February 2021 Reports of the Auditor General of Canada

Opening Statement to the Standing Committee on Public Accounts

February 2021 Reports of the Auditor General of Canada

11 March 2021

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

Madam Chair, I am pleased to discuss our audit reports, which were tabled in the House of Commons on 25 February. I am accompanied by Dawn Campbell, Carol McCalla, Dusan Duvnjak, Philippe Le Goff, Nick Swales, and Glenn Wheeler, the principals who were responsible for the audits.

Included in my February reports was a copy of our special examination of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation. I am pleased to report that we found no significant deficiencies in the Foundation’s corporate management practices or management of outreach and awareness activities during the period covered by our audit.

Let’s start with our audit of government procurement for complex information technologyIT systems. Many of the government’s IT systems are aging and need to be replaced to better serve Canadians. They include systems that deliver benefits like employment insurance, Old Age Security and pensions, systems that are used to pay government employees, and systems that support government telecommunications infrastructure.

Overall, we found that the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, Public Services and Procurement Canada, Employment and Social Development Canada, and Shared Services Canada made good progress in modernizing their procurement approaches. For example, in 2 of the 3 complex IT procurements that we looked at, they introduced new agile practices that included breaking down megaprojects into smaller ones, and they consulted early and often with end users and private sector suppliers to define business needs and design solutions.

We also found that there was room for improvement in some areas, such as guidance and training for procurement officers and better mechanisms for monitoring fairness, openness, and transparency.

I am encouraged by the openness to explore new ways of doing business that we’ve noted in this audit. To pave the way for further progress, these organizations will need to build on what they’ve learned so far to continue modernizing their procurement approaches and maximize services and support for Canadians.

Let’s turn now to our audit of the National Shipbuilding Strategy. This audit provided an opportunity to examine a complex program in its early stages, once the procurement process was completed.

Overall, we found that during our audit period, the National Shipbuilding Strategy was slow to deliver the combat and non-combat ships that Canada needs to meet its domestic and international obligations for science and defence. The delivery of many ships had been significantly delayed. Further delays could result in several ships being retired before their replacements are operational.

National Defence, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Public Services and Procurement Canada and Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada reacted to issues impacting the timely delivery of ships. They made key decisions during the audit so as to improve the prospects of timely future deliveries.

That said, I am still concerned that the Strategy has been slow to deliver. Considering the unknown impact of the COVID‑19 pandemic on work in departments and shipyards, and with the bulk of new ships yet to be built, departments need to look for opportunities to further improve how they manage risks and contingencies.

I am now going to go to a couple of audits that more closely impact the day-to-day life of Canadians. The first examined the Canada Child Benefit program. This income-based benefit program is important to help families who need financial support to raise their children. The audit also reviewed the one-time additional payment of up to $300 per child issued in May 2020 to help eligible families during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Overall, we found that the Canada Revenue Agency managed the Canada Child Benefit program in a way that provided accurate and timely payments to millions of eligible families.

We also noted areas where the Agency could improve the administration of the program. For example, a better information-sharing process with other organizations that notified the Agency when recipients left the country permanently would enable the Agency to avoid issuing payments based on outdated information.

Turning to another people story, we audited Indigenous Services Canada’s support to ensure that First Nations communities have reliable access to safe drinking water.

Despite committing to do so by March 2021, Indigenous Services Canada did not meet the government’s commitment to remove all long-term drinking water advisories for public systems in First Nations communities. Drinking water advisories have remained a constant in many communities, with almost half outstanding for more than 10 years. In some cases, advisories were lifted as a result of interim measures that did not fully address underlying deficiencies.

The department’s efforts to address the problem have been constrained by a number of issues, including an outdated policy and formula for funding the operation and maintenance of public water systems. The department has also been working to revise the legislative framework to provide First Nations communities with drinking water protections comparable to other communities in Canada.

I’m very concerned and honestly disheartened that this long-standing issue is still not resolved. Access to safe drinking water is a basic human necessity. I don’t believe anyone would say that this is in any way an acceptable situation in Canada, in 2021.

Indigenous Services Canada must work in partnership with First Nations to develop and implement a lasting solution for safe drinking water in First Nations communities.

Let’s go now to our last report. This audit followed up on selected recommendations from our 2013 audit of Transport Canada’s oversight of rail safety.

We found that Transport Canada had yet to fully address our recommendations from 2013. While the Department has made important improvements to the way it plans and prioritizes its activities and follows up on rail companies’ plans and actions to address deficiencies, it is unable to show whether these actions have contributed to improved rail safety overall. When you devote people and time to addressing issues, you should be able to measure if that investment is making a difference.

Rail safety accidents can have serious consequences, causing devastating loss of life and environmental damage. I am very concerned that while Transport Canada has taken some actions to address our recommendations, 8 years after our last audit, there is still much left to do to improve the oversight of rail safety in Canada.

All of these audits touch on areas that have direct and indirect ramifications for Canadians across the country. Whether it’s reliable access to safe drinking water or ensuring the safe movement of people and goods on our national railways, there are some serious and long-standing issues here. They need to be resolved permanently, and soon.

Madam Chair, this concludes my opening statement. We will be happy to answer any questions you may have.