Interventions in Committee
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Michael Ferguson
View Michael Ferguson Profile
Michael Ferguson
2017-11-30 8:48
Thank you.
Mr. Chair, thank you for this opportunity to discuss our fall 2017 report on Canada Revenue Agency's call centres. Joining me at the table is Martin Dompierre, the principal who was responsible for the audit.
Every year, taxpayers have questions about their taxes. The agency's telephone call centres are an important way for members of the public to obtain tax information, especially for those who do not have Internet access, those who are uncomfortable using computers, and those who cannot find answers on the agency's website.
Our audit looked at whether the Canada Revenue Agency's call centres provided Canadians with timely access to accurate information. We focused on calls received on three of the call centre's telephone lines—one for individuals, one for businesses, and one about benefit payments. We also examined the agency's methods of assessing and reporting on its call centres' performance.
Overall, we found that the agency did not provide timely access to accurate information.
We found that the agency blocked 29 million calls, which was more than half the calls it received. The agency monitored how long callers waited to speak with an agent. When the average wait time approached two minutes, the agency either blocked calls, usually by giving them a busy signal, or directed them to the automated self-service system.
The agency told us that callers would prefer a busy signal or an automated message to waiting more than two minutes to speak with an agent. However, the agency had not surveyed callers to verify this assumption. As a result, callers had to make an average of three or four call attempts in a week, and even after several attempts, some callers still didn't reach an agent.
Through our tests, we found that the rate of agent errors was significantly higher than what the agency estimated. Call centre agents gave us inaccurate information almost 30% of the time. This is similar to the test results of other assessors and significantly higher than the error rate estimated by the Canada Revenue Agency.
We found that the agency’s quality control system didn't test the accuracy of agents’ responses effectively or independently, so the results of its tests were unreliable. For example, in most cases, agents knew that their calls were being monitored, which may have encouraged them to change their behaviours to improve their performance.
Finally, the agency reported that about 90% of callers were able to reach either the self-service system or call centre agent. However, we found that percentage didn't account for the calls it blocked, which were more than half its total call volume.
Only 36% of all calls made to the agency's call centres reached either an agent or a self-serve system and lasted a minute or more. Furthermore, by blocking calls or redirecting them to the self-service function, the agency was able to report that it achieved its two-minute service standard for agent wait times.
We are pleased to report that the Canada Revenue Agency has agreed with all of our recommendations and has committed to taking corrective action.
Mr. Chair, this concludes my opening statement. We would be pleased to answer any questions the committee may have.
Thank you.
Maurice Laplante
View Maurice Laplante Profile
Maurice Laplante
2016-06-16 8:48
Thank you, Mr. Chair, for giving us this opportunity to discuss our special examination report on VIA Rail Canada Inc. I am accompanied today by René Béliveau, the principal responsible for this audit.
A special examination of a crown corporation is somewhat similar to a performance audit. In particular, a special examination seeks to determine whether the crown corporation's systems and practices provide reasonable assurance that its assets are safeguarded, its resources are managed economically and efficiently, and its operations are carried out effectively.
Our examination covered the period between November 2013 and September 2015. Our examination identified a significant deficiency in the corporation's governance. We found that, despite VIA's efforts to define a long-term strategic direction, the corporation still did not have a long-term plan or direction approved by the federal government.
For several years now, VIA's five-year corporate plan and funding have been approved only on a short-term basis, and often late in the corporation's fiscal year. In that context, VIA could not fulfill its mandate as economically, efficiently, and effectively as desired. If it continues, this significant deficiency could even compromise the corporation's medium- and long-term viability.
We found that the corporation had improved its practices in several areas. For example, in the strategic planning area, we noted that the corporation had the key elements of a risk management framework, had a performance measurement process that enabled VIA to follow up on its operations, and adequately communicated its results. In the operation area, we found that VIA had systems and practices that enabled it to meet the needs of its customers, mitigate safety risks, and ensure the reliability of its operations, the safeguarding and control of its assets, and the quality of its services.
We also identified room for improvement in some areas. In particular, VIA needs to improve its profitability analysis mechanisms, the documentation of its safety management system, and the mechanisms used to measure the effectiveness of that system. VIA also needs to pursue planned improvements to its project management systems and practices, which did not adequately support the implementation of certain significant projects of the capital investment program approved by the government in 2007 and 2009.
We further found that VIA had not met its strategic objectives of increasing revenues in ridership so as to ensure its longer-term viability. The results analysis for VIA indicated that between the 2010 and 2014 fiscal years, revenues increased by only $5 million, whereas total operating costs increased by $61 million. We also noted that ridership decreased by 350,000 passengers during the same period.
In addition, on-time performance of trains has worsened significantly since 2010, from 82% to 76%, largely because of the significant increase in congestion on the rail network that VIA has to use.
Moreover, VIA did not succeed in increasing the frequency of train departures, as it anticipated when it negotiated the renewal of its main service agreement with the railway companies that own the railway tracks. The corporation will need to find lasting solutions to those problems if it is to ensure its long-term viability.
VIA Rail agreed with all our recommendations, and indicated that it would act quickly to address our concerns. However, since our audit was completed in September 2015, I cannot comment on any measures that have been taken since then. The committee may wish to ask VIA officials to clarify what measures have been taken in response to our recommendations.
Mr. Chair, this concludes my opening remarks. We would be pleased to answer any questions the committee may have.
Thank you.
Yves Desjardins-Siciliano
View Yves Desjardins-Siciliano Profile
Yves Desjardins-Siciliano
2016-06-16 8:54
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
As you mentioned, I am joined today by Ms. Jane Mowat, lead director and chairperson of the audit and finance committee; Mr. Bruno Riendeau, director of safety and risk management; and our chief financial officer, Madam Patricia Jasmin.
At VIA Rail our mandate is to provide safe, efficient, reliable, and environmentally sustainable transportation services that meet the needs of Canadian travellers from coast to coast. That is the mandate that VIA Rail management, throughout the years, has provided itself and which governs its activities, as VIA does not have enabling legislation that sets out specifically its mandate, nor does the board or its CEO have a mandate from the government.
I've had the pleasure of serving as president and CEO of VIA Rail since May 2014. Since that time many steps have been taken to revitalize and refocus our service to Canadians, specifically to try to turn the tide on the increasing deficit, sinking ridership, and overall bad performance of the corporation.
In this regard, 2015 was a year of significant progress for VIA Rail. The corporation improved its services by focusing on customers and their needs. The shift toward customer-centricity led to simultaneous increases in ridership and revenue for the first time in many years. Including the month of June 2016, we will have experienced 18 months of straight growth in revenue month over month.
We will also experience three out of five quarters of increased ridership, increased revenue, and increased average revenue per customer, an achievement never realized in the 40-year history of VIA Rail. This significant accomplishment allowed us to reduce the subsidy provided by the Government of Canada for the first time by almost 12% as compared with last year in 2015.
The results are promising as we move forward to 2017, which not only will mark Canada's 150th anniversary, but more personally will mark VIA Rail's 40th anniversary.
Coupled with our ambitious plans to modernize the future of intercity passenger rail in Canada, which I'll talk about a little while later, we're very optimistic about the future of our crown corporation. That's why we're pleased to be here today to address the Auditor General's Special Examination Report and ensuing recommendations, with which we all agree.
First, I would like to formally thank the Auditor General's office for their co-operation throughout this process. Nobody likes to be audited, but if you're going to be audited you might as well be audited by the Auditor General of Canada—
Voices: Oh, oh!
Mr. Yves Desjardins-Siciliano: —because they do it with sensitivity.
We worked very closely with the Auditor General's office under the Financial Administration Act, on this special report, as we do every year on our annual report that is conducted by the Office of the Auditor General. The period covered by this report is November 2013 to September 2015, and therefore, over half of that period was not under my watch, but I assume full responsibility for its outcome.
We view this special examination as an opportunity to learn more about our strengths, as well as the areas in which we can continue to improve, as I said we do every year with the annual audit by the Auditor General. For example, we've implemented a detailed action plan for improving our SMS, our safety management system, and integrating it into our risk-management system.
VIA Rail's SMS provides the framework to implement our safety policy and to comply with the Railway Safety Act and safety management system regulations. At VIA, the objective when it comes to safety is not to meet regulatory requirements, but to exceed regulatory requirements for the better conduct of our business, and to enhance safety of our operations, our people, our passengers, and the public in general.
It is also the reference for setting goals, planning and measuring our safety performance. In 2015, VIA addressed the recommendations from Transport Canada's 2014 SMS audit, complied with revised new SMS regulations, and maintained and fostered strong participation by all employees, all ahead of the required timelines. In addition, we consulted with external experts to benchmark our SMS against leading practices within and outside the industry, in keeping with our commitment to go above and beyond compliance.
I'm happy to say that it is our view, and that of considered external experts, that VIA leads the way in state-of-the-art safety management systems for railways in Canada today.
We met the deadline of October 1, 2015, for compliance with the new federal legislation, and we've also taken measures to be able to demonstrate the effectiveness of this new system. In fact, I'm pleased to report that by the end of 2015 we completed an analysis of risks and vulnerabilities, and work is under way to implement mitigation measures by the end of 2016. We're also making significant progress on a number of other issues that were uncovered during the examination.
We've increased market discipline in our project management processes, which has resulted in more effective operations and increased revenues. We've put in place a governance structure to ensure better project management follow-up as VIA manages hundreds of projects every year, mainly capital projects, from infrastructure to train station updates and equipment modifications and renovations.
In 2015, we set up a centralized project office. This office has already helped to standardize estimates and measures for risks and benefits, a significant improvement from both a planning and a project management perspective. I'm happy to report that since then, many current projects, such as infrastructure bridge repairs and renovations to stations and other facilities, are forecast to come in on time and on budget.
One example that we are particularly proud of is our GPS train-tracking safety system, which was developed in-house and is a first in North America. The GPS tracking system assists locomotive engineers by providing notifications of upcoming speed changes or restrictions, approaching changes in applicable rules, and upcoming landmarks along the routes. VIA Rail has successfully completed the first live road test of its GPS train safety system in order to validate critical foundational system capabilities, accuracy, and precision of real-time GPS feed and track database in a real environment. This was a significant achievement, and further development and testing of the system are ongoing.
Furthermore, in 2015, we worked on completing the implementation of a new system containing information on profitability per train. Starting this year, VIA Rail will be able to incorporate such information into its decision-making and therefore increase its capability when it comes to managing its revenue.
Another area where we've made efficiency improvements is that of our employee scheduling tools, which are now entirely available online and which gives greater flexibility and convenience both to our employees and to management as we plan the schedules of our 2,600-person workforce.
We also have made improvements to our customer relationship management process, launched a new mobile application, and instituted SMS train status text messaging, all in an effort to address the needs and desires of the modern Canadian traveller.
With respect to the Auditor General's recommendations on long-term planning, we agree wholeheartedly that our operational effectiveness would be greatly enhanced through a timely multi-year approval of funding of our long-term plans. In fact, we have worked with Transport Canada toward this objective and obtained a multi-year funding envelope, which was three years long, ending in March 2017. We'll continue to work with Transport Canada and see if we can't come to a five-year plan, fully funded from both an operational and a capital requirement point of view.
Should no modification be made to VIA's current mandate, the funding needs will be $850 million in operating funding and $650 million in capital funding, for a yearly average of $300 million per year over the next five years. Moreover, we have begun working with the government to confirm VIA Rail's long-term strategy in order to reverse these trends of increased funding.
In 2015 we launched two different long-term strategic initiatives aimed at improving VIA Rail's services, ensuring long-term financial sustainability, and having the corporation's corporate plan approved by government in a timely manner.
The first initiative is to renew our equipment fleet for services in the densely populated and used Quebec City-Windsor corridor, where 90% of our riders and 90% of our revenue come from. Train operations are capital-intensive undertakings and take multiple years to plan and to build out, and ongoing maintenance is a high requirement. The rejuvenation of the fleet requires long-lead planning and long-term financial commitments.
As you may know, VIA Rail operates the oldest train sets in North America. The average age of our rolling stock is over 40 years. The average life expectancy of rolling stock typically is around 25 to 30 years. Thanks to several elements of funding over the last 15 years, VIA has refurbished that rolling fleet up to three times, but it's coming to end of life. By lengthening our planning horizons, we will be better able to assess and forecast our fleet renewal needs going forward.
The second long-term initiative we are working on is aimed at mitigating issues resulting from having to share tracks with freight trains. Notwithstanding the success we've seen in the past 18 months, we agree with the Auditor General's observation that congestion on shared tracks has made it difficult for VIA Rail to thrive alongside other passenger and commuter rail operators in Canada.
Our travellers expect a reliable service, with more frequent departures and competitive travel times. As we operate on dual usage tracks, with freight and passenger trains sharing a single rail network, our on-time performance has deteriorated proportionally with the freight industry's significant growth in recent years.
While we acknowledge the commercial industry's role as an important economic generator in several Canadian regions, for Canada's only intercity national passenger service, this has had proportional and negative impacts on VIA Rail's on-time performance.
As freight traffic increases, we battle multiplying rail maintenance issues and constant challenges to our business-critical targets. In addition, our travel times are longer today, on the eve of Canada's 150th anniversary, than they were in 1967, when the country celebrated its 100th anniversary.
To illustrate this point, when VIA Rail operates on its own tracks—of which we own close to 300 kilometres of tracks between Quebec and Ontario—our trains can operate at higher speeds and are on schedule 98% of the time. From our perspective, it is practically impossible for both passenger trains, which can travel up to 100 miles per hour, and freight carriers, which travel an average of 40 miles per hour, to share a single network.
That is why our management team developed a plan to build a railway infrastructure devoted to passenger train services, creating a new dedicated rail network, with the scope and route designation to be determined by the federal government and in the interest of future investors.
The first phase of this important project is intended to allow us to operate on our own tracks and thereby increase the frequency of our trains, reduce the travelling time, and offer a more reliable service. In concrete terms, this means tripling the number of daily departures between Quebec City–Montreal and Ottawa–Toronto, tripling ridership on those trains, and eliminating VIA Rail's annual operating deficit and reliance on the Government of Canada. This network could eventually extend to the current corridor all the way to Windsor.
The benefits of such an initiative are both economic and environmental, through anticipated job creation and labour productivity gains. The project's construction will generate more than 30,000 jobs and, through economic growth, give rise to more than 300,000 jobs across this vast region.
In addition, this plan would result in significant greenhouse gas reductions. We estimate it would eliminate five million car trips, thus lowering carbon emissions by more than 11 million tonnes within 30 years and eliminating more than 350,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases a year.
We also estimate that, in offering more modern services, our ridership will increase from just over two million to more than seven million passengers annually and, in turn, mean five million fewer cars on the road every year.
Our management team designed and planned this ambitious undertaking with the goal of finding permanent solutions that will put an end to recurring operating deficits and fickle ridership.
In addition, this plan would reduce VIA Rail's reliance on federal funding. We are encouraged by the support we have received through federal budget 2016 for this project and intend to submit a formal proposal to the government for this project later in the year.
For long-distance services in western and eastern Canada and in remote regions, we will continue our efforts with the track owners to improve on-time performance. In the current contractual context, though, and given the very different operational and financial frameworks of freight companies versus passenger rail service, possible improvements are limited at this time.
VIA Rail intends to initiate discussions with Transport Canada in order to identify possible alternatives to the current contractual framework where VIA does not have any leverage in negotiating with freight railway owners.
In closing, I'd like to thank the committee for offering this opportunity to highlight the ways in which VIA Rail is addressing the Auditor General's recommendations. I hope that as members of Parliament and as members of this committee, you feel better informed. I thank you for your continued support of our business, as many of you are riders on our trains, and your support as parliamentarians.
I'd be pleased to take questions, and if I can't answer them, I have my colleagues to chip in.
Thank you.
Michael Ferguson
View Michael Ferguson Profile
Michael Ferguson
2016-04-19 15:41
Mr. Chair, we're pleased to be here today to provide an overview of our role and mandate and to outline some key points from our past audit work that may be of interest to your committee.
Our office has a mandate to audit operations of the federal and territorial governments, and we provide Parliament and the legislative assemblies with independent information, assurance, and advice regarding the stewardship of public funds.
We conduct performance audits of federal departments and agencies, and we conduct annual attest audits of the financial statements of the government and of crown corporations. On a cyclical basis, we also conduct special examinations of the systems and practices of crown corporations.
For the three territories, my office reports performance audits directly to each legislative assembly. We also conduct annual audits of the financial statements of territorial governments and annual audits of territorial corporations.
In our performance audits, which we hope help the work of your committee, we examine whether government programs are being managed with due regard for economy, efficiency and environmental impact. We also look to see if there are means in place to measure the effectiveness of programs. Although we may comment on policy implementation, we do not comment on policy itself.
The Auditor General Act gives our office discretion to determine which areas of government to examine through performance audits. Our selection of audits is based on risks, significance and relevance to Parliament.
The performance audit process takes between 12 and 18 months to complete. The results of our audits are usually presented to Parliament twice a year, in the spring and fall.
In the past 15 years, the Office of the Auditor General has audited a broad range of federal programs and activities that affect First Nations and Inuit communities.
In 2011 we published a status report on the government's progress toward achieving the commitments it made to address recommendations from seven reports we issued between 2002 and 2008. Although we found that progress had been made in implementing some of our recommendations, we noted that many conditions and challenges faced by first nations communities had worsened.
For example, the education gap among first nations individuals and other Canadians had widened, the shortage of adequate housing on reserves had become more acute, and the presence of mould on reserves remained a serious problem.
Mr. Chair, that situation led us to consider some of the factors that inhibited progress.
In the preface to our 2011 audit report, we identified four structural impediments that we believed had negatively affected the delivery of programs and services to first nations individuals and communities.
The first impediment was a lack of clarity about service levels. The federal government supported services on reserves that were provided by provincial and municipal governments off reserves, such as education and drinking water. However, it was not always clear what the federal government was aiming to achieve because it had not clearly defined the type or level of service it committed to supporting.
The second impediment was the lack of a legislative base. Unlike similar provincial programs, the programs on reserves were not supported by legislation in such key areas as education, health and safe drinking water.
Instead, the federal government developed programs and services for First Nations on the basis of policy. As a result, the services delivered under these programs were not always well defined, and there was confusion about federal responsibility for funding them adequately.
The third impediment was the lack of an appropriate funding mechanism. The federal government used contribution agreements to fund the delivery of many programs on First Nations reserves. Often, the contribution agreements had to be renewed yearly, and it was not always certain whether funding levels provided to First Nations in one year would be available the following year. This situation created a level of uncertainty for First Nations and made long-term planning difficult.
The fourth and final impediment was the lack of organizations to support local service delivery. There were often no organizations in place—such as school boards, health services boards and social service organizations—to support local delivery of programs and services. In contrast, provinces had established such organizations. Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, now Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, had started to work with groups that represented more than one First Nation, but much remained to be done.
Mr. Chair, since 2011 we have audited several programs for first nations and Inuit communities, including the nutrition north program, policing programs, emergency management, access to health services for remote first nations communities, and the implementation of the Labrador Inuit Land Claims Agreement. We found that structural impediments continue to hinder effective service delivery. I should note, however, that we have not followed up on whether the recommendations made in these audits have been implemented. Currently we are conducting audits on first nation-specific claims and on the reintegration of aboriginal offenders.
For your convenience, we have attached to this statement a list of our most recent tabled federal and territorial audits, along with a brief summary for each. You will also note that in 2015 we tabled a report on the efforts of British Columbia first nations, Health Canada, and the Province of British Columbia to overcome the impediments in establishing the First Nations Health Authority in British Columbia. For example, the funding agreement between the federal government and the authority provides a level of funding certainty. It covers a 10-year period and includes an annual escalator to account for rising health care costs. In addition, the authority has increased support to local service delivery through training and expansion of access to electronic health services.
In addition, we identified two factors that contributed to the successful negotiation of the agreement. The first factor was a sustained commitment by leaders from first nations, as well as the federal and provincial governments, to the development of a new model for providing health services to first nations in British Columbia. The second factor was the decision by first nations to establish a single point of contact for negotiations with the federal and provincial governments.
Mr. Chair, if First Nations are to experience more meaningful outcomes from the federal funding of programs and services they receive, these structural impediments will have to be addressed.
Doing this requires the political leadership and will of all involved—the federal government, the First Nations leadership, and provincial and territorial governments.
This concludes my opening statement. We would be pleased to answer any questions the committee may have.
Thank you.
View Mike Bossio Profile
Lib. (ON)
Thank you, Mr. Chair, and thank you for being here, Mr. Ferguson, and all the rest of you as well. We really appreciate your coming to present to our committee today.
In the 2011 audit report, the Office of the Auditor General set out four structural impediments that limit the delivery of public services to first nations communities: the lack of clarity of service levels; a lack of legislative base; a lack of appropriate funding mechanisms; and a lack of organizations to support local service delivery.
What changes in practices and approaches should the federal government take to address these structural impediments?
Michael Ferguson
View Michael Ferguson Profile
Michael Ferguson
2016-04-19 15:51
The first think I'd like to say on this is that In 2011 we were looking back, because we were noticing that even though departments were trying to put in place responses to the recommendations we had made in past audits, the results with first nations weren't changing. We were trying to figure out why. Why could there be things going on, but with no improvement in the results? We identified those four impediments. The first thing is that the government needs to be aware of those impediments and then try to deal with them.
When we did the study and audit looking at the British Columbia First Nations Health Authority, we looked at it because it was an organization that was able to get established, and we wanted to identify how they dealt with these four impediments. In fact, they were successful in overcoming them. So it is possible, with the will of everybody involved, to find ways around these impediments and come to an agreement and a better solution on some of these services.
Therefore, I really think the first thing is awareness. The second thing is making sure that the will is there on the part of everybody involved—the government, the provincial government if needed, and the first nations governments as well. Make sure the will is there on the part of everybody involved and the commitment is there, and then find ways around these four impediments that we've identified.
View Mike Bossio Profile
Lib. (ON)
You found that the use of contribution agreements to fund the delivery of services on first nations reserves could lead to delays in funding, uncertainty about the level of funding and lack of clarity about who is accountable for achieving improved outcomes. What changes in the funding mechanisms should occur?
Michael Ferguson
View Michael Ferguson Profile
Michael Ferguson
2016-04-19 15:53
Mr. Chair, I'll start with the response and then I'll ask Mr. Martire to speak to what we found in our audit on policing services.
The issue here is making sure that there is certainty of funding. When you're trying to provide services to people and you have a responsibility to provide those types of services, you need certainty about what the funding is going to be. We found that sometimes these contribution agreements aren't put in until late in the year. So how can you know what types of services to provide?
I'll ask Mr. Martire to expand on that, because it was particularly something that we found in the audit on policing on remote first nations.
Joe Martire
View Joe Martire Profile
Joe Martire
2016-04-19 15:53
As the Auditor General indicated, this is one of the issues that was problematic for the communities that were under the policing agreements. Most of them were one-year agreements, and it made it difficult for them to plan if they didn't know when the agreement was going to be renewed.
When we did the audit, we noted that at the end of March there were a number of communities affected by these policing programs that still hadn't received the funding and didn't know whether the agreement would be put in place. That caused a lot of problems for them going forward, in not knowing whether they had to lay people off and whatnot.
These contribution agreements range from one to five years, depending on the type of agreement. The vast majority of them are one-year contribution agreements, so it makes it difficult for people to plan and have some level of certainty about the level of funding they can expect to provide the services under those agreements.
View Mike Bossio Profile
Lib. (ON)
If we look at the funding mechanism today, a portion of the funding is grants and a portion is operational. Would you agree that if you were to eliminate the grant aspect of funding this contribution, and put it on more of an operational basis, saying this is the level of funding that you have, and you establish the priorities that are important to your communities....? I say this because we see that there is such a broad range of priorities across all reserves, across all nations. Would you agree that this would be a very good step towards solving some of these funding issues?
Michael Ferguson
View Michael Ferguson Profile
Michael Ferguson
2016-04-19 15:55
As auditors, we don't try to prescribe the policy that should be put in place or exactly how the department should resolve the issues. We make recommendations.
I think that in terms of funding, we're not trying to prescribe a specific way of dealing with the funding issue. What we're trying to say is that there needs to be certainty with the funding. There needs to be a way that the different services can be planned for in the long term. Regardless of how that's done, it's more the end result—that there's certainty and an environment whereby that long-term planning can be done—that's important from our perspective.
View Mike Bossio Profile
Lib. (ON)
Do I still have time?
The Chair: You have one minute left.
Mr. Mike Bossio: How would changing the funding mechanism provide greater certainty about the level of funding and clarity about who is accountable for achieving improved outcomes?
Michael Ferguson
View Michael Ferguson Profile
Michael Ferguson
2016-04-19 15:56
Well, in a funding agreement, if what you are dealing with is multiple-year funding.... Again, in the case of the British Columbia First Nations Health Authority, they put in place a 10-year agreement. In that agreement, they also had a number of years of an escalator, so the B.C. First Nations Health Authority knows how much money it's going to get over that 10 years and knows how that's going to escalate. That allows them to do that type of planning.
Then, within that agreement, if you know what the services are that are supposed to be delivered, you know what the time frame is, and you know how the funding is going to be delivered, you have all the bases you need in order to have the accountability.
View Cathy McLeod Profile
We know that the current government has appropriately committed significant dollars that are going to go into education. I guess there are a number of different ways to approach that.
Obviously, we approached it in trying to have, in partnership, a legislative framework, and that faltered—there's no question that it faltered. It was done in partnership, but it did not get to fruition. In terms of that overcoming of the structure, again, is the gold standard legislation with appropriate regulations? Would that be how you would like to see this move forward in terms of how the additional support for education gets structured?
Michael Ferguson
View Michael Ferguson Profile
Michael Ferguson
2016-04-19 16:00
Again, I'm not going to try to sort of dictate any policy direction. I think in terms of the whole issue of accountability in reporting for first nations, a number of years ago we did an audit that looked at the reporting burden on first nations. I think we identified that there were something like over 160 reports that government departments at that time were requiring from first nations, some of them being very small. That was a report that we did in 2002. So it was quite a while ago, and things may have changed since then.
It is very much a matter of understanding the two-way street between the government as providing funders, and the first nations as governments that are part of that service-providing continuum, between the federal government providing services and the role of first nations in providing services.
It's very much a two-way street to try to identify the appropriate mechanism for accountability and transparency to exist within that framework.
Michael Ferguson
View Michael Ferguson Profile
Michael Ferguson
2016-04-19 16:08
Unfortunately, that was the question we were asking ourselves in 2011. We had done a number of audits going back more than 10 years on first nations issues. We had identified places where the programs were not delivering the services at the level they should have been delivering them. We were making recommendations about those. We did follow-up audits to see whether the government and the departments were implementing changes to their processes because of the recommendations we had made. We found that they were doing that. They were making changes. They were trying to respond to our recommendations, but the results weren't any better. The results among first nations were getting worse.
In 2011 we posed that exact question: what is causing this? That's when we came up with those four obstacles. If it's not clear what level of service the government should be delivering to first nations. Nobody knows who's supposed to be getting what if there isn't a clear legislative base to say, “This is what has to be provided”. It's the same type of issue: if the funding isn't there, you can't do long-term planning. If it's annual funding, you can't do long-term planning. If there aren't the organizations on the ground who are responsible for delivering those services, then the quality of those services is going to suffer. We identified those four obstacles. Based on the audits that we've done since then on policing, disaster assistance, and health services to remote first nations, we've found that those same obstacles continue to exist. I think fundamentally there needs to be a focus on those four things that we identified then, if government is to figure out how to remove those obstacles.
View Georgina Jolibois Profile
I'm thinking of ways to make improvements, and you've identified.... but at some point there's a gap between your report and the solutions. What are the steps?
Michael Ferguson
View Michael Ferguson Profile
Michael Ferguson
2016-04-19 16:11
I think the first step would be to identify and to commit to a level of service. Whether it's in health services, policing services, or whatever services, what's the level of service that's going to be delivered to those first nations? I think that's the first thing.
The second thing is to make sure there is a predictable and long-term approach to funding, so everybody knows how much funding is going to be put into those services and how long that's going to be there for. These are things that happened in British Columbia in establishing the British Columbia First Nations Health Authority, so it can be done.
View Matt DeCourcey Profile
Lib. (NB)
View Matt DeCourcey Profile
2016-04-19 16:11
Thank you very much Mr. Chair.
Mr. Ferguson, thank you very much for your presentation.
First, I'd like to say that it's an honour for me to have the opportunity to represent the riding of Fredericton and to follow in the footsteps of Andy Scott, who was the minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development Canada when the Government of Canada signed the Kelowna Accord with the country's Aboriginal leaders.
It's important for me to think back to where we were 10 years ago, and be ready to embark on a partnership with indigenous Canadians and to make sure that we address some of the gaps that we still see 10 years later. I can tell you that, in my conversations with indigenous leadership in my community—and I have two first nation communities with strong leadership—they see some of the issues that you talk about, and they've seen it get worse over the last number of years. They've seen more unpredictability with their funding. They characterize it as smaller and smaller pots of project funding, as opposed to stable, long-term program funding.
You talk about the impediments of unstable contribution agreements and unstable funding agreements. You also talk about the impediment of a lack of a legislative base. I wonder if, through your audits and the work of your office, you've seen particular instances in which services were ill-defined, maybe due to the rolling back or shrinking of project allotments or programs over the last number of years.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2016-04-19 16:13
I'm not sure if I can untangle all the causes and effects, but, again, we found a number of different areas where the services were unpredictable, where it was unclear what the services were supposed to be. I couldn't even try right now to explain to you all the different types of contribution agreements that exist for funding different first nations' policing services. It's not as if there is just one type of contribution agreement that applies to all first nations. There are many different types, and it takes a bit of work to get your head around all the different contribution agreements.
Again, I think you just have to look at any of the audits. I'll go back to the audit on health services, related either to the extra training for the nurses or the fact that of some of the facilities that medical practitioners were supposed to use didn't work. In fact, one of them, a septic system, didn't work. The visiting health care physicians couldn't go there because they didn't have a place to stay while they were there. We've seen very significant impacts on services because all of the infrastructure and support necessary for those services doesn't exist for those first nations.
Again, I can't get into trying to tie it back to what sort of change might have caused some of that, but certainly, we've seen confusing amounts of contribution agreements. As Mr. Martire mentioned, some of them are for just for one year. How do you do long-term planning if that's the case? I think there's no question that has had an effect on some services.
View Arnold Viersen Profile
We talked a lot already today about the various contribution agreements and you talked specifically about the health area in B.C. Are there other layers of government, municipal or provincial, that have similar contribution agreements? Are there other layers of government where the same thing happens, where there isn't a contribution agreement and lack of funding?
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2016-04-19 16:20
If the question is specific to the first nations file, I would say that there is a whole gamut of different types of agreements in place between various levels of government. Trying to categorize them would therefore not be particularly easy. We haven't really audited this from the perspective of all of the different types of programs that are out there.
What we identified in the British Columbia First Nations Health Authority situation was that it wasn't just long-term, stable funding from the federal government to the health authority, but that it also involved provincial government funding on a long-term basis for the health authority. That is a case where we have seen it. I don't think any of the other audits....
Did we see it? Okay, Mr. Martire can speak to another case.
Joe Martire
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Joe Martire
2016-04-19 16:21
As the Auditor General mentioned in his opening statement, in order to make movement in a lot of these files, there has to be the will and coordination among all three players.
For example, the policing program is funded 52% by the federal government and 48% by the provinces, and they have different types of agreements, which we talked about. We saw there that it's very important that these programs be coordinated.
When you talk about health services in remote communities, again, on that whole issue of the delivery health services to people in those communities, from the first nations' point of view, it's very important that they get the health services from all the players.
Coordination is a very important issue that has to be managed by all three parties.
Also, on the emergency management issue, there's provincial funding that takes place there, until an emergency is of such a magnitude that the federal government has to kick in.
In a lot of these programs, the federal government normally has the lead, but from the service delivery point of view, all three players have to be involved, and the services themselves are actually delivered by many first nation organizations.
View Arnold Viersen Profile
You noted that many first nation reserves lack organizations to support service delivery, such as school boards and health service boards. Did you come across any reasons that those boards don't exist? Is it because of the different structure in government, or is there just not the expertise in the area?
Michael Ferguson
View Michael Ferguson Profile
Michael Ferguson
2016-04-19 16:23
Again, I think it's probably difficult to generalize. I don't think we were necessarily looking at why they didn't exist. I think what we identified was simply that when there is a gap or absence of those types of organizations to make sure that services are delivered, it's harder to make sure that those services are getting to people.
I think it was more just a matter of identifying that in order to make sure that those first nation members were getting access to those types of services, it's important to have somebody whose job, on the ground, is to make sure that those services are actually being delivered to people.
View Michael McLeod Profile
Lib. (NT)
I want to flag a quick issue regarding police depots and nurses across the north and the high suicide rate. You can't have nurses in the community if you don't have the RCMP, and if you don't have the RCMP, you can't have nurses. So there's a real challenge there, and I think the high rate of suicides between Nunavut and the Northwest Territories...we have had 650 suicides over the last 15 years and we don't have any services.
I was going to go along that line of questioning, but I'm out of time.
Thank you very much.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2016-04-19 16:39
Again, I think that was the fourth impediment we identified, that having support at the local level is critical to being able to make sure that these services exist in a satisfactory manner.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2016-04-14 11:03
Mr. Chair, thank you for this opportunity to discuss our audit work relating to the committee's study of service delivery to veterans.
Joining me at the table are Joe Martire, principal, and Dawn Campbell, director, responsible for audits of Veterans Affairs Canada, and National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces.
For the benefit of new members, I would like to briefly explain the types of audits we are presenting to you today, which are performance audits.
Performance audits examine whether government programs are being managed with due regard for economy, efficiency, and environmental impact. We also look to see if there are means in place to measure the effectiveness of programs. However, while we may comment on policy implementation, we do not comment on the merits of policy, itself.
Since 2012, we have conducted two performance audits that focused on selected services and benefits provided to veterans. Veterans Affairs Canada was also part of a third audit that examined the delivery of online services by federal organizations.
In the fall of 2012, we reported on how National Defence and Veterans Affairs Canada managed selected programs, services and benefits to support eligible ill and injured Canadian Forces members and veterans in the transition to civilian life. We did not look at whether Canadian Forces members and veterans had received all the services and benefits for which they were eligible. Neither did we examine the fairness of departmental services and benefits available, nor the quality of medical treatment and care provided.
There are a variety of support programs, benefits and services in place to help ill and injured members of the military make the transition to civilian life. However, we found that understanding how the programs worked and accessing them was often complex, lengthy and challenging.
The lack of clear information about programs and services, the complexity of eligibility criteria, and the dependence on paper-based systems were some of the difficulties expressed by both clients and staff.
We also found inconsistencies in how individual cases were managed, as well as problems in the sharing of information between the two departments. As a result, forces members and veterans did not always receive services and benefits in a timely manner, or at all.
We found that the interdepartmental governance framework to coordinate, harmonize, and communicate the various programs, services, and benefits available to ill and injured forces members and veterans needed strengthening.
National Defence and Veterans Affairs accepted all 15 of our recommendations, which included streamlining their processes to make programs more accessible for ill and injured forces members and veterans.
In our fall 2014 report, we reported on mental health services for veterans. As of March 2014, about 15,000 veterans were eligible to receive mental health support from Veterans Affairs Canada through the disability benefits program. The proportion of the department's disability benefits clients with mental health conditions had increased from less than 2% in 2002 to almost 12% in 2014.
Our objective was to determine whether Veterans Affairs Canada had facilitated timely access to services and benefits for veterans with mental illness. We focused on the timeliness of eligibility decisions made by the department. We did not assess the appropriateness of the decisions made or the quality of care received.
For eligible veterans, the department paid for various mental health services that were not covered by provincial health care plans. These services included specialized psychological care, residential treatment, and some prescription medications.
We found that Veterans Affairs Canada had put in place important mental health supports. These included operational stress injury clinics, a 24/7 telephone service, and the Operational Stress Injury Social Support Program. However, the department was not doing enough to facilitate veterans' timely access to mental health benefits and services.
The rehabilitation program provides access to mental health care support for those veterans who are having difficulty transitioning to civilian life. Eligibility requirements are less stringent than those of the disability benefits program, but treatments and benefits end once a veteran completes the program. We found that Veterans Affairs Canada was meeting its service standards for providing timely access to mental health services through the rehabilitation program.
The disability benefits program provides lifelong access to benefits and requires that veterans provide evidence that they have a permanent mental health condition that was caused or aggravated by military service.
We found from the veterans' perspective that about 20% had to wait more than eight months from the first point of contact for the department to confirm their eligibility to access the specialized mental health services paid for by the department.
As in 2012, we found that a complex application process, delays in obtaining medical records from National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces, and long wait times to access mental health care professionals in stress injury clinics continued to be some of the factors that slow down the decision as to whether veterans are eligible for support provided through the disability benefits program.
In addition, we noted that 65% of veterans who challenged denial-of-eligibility decisions for disability benefits were successful. While the department knew that most successful challenges rely on new information or testimony, it had not analyzed how the process could be improved to obtain this information prior to rendering decisions upon first application.
Mr. Chair, Veterans Affairs Canada agreed with our recommendations, and following our report, produced an action plan with implementation deadlines ranging from December 2014 to March 2016.
Lastly, in the fall of 2013, we examined whether the online services offered by some federal organizations, including Veterans Affairs Canada, were client-focused and supported by service delivery strategies with defined and measured benefits. We did not audit service standards.
We found that the government had introduced services to enable individuals to interact online with departments securely. However, multiple steps were required to set up a secure account and then enrol in a program. For example, a retired veteran wishing to interact with the Government of Canada online to access benefits and report taxes first had to set up a secure account and then follow different enrolment processes with Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, Veterans Affairs Canada and the Canada Revenue Agency, or CRA.
While a veteran would have had immediate access to a Veterans Affairs Canada account, the wait time to receive separate security codes in the mail from Service Canada and CRA was 5 to 10 days.
Mr. Chair, we hope the findings in these audits will be useful to the committee in its study. I should note, however, that we have not done other audit work since our reports were presented to Parliament; therefore, we cannot comment on progress the departments have made since then. We encourage your committee to ask department officials what progress they have made toward implementing our recommendations.
Lastly, the committee may be interested to know that on May 3 we will present a report to Parliament on the drug benefits program provided by Veterans Affairs Canada.
This concludes my opening remarks. We would be pleased to answer any questions the committee may have.
Thank you.
Dawn Campbell
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Dawn Campbell
2016-04-14 11:14
If we refer to paragraph 3.52 in the report on mental health, it indicates that the reason we focused on the family doctors is...and here's a sentence there that's particularly pertinent:
According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, “People are more likely to consult their family physician about a mental health problem or illness than any other health care provider.”
That doesn't mean others are not important. I think probably—
Joe Martire
View Joe Martire Profile
Joe Martire
2016-04-14 11:38
As was mentioned, it's very important that the information is shared in a timely manner but that it's also accurate and reliable.
Back in 2012, most of the records that were being transferred were being done manually. They had an initiative to work on electronic data transfer, I'm not sure where that's at now. But the types of errors that we're talking about included things like the release dates and included even the type of veteran. Was it a member of the Canadian Forces? Was it a member of the reservists? These things affect eligibility of programs. They also talked about whether someone served in a special service area. Again, that may entitle someone to certain benefits.
We found 24% of the service numbers were actually in error back in 2012 in the databases.
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