Oversight of Government of Canada Advertising

Opening Statement to the Standing Committee on Public Accounts

Oversight of Government of Canada Advertising

(Report 4—2019 Spring Reports of the Auditor General of Canada)

23 February 2021

Andrew Hayes
Deputy Auditor General of Canada

Madam Chair, thank you for this opportunity to discuss our report on the oversight of Government of Canada advertising. This report was tabled in Parliament in May 2019. Joining me today is Michelle Salvail, who was responsible for the audit.

The Government of Canada uses communications to inform the public of its programs and services. A message is considered advertising when the government pays to place it either in traditional media, such as newspapers, television, radio, or billboards, or in digital media, such as websites or social media platforms.

In 2016, the Government of Canada introduced in its Policy on Communications and Federal Identity a definition of non-partisan communications that includes advertising. The government also put in place the requirement that all advertising campaigns with a budget of more than $500,000 would be subject to an external review for non‑partisanship, as assessed against a set of specific criteria.

Our audit focused on whether the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat and Public Services and Procurement Canada were ensuring that the government’s commitment to non-partisan advertising was being met. Overall, in our view, the government’s oversight of advertising was not sufficiently robust to ensure that no public funds were spent on partisan advertising.

The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat did not assess risks beyond cost when it set out the external review process for campaigns with budgets exceeding $500,000. In other words, the threshold was based on just the value of the campaign, and the secretariat did not consider other important risk factors, such as a campaign’s audience reach or topic. For example, a campaign can cost little but carry more risk because it focuses on a politically sensitive topic like medical assistance in dying, while an extensive information campaign on a neutral topic, such as handwashing, will cost much more but be less likely to involve political colouring.

We also found that the secretariat did not monitor the quality of the external reviews conducted by Ad Standards, the not-for-profit organization mandated by the secretariat to conduct the reviews. In reviewing files provided by the secretariat, we found little evidence of the analysis conducted to support the assessment of campaigns against criteria. This gap in monitoring means that the secretariat may have missed opportunities to identify and rectify weaknesses in the oversight process.

Public Services and Procurement Canada reviews campaigns that fall below the $500,000 threshold to ensure that they comply with policy and legislative requirements, including those for non-partisanship. We found little evidence that the department conducted consistent and thorough reviews against all non-partisanship criteria. For example, we found no indication that reviewers took steps to confirm that statements and statistics presented in campaigns were factual, even though the government’s Policy on Communications and Federal Identity sets out that non-partisan communications are to be objective, factual, and explanatory.

We made 5 recommendations to the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat and 1 to Public Services and Procurement Canada. Both organizations agreed with our recommendations and prepared action plans. According to the timelines set out in these plans, all our recommendations should have been addressed at this time.

Although we have not conducted additional audit work since 2019, I do want to note that some changes have been made to the external review process. For example, the threshold for sending a campaign for external review has been lowered to $250,000. The committee may wish to ask the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat whether its analysis of risk factors other than cost have led to other changes to the process.

Since our audit was completed, the government’s website shows that more than 50 additional campaigns underwent a mandatory external review, including those related to the COVID‑19 pandemic. We also note that review results posted since our audit identify more instances of non-compliance with criteria such as accuracy, factualness, and objectivity. We take these results to be an indication of the positive impact of our work.

Madam Chair, this concludes my opening remarks. We would be pleased to answer any questions the committee may have. Thank you.