A public service to be thankful for: A conversation with Auditor General Sheila Fraser – Canadian Government Executive

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May 7, 2012

A public service to be thankful for: A conversation with Auditor General Sheila Fraser

CGE Vol.13 No.1 January 2007

IT projects
Ms. Fraser, your recent report notes that, “Large IT projects are no longer about introducing new computer systems. They are meant to help departments change the way they do business – for example, by introducing new processes and modernizing work practices.” You observe that “the quality of project management ranged from good to seriously flawed” and “since 1998 the Treasury Board Secretariat has established a framework of best practices for managing IT projects, (yet) many of the problems cited in past reports have persisted.” Other governments have had similar experiences – the majority of IT projects do not reach their financial, performance and timeframe targets. I’m wondering, is the federal framework, now eight years old, adequate?

Obviously these things can be updated and there can be improvements made to them but the problem is not with the framework itself. It’s with the fact that it’s not being followed. So in the case of some of the basic weaknesses that we found, I don’t think changing the framework is going to resolve them. The people just didn’t follow that framework.

In a way, that’s encouraging. It’s easier to fix.

One would hope so.

Reporting misconduct
You report that almost half of employees surveyed at three public safety agencies believe that reporting misconduct won’t lead to action. I was more discouraged by that than any other finding.

I think you’re right, that is the most troubling aspect in all of this and the most troubling aspect of the Correctional Investigator situation – that it went on for so long. And when we look at the survey that we did in the three agencies – the RCMP, Correctional Service Canada and Canada Border Services Agency – what I found interesting was that the vast majority of people said that they would report suspected cases of wrongdoing but they didn’t believe that they would be respected if they did so and they didn’t think that management would deal with it in a confidential manner or deal with it appropriately or take action.

I think there has to be a clear message from senior managers and leadership in the public service around this. The tone starts at the top. If employees don’t think that senior management will take action, whether that be true or not, if that perception exists, then people will be very reluctant to report wrongdoing. I know a lot of people are pointing to the whistle blowing legislation as being a protection for employees. To me that’s a last resort. I would hope that there would be a culture within any organization, public or private sector, so any employee who suspects wrongdoing has an avenue whereby they could report it in confidence, and not feel that they would suffer from doing so.

I think what might be happening is employees informally surface their concerns. And if there is a reasonable response, things get resolved before there is a big problem. But if the response is to ignore the problem or threaten the employee, then most stay quiet and do not use the formal channels.

And that’s what’s troubling, I think. Why are these things allowed to persist? And you’re right. As the audit team was doing its work at the Office of the Correctional Investigator, it became clear that a lot of people were aware of what was going on, yet nothing was done about it.

Isn’t there a conflict of interest built in? I understand the Correctional Service provided some administrative support to the OCI, yet the OCI was a “watchdog” for Corrections. That might set up a situation where the larger agency is reluctant to point out flaws in the smaller agency. It would be seen as self-serving.

That’s a broader issue, I think, that government has to take a good look at with these various agencies and boards that have a sort of quasi judicial role or an ombudsman-type role. They require the independence to be able to carry out their functions and I think that the central agencies and departments hesitate to do a lot of oversight because they don’t want to be seen to be interfering. So, there is a tension there, and I think we’re going to have a look at this – and I would hope the government would as well. How do you ensure that these agencies have the independence they require to carry out their functions but, at the same time, ensure that there is proper accountability and oversight?

Lowering the bar
Has Ron Stewart lowered the bar on malfeasance? Previously Ted Weatherill spent $750 for a lunch in Paris. There’s something exotic about that. But billing the government to go to your high school reunion? That’s so boring. Or hiding out at the cottage? One might make a case that wasn’t reported because the staff felt things ran better that way.

I think another question this raises is the role of executive directors. When you have appointees who come in for fairly limited periods of time, five- to seven-year appointments, how long should executive directors stay in place? What kind of support group or network of peers is available to them to discuss issues, clarify roles and expectations and so on – I think there’s a question around that as well.

The good news
How and when do you tell the good news?

You know, we often have good news. Even in this report, we looked at the Old Age Security program, a significant program – $28 billion a year – representing about 14% of federal government spending. We found that good progress had been made to improve seniors’ access to benefits by streamlining the application process and publicizing the program, and the error rate for payments was very low. We’re always pleased to talk about those kinds of good news stories but they get little attention in the media.

We also do follow-up audits to see if government has taken action on issues we’ve identified in our audits. We report our follow-up work each year in our Status Report. To date, there are many cases in which we are able to report that the government is making satisfactory progress on dealing with issues from the past. And as I’ve said in many interviews, it’s unfortunate cases like the Correctional Investigator occur and get such a high profile, because I really do believe they are the exception and public servants are very dedicated and go to work with great integrity every single day.

Expenditure management
Your report notes that, “Currently, the system focuses on challenging new spending proposals and, in effect, ignores ongoing spending.” Are we potentially looking at sunset clauses or regular program reviews like in the 90s?

I hope it wouldn’t be that nature of review. Those reviews are targeted at trying to get cost savings. What we’re saying is that all programs should go through some kind of systematic review from time to time, I would suspect no sooner than once every five or more years, just to see if they continue to be relevant, efficient, economical. With changing circumstances, often programs need to be changed and adapted. When new spending proposals come forward, now there’s a lot of scrutiny, but no one actually goes back to see if there are other, similar programs going on in various departments. Are there programs that could be aligned differently with these new measures? So, it’s really carrying out evaluations.

I think the main issue here is t

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