News / Canada

Ferguson's frustrations: focus on people, auditor urges federal government

OTTAWA — Auditor general Michael Ferguson broke with convention in his latest reports released Tuesday, expressing frustration with the federal government's perpetual fixation with process at the expense of getting results for Canadians.

Ferguson, who is marking the midpoint of his 10-year mandate, is urging the government and parliamentarians to redouble efforts to focus its efforts on its end users. Here is a selection of excerpts from the introduction to his reports: 

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"This moment is significant for me and may be reason enough to write this message. However, I am not doing so to summarize what the Office of the Auditor General of Canada has accomplished under my watch. The mandate that has prompted me to pick up the pen is a more important one — I am referring to the mandate of the Canadian government elected a year ago, in the fall of 2015.

"Indeed, a new Parliament brings a fresh eye and the opportunity to ask questions about the public service that parliamentarians oversee. Such questions should focus on whether government departments and agencies are working for Canadians the best they can and, if not, what obstacles are standing in the way of improvement."

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"When we make recommendations — under the banner of either the auditor general or the commissioner of the environment and sustainable development — the government almost always agrees with us. We see the impact of our performance audits and departments often start to improve their services before audits are finished. Over the years, our financial audits have significantly improved the transparency of the government’s financial reporting.

"Despite those good outcomes, I believe that government could get more value from our audits if it used them differently — if departments and agencies focused on becoming more productive and put more emphasis on what they are delivering. After all, in one way or another, everything that government does is intended to serve Canadians. As such, government should 'do service well' to benefit Canadians, both individually and collectively."

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"In the interest of assisting our still-new Parliament in carrying out its oversight role and of helping government 'do service well,' I believe there is value in looking back over the body of work produced by the Office of the Auditor General of Canada. This is a way to identify those issues that show up in audit after audit, year after year, and sometimes persist for decades.

"These problems include departments and agencies struggling to work outside their silos, either to learn from what is happening within their organizations, or more broadly, to learn from what their external counterparts are doing.

"And what about programs that are managed to accommodate the people running them rather than the people receiving the services? What about programs in which the focus is on measuring what civil servants are doing rather than how well Canadians are being served? In such cases, the perception of the service is very different depending on whether you are talking to the service provider or to the citizen trying to navigate the red tape.

"I am also talking about problems like regulatory bodies that cannot keep up with the industries they regulate, and public accountability reports that fail to provide a full and clear picture of what is going on for a myriad of reasons — such as systems that are outdated or just not working, or data that is unreliable or incomplete, not suited to the needs, or not being used. Our audits come across these same problems in different organizations time and time again. Even more concerning is that when we come back to audit the same area again, we often find that program results have not improved."

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 "In our system of government, Parliament makes the rules, departments and agencies carry out the wishes of Parliament, and citizens receive the services. At least, that is the way the system is designed. Over the years, our audit work has revealed government’s lack of focus on end-users, Canadians."

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 "In an age of instant communications, Canadians expect quick results, while governments are often stuck using old, slow approaches that fail to meet expectations. The slow speed of government is an issue that we have reported on often, and we are reporting on it again in these fall 2016 audits. For example, more than 170,000 objections from individual and corporate tax filers currently await processing by the Canada Revenue Agency. It can take from a few months to several years to bring those files to a close.

"The agency does not consider timeliness from the point of view of the taxpayer."

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"In just five years, with some 100 performance audits and special examinations behind me since I began my mandate, the results of some audits seem to be — in the immortal words of Yogi Berra — 'deja vu all over again.'"

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Another picture that reappears too frequently is the disparity in the treatment of Canada’s indigenous peoples. My predecessor, Sheila Fraser, near the end of her mandate, summed up her impression of 10 years of audits and related recommendations on First Nations issues with the word 'unacceptable.' Since my arrival, we have continued to audit these issues and to present at least one report per year on areas that have an impact on First Nations, including emergency management and policing services on reserves, access to health services, and most recently, correctional services for aboriginal offenders. When you add the results of these audits to those we reported on in the past, I can only describe the situation as it exists now as beyond unacceptable."

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 "Auditors are very much focused on what has happened. Looking forward is not something they are used to doing. However, for things to change, I believe it is important to step outside the box and consider new angles.

"In addition to the difficulties of today, members of Parliament and senators should also consider what a quickly changing world could mean tomorrow for government organizations, and ask whether they are prepared to respond to rapid change. The rise in technology and people-based decision making is already affecting governments. Who could have predicted a world shift in the taxi industry and travel accommodation rentals just a few years ago?"

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"I believe that there is an important role for parliamentary committees, whether those of the House of Commons or the Senate, to use our audit reports not just to understand what has happened, but also to make sure that changes take place. Committees should invite departments and agencies to appear before them multiple times, until it is evident that they have made the changes needed to improve their services to people.

"In a few years, when this government is at the end of its current mandate and I am nearing the end of mine, I wonder if I will find myself repeating these words, or if I will be able to talk about real improvements in government services built around people."