Government’s failure to keep stock of PPE reserves hurt us when we needed it most

Good commentary on the long history of government data management and use issues, brought to prominence during COVID-19, along with systemic accountability issues.

And yes, the default option for government data would be public (and to be fair, the open government initiative has resulted in more availability of data):

Seventeen years ago, there was a cabinet minister named Reg Alcock, the President of the Treasury Board, who invited people to his office for lectures about data.

The late Mr. Alcock was a hefty, 6-foot-8 mountain of a man with two main interests: Liberal Party organizing in Manitoba and dragging the government into the digital age. Part of the lecture he gave in 2004 was a question: Why is it that corporate executives have computers that can tell them, for example, how many trucks their company owns, but a prime minister would need a year to get the same answer from government?

On Wednesday, Auditor-General Karen Hogan issued a report on the government’s handling of stockpiles of PPE that let it be known that Mr. Alcock’s question is still hanging in the air, nearly two decades later.

Ms. Hogan’s team reported that the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) had a stockpile of personal protective equipment and medical devices, but it didn’t have a policy about what should be in it, or what was in it, or whether the equipment had expired.

When the biggest public-health crisis of modern times hit and provinces needed N95 masks and ventilators from the National Emergency Strategic Stockpile, well, there wasn’t enough useful stuff there. The data were so unreliable the auditors couldn’t tell how badly it fell short.

The haphazard management of the stockpile wasn’t a new thing. Internal audits in 2010 and 2013 raised those issues.

Citizens might think a decade of disregarded warnings is a scandal that will shake the halls of power in Ottawa. But for a politician, it is cause for relief. The best kind of failure is one that was going on long before you took office. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s advisers will be happy enough that the Auditor-General credited the government for responding after the crisis hit.

But note that PHAC did draft a proposal to develop a better inventory management system in January, 2020 – just as COVID-19 was spreading – but agency officials told auditors “it was put on hold because of budget constraints.”

Mr. Alcock, back in the day, didn’t just want government to get computer systems – they have a lot – but to manage data, to make more information available and usable, so that government knows better what is happening within government.

But politicians in charge aren’t good at driving change in long-term, systemic issues that voters don’t even see. Mr. Alcock, for example, was preaching for IT in a Paul Martin government busy with Liberal scandals and non-confidence votes in Parliament.

Two PMs later, and governments still have a hard time seeing what government is doing. The National Emergency Strategic Stockpile wasn’t much use in a crisis because it didn’t do the kind of information management that that happens at a grocery store: figuring out what you will need, buying it, tracking what goes in and out and what is going bad.

By now we know that bad data management, not knowing what you don’t know, raises risk in a crisis. And there’s something else: Most of that data can and should be made public.

Why not let the public see the running tally of N95 masks in inventory, or ventilators on the web? Most people won’t look at it, but perhaps a few experts in universities and elsewhere will analyze the policies, crunch the data and, we can hope, point out when they’re messed up. Or just missing. That applies to other kinds of data, too.

In Britain, this week’s remarkable testimony of Dominic Cummings, a former aide to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, about the chaotic initial response to the pandemic made it pretty clear that it’s no longer necessary, or wise, to leave the data inside government.

Mr. Cummings testified to a parliamentary committee that false assumptions, bad analysis, and groupthink inside government led Mr. Johnson’s government to a disastrous notion that it should try to reach herd immunity rather than slowing the spread of COVID-19. Scientists outside government, notably a mathematician, helped convince him that was “catastrophically wrong,” he said. He and the government’s top science adviser later agreed data should have been released earlier, to get input.

That’s not the same thing as PHAC’s failure to keep track of a stockpile. But then, if we want to encourage the government to keep tabs on the data, one good way is to demand to see it.

Source: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/politics/article-governments-failure-to-keep-stock-of-ppe-reserves-hurt-us-when-we/

More resources needed for federal agencies processing refugee claims: AG

No surprise here, reflecting some long-term and ongoing issues:

Canada’s refugee and asylum system will continue to be overwhelmed if additional resources are not committed to the three federal agencies responsible for processing refugee claims, the country’s auditor general said Tuesday.

“We project that if the number of asylum claimants remains steady at around 50,000 per year, the wait time for protection decisions will increase to five years by 2024 — more than double the current wait time,” interim Auditor General Sylvain Ricard said in his spring report.

The current backlog, the auditor general said, is “worse than in 2012,” when a mountain of unresolved claims led the Harper government to reform the system.

The federal watchdog said in December last year that some 71,380 people were waiting for their claims to be heard. In March 2010, that number was 59,000.

Canada was the ninth-largest recipient of refugee and asylum claimants in 2017, with some 50,400 claims filed, a number that jumped to 55,000 in 2018.

About 40,000 of those asylum claimants came via the United States, with most crossing into Quebec.

The surge of claimants has put additional pressure on a system that has long grappled with processing delays, the auditor general’s office said — a crunch that is expected to continue if funding levels and processing capacity remains the same.

“Overall we found Canada’s refugee determination system was not equipped to process claims according to the required timelines,” the report notes.

Long wait times

At the end of December 2018, the auditor general’s office said the average wait time for a decision in Canada was two years. As of 2012, refugee claimants are supposed to have a hearing scheduled within 60 days of their arrival in Canada. 

In the March 2019 budget, the Trudeau government pledged $1.18 billion over five years for Canada’s strained refugee claimant system.

“Budget 2019 did provide additional resources to enhance the capacity of the system but it was not clear exactly how it’s going to deal with the backlog and reduce the wait times for claimants,” said Carol McCalla, the principal director of the auditor general’s report on processing asylum claims.

About 65 per cent of claimants have seen their hearings delayed at least once, the auditor general said — an action that led to an additional five-month delay, on average. 

About 25 per cent of claims made saw multiple delays, the auditor general said, noting most of the holdups were “due to administrative issues within the government’s control.” 

In almost half of the cases, hearings were delayed because a member of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada was unavailable. 

Another 10 per cent of cases were stalled because security screens were still being processed, even though the necessary paperwork had already been filed in one in five of the cases delayed for security reasons.

CBSA has since reallocated resources to “significantly improve the timeliness of security screening,” the auditor general’s report noted.

Canada’s refugee processing system isn’t utilizing available fast-tracks, either — processes that allow the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada to decide certain claims by simply reviewing a file rather than hold a hearing. 

The auditor general found the board only expedited about 25 per cent of eligible cases, even though 87 per cent of the remaining eligible cases eventually received a positive outcome. 

“Moreover, we found the Board did not process expedited claims more quickly,” the report said. “On average decisions for expedited claims took about the same amount of time as regular claims.” 

The board, the auditor general noted, announced changes to its expediting processing system in January.

Missing security checks

Processing delays weren’t the only issue flagged by Canada’s auditor general Tuesday. 

Canada’s federal watchdog also found poor quality assurance checks between Canada Border Services Agency and the federal immigration department meant about 400 applicants (or 0.5 per cent) were not subjected to the necessary criminal or identity checks because of system errors or failure to take claimants’ fingerprints. 

“Neither organization systematically tracked whether a criminal records check was always completed because of poor data quality,” the report reads, adding those records are “important for public safety and the integrity of the refugee determination system.”

In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale’s office said initial screening by CBSA of individuals arriving in Canada include biometric and biographic screening.

“This layer of screening screens out individuals with serious criminality. No individuals with serious criminality or security concerns were allowed into admitted to Canada,” Goodale’s office said.

“With respect to the layer of biometric screening examined by the Auditor General, the only new piece of information captured by this layer of screening is whether or not an individual had previously claimed asylum in another country.”

Poor data quality wasn’t the only concern flagged by the auditor general’s office.

Canada’s federal watchdog said poor communication between the three organizations responsible for Canada’s asylum claim system was made worse by the fact the CBSA, the federal immigration department and the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada use “different information technology systems, with limited interoperability.” 

As a result, the auditor general said it found “important gaps in which information was not shared, such as changes to hearing dates.”

“The system needs to be more flexible to be able to be scalable to increases in demand. As well, improvements are needed in how it uses its resources to share the information and processes the claims more efficiently,” McCalla said.

All three organizations also remain heavily dependent on paper and faxes to share specific claim information, the auditor general said, with the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada relying “almost exclusively on paper files in its work.” 

“Collecting and sharing information securely and efficiently are critical to the proper processing of asylum claims, especially when claim volumes are high,” the report noted.

In response to the auditor general’s report, all three organizations pledged to improve their quality assurance programs. “Through regular monitoring, issues such as missing, delayed, incomplete, or ineligible claimant information will be identified and addressed in a timely manner by the responsible organization,” reads a statement attributed to the organizations in the report.

Additional work will also be done to improve the department and agency’s technological capabilities, they said, including an eventual shift to digital processing.

Source: More resources needed for federal agencies processing refugee claims: AG

Government consistently fails to fix mistakes, Auditor-General says [need for citizen-centred program delivery]

Strong condemnation, widely noted. Despite the many years and efforts with respect to performance management and reporting, shows just how entrenched the government remains in measuring process and outputs, rather than results for citizens.

And ‘deliverology’ is unlikely to change this, as it is easier to track political commitments met, than actual benefits and outcomes for citizens.

During my time at Service Canada, we spent considerable time and effort to develop service strategies that aimed to place the citizen at the heart of service delivery, not the program management. There was considerable resistance from the various program branches, who were more comfortable, given the nature of accountabilities, to operate within silos. The slide below highlights the nature of change proposed, with the left showing the program and service maze, the right showing a more citizen-centric way of organizing programs.

ssso_implementation_plan_-_scmb_dec_2005_-_v5_08dec2005_e_scmb

Canada’s Auditor-General says the federal government must adjust the way it does business after a broad evaluation in which he says departments fail to consider whether their services actually benefit Canadians, cannot stay ahead of emerging trends and do not correct inadequacies even after they have been pointed out.

In marking the midpoint of his 10-year term, Michael Ferguson used his fall report to take an unusual step back from the assessments of specific programs to point to more systemic problems. Parliament, said Mr. Ferguson, uses his reports to learn about things that have gone wrong but does not ensure that changes are made to set them right.

“What about programs that are managed to accommodate the people running them rather than the people receiving the services?” asked Mr. Ferguson. “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….”

Departments and agencies work in silos, he said, failing to learn from what others outside, or even inside, their own organizations are doing.

“Our audits come across the 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,” said Mr. Ferguson. “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 – ‘déjà vu all over again.’ ”

For instance, said Mr. Ferguson, many past audits have revealed the government’s lack of focus on Canadians who are the end users of its services.

And that trend continues in a new study of the Beyond the Border Action Plan which was introduced in December, 2011, to enhance security and the flow of goods and people across the Canada-U.S. border. Five years and $585-million later, the departments and agencies involved cannot show how the measures that were part of the plan have made Canadians safer or accelerated the movement of either trade or travellers.

“We found that, where performance indicators were developed,” says the audit, “they measured whether activities and deliverables were completed, not the resulting benefits.”

Source: Government consistently fails to fix mistakes, Auditor-General says – The Globe and Mail

His full message is also worth reading beyond the excerpt below and soundbites above:

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.

Lack of focus on citizens

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.

Message from the Auditor General

‘Death by a Thousand Cuts:’ Memo to PM questions across the board budget cuts

Reassuring to know that PCO is doing its job and bringing these studies to the PM’s attention.

Last line is priceless and applies to the Canadian context and Government approach:

In a Jan. 27 memorandum to the prime minister, obtained under the Access to Information Act, the Clerk of the Privy Council briefed Stephen Harper on how austerity measures were being assessed in Australia.

“The authors found that prolonged cuts of this nature result in a loss of workforce capability, public sector productivity and innovation, and trust and confidence in public sector institutions,” states the memo.

The memo details how public trust is undermined “as programs become less efficient and effective in the wake of across-the-board cuts, and as mistakes and oversights occur.”

The study recommends that a better way to trim costs is by using efficiency audits of departments and by engaging staff to find effective and efficient new ways of delivering programs and services.

As the memo summarizes the Australian study, “skills shortages are having a significant impact on government operations, resulting in higher costs for recruitment and training over time, the appointment of more expensive private sector contractors for information technology, and diminished procurement expertise.”

Large portions of the four-page memo are blacked out.

The Prime Minister’s Office says it receives many memos and would not comment on the views in the Australian study.

“I will say that our government is proud of the steps we have taken to trim the size of government bureaucracy and ensure that tax dollars are being spent on programs and services that benefit Canadians,” spokesman Jason MacDonald said in an email.

….The study, based on austerity measures taken by national and regional governments in Australia, notes that politicians habitually claim cuts will be efficient and painless.

“In practice, however, claims that administrative budgets can be cut without affecting services are likely to be made only by politicians who have evaded explicit and responsible government decision-making, or want to evade it, or who are prepared to re-define services in order to evade it.”

‘Death by a Thousand Cuts:’ Memo to PM questions across the board budget cuts (pay wall)

And, in perhaps a concrete illustration of this, the Auditor General’s report on the sad state of Library and Archives Canada:

The Ottawa-based institution is supposed to collect and preserve government documents, photos, films, artworks and other materials of historical value and make them available for public use.

“Overall, we found that Library and Archives Canada was not acquiring all the archival records it should from federal institutions,” the report says.

The acquisition of federal records is governed by directives issued to departments and agencies, but some are out of date because they do not account for the records of new programs or changes to existing ones.

Since 2009, Library and Archives Canada was able to update the directives for just 30 of 195 federal agencies, meaning it could not ensure it was acquiring all retired records of archival value. As a result many records were stuck in limbo, awaiting Library and Archives’ decision as to whether they should be saved or destroyed.

Some of the 98,000 boxes of records in the backlog have been there for several decades. The auditor found the backlog had grown over the years and there was no approved plan to eliminate it despite allocation of $600,000 this year to tackle part of the problem.

Researchers for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission told the auditors the uneven quality of archival finding aids meant missing descriptions of box contents, as well as inaccurate or incomplete listings.

Library and Archives says digital records will represent the “format of choice” by 2017. However, there was no overall corporate strategy for the preservation of digital data, the report says.

The institution spent $15.4 million developing a trusted digital repository for records, but due to a change in approach it was never used.

Auditor General: Archives sitting on mountain of unsorted documents