Madam Chair, I am pleased to be here to discuss our audit reports, which were tabled in the House of Commons on March 25. I am accompanied by Carol McCalla, Philippe Le Goff, Chantal Richard, Jo Ann Schwartz and Nicholas Swales, the principals who were responsible for the audits.
The reports presented were the first of many audits that my office will conduct on the government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. I also provided Parliament with our report on the Investing in Canada plan.
There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic was an all-hands-on-deck emergency the world over. Governments had to mobilize quickly to respond to the public, health, social and economic effects of this pandemic. Canada was no exception.
While we found that the government was not as ready as it could have been for a pandemic of this magnitude, the public service mobilized, prioritized the needs of Canadians, and quickly delivered support and services. We did not observe the same service mindset and interdepartmental coordination in our audit of the investing in Canada plan, which I will turn to first.
The investing in Canada plan is important because the government is investing $188 billion to generate long-term economic growth, improve communities' resiliency, support the transition to a green economy, and improve social inclusion and socio-economic outcomes for all Canadians.
Infrastructure Canada is unable to present a full picture of results achieved and progress made under the investing in Canada plan. We found that the department's reporting excluded almost half of the government's investment because it did not capture more than $92 billion of funding that was committed before the plan's creation in 2016.
In addition, Infrastructure Canada's reporting captured only some programs each year, making it impossible to compare results year over year. The clarity of reporting was also impacted by inconsistent information received from federal partners in the plan. The absence of clear and complete reporting on the Investing in Canada plan makes it difficult for parliamentarians and Canadians to know whether progress is being made against the intended objectives.
The issues affecting the Investing in Canada plan are not new. We have seen similar problems in many past audits in areas that require cross-departmental or cross-jurisdictional collaboration, such as indigenous issues and climate change. This audit is yet another example of the need for the government to act on known issues—in this case, the need for broad collaboration and clear reporting on results for this large initiative.
In contrast, we observed nimbleness during our audits of the government's COVID-19 response.
I am going to turn first to the Canada emergency response benefit.
With this benefit, the government wanted to quickly deliver financial support to eligible individuals.
We found that the Department of Finance Canada, Employment and Social Development Canada, and the Canada Revenue Agency rose to the challenge and quickly analyzed, designed and delivered the Canada emergency response benefit.
To simplify the process and get support to people quickly, Employment and Social Development Canada and the Canada Revenue Agency took the approach of relying on personal attestations and automated prepayment controls to validate applicants' eligibility. Once the benefit was launched, they introduced additional prepayment controls to limit potential abuse.
With the decision to rely on personal attestations, host payment verification becomes very important. Employment and Social Development Canada and the Canada Revenue Agency are working to start their post-payment verification efforts related to the Canada emergency response benefit later this year. Their work in this area will be the subject of a future audit.
I will turn now to the Canada emergency wage subsidy. We observed a similar focus on getting help out quickly, in this case to businesses. Once again, the Department of Finance Canada and the Canada Revenue Agency worked together within short time frames to support the development and implementation of the Canada emergency wage subsidy.
The design and rollout of the subsidy highlighted pre-existing weaknesses in the agency's systems, approaches and data. These weaknesses will need to be addressed to improve the robustness of Canada's tax system.
To prioritize issuing payments, the Canada Revenue Agency made decisions about the information it would ask for and the prepayment controls it would use.
For example, the agency decided that it would not ask for social insurance numbers, though this information could have helped prevent the doubling up of applications for financial support. This decision limited the agency's ability to perform prepayment validations, as did the absence of complete and up-to-date tax information that would have helped it efficiently assess applications.
I am going to now turn to our last audit, which focused on pandemic preparedness, surveillance and border control measures.
In this audit, we found that the Public Health Agency of Canada was not as well-prepared as it could have been to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Not all emergency and response plans were up to date or tested, and data-sharing agreements with the provinces and territories were not finalized.
The Public Health Agency relied on a risk assessment tool that was untested and not designed to consider pandemic risk. The agency continued to assess the risk as low, despite growing numbers of COVID-19 cases in Canada and worldwide. In addition, the Global Public Health Intelligence Network did not issue an alert about the virus that would become known as causing COVID-19.
I am discouraged that the Public Health Agency of Canada did not address long-standing issues, some of which had been raised repeatedly for more than two decades. These issues negatively affected the sharing of surveillance data between the agency and the provinces and territories during the pandemic. While the agency took steps to address some of these problems during the pandemic, it has much more work to do on its data-sharing agreements and its information technology infrastructure to better support national disease surveillance in the future.
We also found that the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Canada Border Services Agency implemented restrictions at the border as well as quarantine measures. They provided guidance and tools to inform travellers and essential workers coming into the country of public health requirements.
However, the Public Health Agency of Canada had not contemplated or planned for a quarantine on a nationwide scale, from the collection of travellers' information through to all enforcement activities, including following up on those identified to be at risk of non-compliance. As a result, the agency does not know if the majority of travellers properly quarantined.
These audits looked at programs that were rolled out in record time. Faced with a pandemic, the public service focused on the pressing outcome: helping Canadians.
In its first year, the pandemic has shown that when the public service must, the public service can. This crisis has highlighted the importance of dealing with known issues, whether it's agreeing on which organization has the lead; who will do what, and when; who will report what, and to whom; or replacing outdated systems or processes and addressing issues in data quality.
These are not problems that you want to have to deal with at the same time that you are focusing on helping people, because this is not an efficient way of working, nor is it a productive way to serve Canadians. Government organizations need to do collaboration better.
Madam Chair, this concludes my opening statement. We are now pleased to answer questions that you may have.
Thank you for the question.
When we look at the Investing in Canada plan, I think it's important to highlight that it includes three buckets of information: projects that were announced in the 2016 budget, those in the 2017 budget, and then a group of projects that we'll call “legacy projects”. These legacy projects represent half of the $92 billion you mentioned, and they occurred before and were announced before the Investing in Canada plan was launched.
On the horizontal initiative, which includes over 20 federal departments, because this initiative didn't include those legacy programs when it was designed, they were not conceived in order to be able to report against the objectives of the plan. It makes it difficult when half of the information isn't designed in such a way as to be able to demonstrate whether it's achieving the objectives.
What we then saw was that there was also inconsistent information coming from the federal partners. They weren't always reporting in the same fashion. In fact, Infrastructure Canada was not reporting year after year against the same programs and projects or against the same measures. Hence, it was confusing in trying to identify whether or not progress was being made.
That's why we have many recommendations in the report to highlight the importance of outlining the clear measures of progress and then ensuring that all the partners can report against those measures on a regular basis.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
Ms. Hogan, thank you, and thank you to all the staff who are here today. Thank you in particular for pointing out the amazing job that the civil servants have done throughout COVID. I look at it like the Apollo 13 movie. We really had to solve problems as we were flying the ship, using all the resources of bringing people out of retirement and working with external contractors to get us to the point where we needed to be to serve Canadians. Thank you for pointing that out.
I'm on the infrastructure question, like Mr. Webber but possibly on a different tack.
As a member of Parliament, one of my challenges has been to have my community aware of the infrastructure projects, have the city council approve use of land, have the province include our projects in their priorities. It's almost a balancing between getting our city council to apply for projects or our business community to apply for projects. Priorities then go to the province and those priorities then come to the federal government. Projects get approved, and the province has to provide matching funds and the city council has to provide matching funds. It's quite a job for a member of Parliament to try to track through the system to make sure that projects are on track through the different orders of government.
In your sixth paragraph, your sixth bullet point, you talk about the federal partners in the plan, and these are the partners that I'm working with on a cross-jurisdictional collaboration. A flow chart would be an amazing thing, or a spreadsheet, to say that this order of government has approved it, this order hasn't yet, this one hasn't. I think we've got some of these legacy projects stuck somewhere in the flow chart. Is this an accurate assessment, or is that something you're recommending—that we establish more stringent records between orders of government?
I'll start with a recap of the report to highlight the four areas where we noted the Public Health Agency of Canada was not as prepared as it could have been. Then, I'll talk about measures the agency can take.
We noted that the agency should have been better prepared in four areas.
First, the emergency and health response plans were not updated. What is even more concerning is that the federal-provincial-territorial public health response plan for biological events had not been tested.
Second, we noted long-standing gaps in public health data sharing between the federal government and the provinces and territories.
Third, we noted that a risk assessment tool had not been designed to consider pandemic risk.
Fourth, the agency had neither contemplated nor planned for quarantine on a nationwide scale.
After the SARS and H1N1 influenza outbreaks, as well as Auditor General reports released in 1999, 2002 and 2008, the agency was aware of long-standing shortcomings that it needed to address. That shows the agency placed little value on, and did not pay enough attention to, preparing for emergencies, investing in appropriate systems and taking the time to adequately test plans for deficiencies. The importance of those efforts is underestimated until a new emergency arises.
Now is the time to focus on those areas on a nationwide scale. To ensure it is adequately prepared, the agency must take into account all aspects of the response to a national health crisis and not wait for another to arise before taking action.
It is worth noting that public servants worked very hard. They responded and did their best to fill the gaps. Nevertheless, the agency needs to be better prepared for the next crisis.
The way I would summarize our audit report on the pandemic preparedness is very similar to how you would. The agency was not as well prepared as it could have been in those four key areas. There was some work done, so I think it's a bit of a balance. There was some work done on emergency plans, but they had not been updated for quite some time, which is not okay. More importantly, the major response plan—the federal-provincial-territorial one—had not been tested, and testing of a plan is incredibly important to identify gaps or weaknesses or lack of capacity.
Definitely, the long-standing issues about data sharing impacted the country's ability to respond in a timely way to the pandemic. For many years, it had been known that agreeing on ways to share information among the federal, provincial and territorial governments was needed, including the IT infrastructure to handle such volume. None of that had been addressed prior to this pandemic, and it needed to be addressed to find solutions during the pandemic.
The third thing was the risk assessment tool. While they did use a risk assessment tool, we found that it was not a tool that considered a pandemic risk. What does that mean? It only considered how the virus might spread once it was here, and not necessarily the risk of the virus coming here and then spreading, so that forward-looking pandemic risk tool was needed. Hence, as you say, it kept the risk rating at “low” until the chief public health officer, in mid-March, stepped in to ask that it be elevated.
Finally, they hadn't contemplated such a scale of a quarantine. There had been quarantines in previous health crises, but not to this magnitude. Again, the agency knew that it didn't have the capacity and hadn't preplanned for dealing with that, and it had to ask for support and help during the pandemic. Unfortunately, they ended up, at the beginning, by being unable to tell us whether or not two-thirds of travellers had properly quarantined.
I believe it highlights a few things. One is the importance and the value of planning and being better prepared. We shouldn't underestimate that. Second, I think it also helps highlight that when you use tools or machine intelligence, as they did for the risk assessment, human judgment needs to be applied to it to make sure it's thinking about all of the factors and not just the ones that might have been input to the tool.
What we did find here was that the Canada Revenue Agency and the Department of Finance worked in really tight timelines to design a wage subsidy, one that's never been seen in Canada before. The goal of that subsidy was to try to maintain the employer-employee relationship, to keep individuals working and to allow businesses to be better prepared for the reboot of the economy.
The focus in this case, as well as for the Canada emergency response benefit, was on getting payments out in a timely way. The government chose what is known as an international best practice in emergency situations: to focus less on prepayment controls—which it typically would do to vet eligibility and applications—get money out in order to provide support, and focus on post-payment controls. That just underscores the importance of the post-payment work and why, for both of these programs, my office will go back and do audits to look at that post-payment work.
When they chose not to ask for those social insurance numbers in the example you asked about, it was for a few reasons. One reason that this decision highlighted was the fact that their IT systems had some weaknesses, and they couldn't handle some of the data and the cross-comparability. Another was a lack of timely tax information, in that they weren't able to vet revenues from the prior years beforehand since so many filers had not filed, for example, their GST returns, which would have provided evidence of revenues the year before in order to demonstrate a decline in revenues.
Really, the decision was made by the Canada Revenue Agency to prioritize support and to deal with all of these potential issues through post-payment verification work. They've noted that it will take several years to get through this work, and that is why we will be auditing it early on to make sure that it has some good controls and some good mechanisms in place.
I'll start with the positives that we saw at the border and then talk about the areas that were not so positive with regard to improvement.
We definitely saw that the Canada Border Services Agency worked and collaborated well with the Public Health Agency of Canada to define guidance and measures on applying exemptions and on providing information to travellers who entered the country.
Where the Public Health Agency had not been as well prepared as it should have been was in enforcing this mandatory quarantine nationwide. It lacked some capacity, so it sought some help from other federal agencies, and at times, local law enforcement. It hadn't contemplated how to gather traveller information. That was missing.
At the beginning, it was done in a paper-based format, and later on transitioned to an automated tool, but there was basic information missing, and an inability to reach some travellers. When it triaged travellers and identified some at high risk for not complying with the mandatory 14-day quarantine, it referred a portion of them to local law enforcement, but then didn't follow up with local law enforcement. Hence, it was unable to tell us whether or not the mandatory quarantine was effective and if individuals were actually complying with it. It was a lack of preparing for such a wide, broad-scale response and the best way to monitor and follow up with it.
I will highlight a couple of things in my response. I will highlight the global public health intelligence network as well as the risk assessments.
The agency noted to us that it completed risk assessments. However, it didn't use the right risk assessment, because it didn't consider pandemic risk. However, I would highlight here that the chief public health officer recognized the importance of what was going on globally as well as in the country, and then questioned the assessment of that tool.
The tool PHAC was using was one that was in a pilot stage and had not really been tested. It highlights for PHAC the need for this tool to be refined. There should be a normal risk assessment tool, but you need a different tool when it comes to pandemics, because you need to think about that forward-looking nature.
As for the global public health information network, that network issues two reports, a daily report and an alert. An alert wasn't issued, and I really think one should have been issued. I'm not sure why it wasn't and it's not clear why one wasn't issued. I see a huge difference between the daily report and an alert, but again I will credit the chief public health officer for following the daily report and signalling to her provincial counterparts that they needed to start meeting and looking at a countrywide response.
However, the department needs to figure out what it expects from that network, make it clear, and then use it as intended.