before issuing a work permit to a temporary foreign worker, a CIC officer must assess, on the basis of an opinion provided by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC), if the job offer is genuine and not likely to negatively affect the labour market in Canada. The Regulations state the factors to consider in assessing labour market effects but are silent on how to assess whether a job offer is genuine. We found that CIC and HRSDC—who co-manage temporary foreign worker programs—were not clear about their respective roles in making this assessment and how it is to be done. As a result, work permits could be issued for jobs or employers that do not exist.
Chapter 7, Emergency Management, also illustrates the practical challenges of implementing policies. Public Safety Canada is the coordinating agency for federal emergency management activities. The aim is to provide a federal focal point to eliminate potential confusion when responding to crises such as the H1N1 pandemic, widespread forest fires, and the 1998 ice storm in Eastern Canada.
The expertise and experience to deal with various aspects of emergencies reside in several departments, and it is up to each department to determine in accordance with its mandate how it will address an emergency. Under the Emergency Management Act, however, Public Safety Canada has the responsibility to coordinate the emergency management activities of federal government institutions along with those of the provinces and territories.
We found that it is not yet clear how Public Safety Canada will carry out these responsibilities, as the Federal Emergency Response Plan has not been adopted and endorsed by the government and the federal departments involved. Therefore, it is not clear how, in practice, Public Safety Canada will reconcile its role as the focal point for federal action in a crisis with its lack of authority to dictate what other departments will do, given the principle that departments are accountable to their own ministers.
The Department also has the responsibility to promote a common approach to emergency management, including the adoption of standards and best practices. We noted that emergency first responders—police officers, firefighters, and medical and ambulance crews—are limited in their ability to communicate and work together in an emergency because their voice communication systems, such as radios, are not compatible. Public Safety Canada officials told us that their role is not to develop standards but rather to assist groups in developing their own—and very little progress has been made to date. It is not clear how helping groups develop their own standards would promote a common approach.
In addition, we were told by officials that while the Department can provide advice and coordination, it is up to operational departments to identify Canada’s critical infrastructure and determine how it should be protected before a coordinated approach can be implemented. However, Public Safety Canada has provided no advice to departments to ensure that they do this.
Public Safety Canada has made some progress, slowly, in the areas of strategy, framework, and plan development. However, until it clarifies what its responsibility for coordination means in practical terms, it is unclear to us—and to some of the departments that have asked it for guidance—what concrete steps it would take to coordinate federal action in the event of an actual emergency of national significance.
In Chapter 8, Strengthening Aid Effectiveness, we note that in the absence of a comprehensive strategy to guide the aid efforts of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), plans and priorities often change before they are fully implemented.
CIDA’s 2002 Policy Statement on Strengthening Aid Effectiveness commits it to principles of aid effectiveness adopted by the international donor community: align efforts with recipients’ needs and priorities; harmonize activities with those of other donors; and use new forms of aid known as program-based approaches, in which donors coordinate support to the budgets of recipient governments or local organizations for a development program delivered using local systems and procedures. The international donor community has agreed that applying these principles improves the effectiveness of aid.
In the countries we examined, we found that CIDA is working with other donors to apply the principles of aid effectiveness. We were told by donors and by officials of recipient governments that CIDA staff in the field are highly regarded and their efforts are appreciated.
In examining corporate management processes, however, we found that while some action was taken to align programming with the principles of aid effectiveness, the actions were selective and not guided by a comprehensive strategy. In some cases, initiatives were begun but not tracked to completion. In other cases no action plans were developed at all. There is little evidence that senior managers systematically reviewed the implementation of the 2002 Policy Statement. Shifting priorities and a lack of clear direction and action plans led to a situation in which donors, recipient governments, and CIDA program staff are unclear about the Agency’s direction and long-term commitment to specific countries or regions.
The international donor community has recognized that the long-term nature of international development requires stability and predictability of programming. In our view, frequent changes in policy direction and substantial turnover of senior personnel in recent years have posed significant challenges for CIDA’s aid effectiveness agenda.
The challenges of supporting the implementation of electronic health records nationwide are discussed in Chapter 4, Electronic Health Records. The audit looked at Canada Health Infoway (Infoway), a not-for-profit corporation created to lead the national development of electronic health records (EHRs) with funding from Health Canada. We found that Infoway has accomplished much in the eight years since it was created.
Developing and implementing EHRs that are compatible across Canada requires national leadership and the collaboration of many stakeholders, including health care professionals. Chapter 4 notes that while Infoway has met a number of important challenges, others remain. While our discussion of future challenges is not based directly on our audit work, we have raised them to indicate the magnitude of the efforts still needed.
For example, Infoway has set a goal of having EHRs for 50 percent of Canadians available to their authorized health care professionals by 2010. However, by 31 March 2009, only 17 percent of Canadians were living in a province or territory where a complete EHR system was available.
Further, not all completed EHR projects have implemented the standards required for national compatibility. According to Infoway, some of them will do so only when they are upgraded in the future. It is not clear who will provide the funding for this, and when.
Infoway, Health Canada, and the provinces and territories need to carefully consider how these and other challenges can be met so the EHR initiative can deliver the intended results.
The process of developing new programs or making changes to existing ones can benefit significantly by using information from effectiveness evaluations, as discussed in Chapter 1, Evaluating the Effectiveness of Programs.
Done well, effectiveness evaluations provide reliable, objective information that helps identify programs that are working as intended, those that are no longer needed, and those that are not achieving their objectives and could be replaced by programs that will achieve them more cost-effectively.
Unfortunately, the history of program evaluation in the federal government shows a poor record of implementation. After four decades of effort, evaluations are still not providing enough reliable evidence about whether program objectives are being met. In the absence of such information, it is difficult for departments to identify problem areas and correct them in order to make their programs more effective.
Our chapter on selecting foreign workers notes that evaluations of the programs we audited are either outdated or have not been done at all. Consequently, not only are CIC and HRSDC unable to determine to what extent the programs are meeting their objectives and achieving the expected outcomes, they are missing valuable information that could have been used in the recent past and could be used in the future when changing programs or designing new ones.
The departments we examined have concerns about their capacity to implement the requirement in the 2009 Policy on Evaluation that all direct program spending be evaluated. An earlier requirement to evaluate all grant and contribution programs had already taxed their capacity. In our view, identifying programs where effectiveness information can be put to the best use will be a key part of implementing the coverage requirements of the policy.
Our findings this year underscore the importance of thinking through the implementation challenges when policies and programs are developed or changed. Having a complete picture of what needs to be done, by whom and when, how much it will cost, what risks are involved, how other programs might be affected, and what has or has not worked well to date, can make the difference between a program that meets its objectives and one that does not, one that delivers results for Canadians and one that does not. Several of our recommendations to departments address these issues.
I hope members of Parliament will find this report useful in holding the government to account for its management of public funds and its delivery of services to Canadians. I look forward to continuing to work with parliamentary committees as they review the results of our audits.
As always, I wish to thank my colleagues and staff for their effort and their ability to deal with the many challenges we face together.