North·Analysis

After N.W.T. education audit, officials promise change, will they follow through?

Once again, the Northwest Territories government promises changes following a report from the Office of the Auditor General of Canada. But as history shows, the territory does not always follow through.

Successive audit reports show N.W.T. government slow to change. Will this time be different?

N.W.T. Education Minister R.J. Simpson says the auditor general's report is a 'launching pad' for improvements. Will the department follow through? (Alex Brockman/CBC)

The latest report on the N.W.T. government from the federal Office of the Auditor General reads like the last one auditors performed on the Child and Family Services division in 2018 — or the audit on the territory's climate change strategy a year earlier. 

Though the reports focus on three different areas of government, they all describe a slow-moving bureaucracy that, in some cases, is just now beginning to implement action plans and frameworks developed five to seven years ago.

As was the case for the Health and Social Services Department in 2018, or the Environment Department in 2017, Education officials and their minister are promising to change things for the better.

"We've made a commitment, we've prioritized improving educational outcomes for our students," Education Minister R.J. Simpson told reporters Thursday. 

"It gives us a good launching pad from which we can take off and make improvements," he said. "It would be great if we were doing everything perfectly, but that's not the reality."  

As a regular MLA, Simpson criticized what seemed like a near-constant stream of action plans and frameworks from the last government. As minister, he's promised to bring forward manageable, reportable plans for improvement. 

"We're going to find out where we need to focus our energies and pare down those initiatives in the future," he said, pointing to improving the quality of education in small communities as a particular area of focus.  

Glenn Wheeler, an auditor who's worked for years in the N.W.T. says he's noticed audits consistently show the government has issues with using and analyzing data. (Alex Brockman/CBC)
 

The latest audit, released Thursday, examined a number of factors within the Northwest Territories K-12 education system, including problems with Indigenous language education, monitoring student success, and providing support to students and teachers in remote communities.

Though auditors noted improvements over the past decade, they concluded the government is not living up to its commitments and obligations to its students.

Over the years, we've noticed the departments start out with the best intentions.- Glenn Wheeler, audit principal 

As with the Child and Family Services division, the territorial government has pledged to reform education before. But auditors found those efforts bogged down by various action plans and frameworks.

In 2013, the Education Department launched its Education Renewal and Innovation Framework, but auditors found officials did not monitor the action plans produced from that framework.

Another three-year plan, released in 2015, came up with 18 initiatives with 40 deliverables. Department officials told auditors these goals were "unrealistic" and auditors found there has been little work done to track the progress on implementing them.

Auditors find consistent issues across departments  

In response, the department has promised to implement all of the audit's recommendations — similar to the response it gave after the Child and Family Services audit in 2018, the climate change report in 2017, and the auditor general's previous K-12 audit in 2010.

Data isn't collected and should be.- Glenn Wheeler, Principal auditor

It's a pattern Glenn Wheeler has noticed as the audit principal of those reports. He's seen departments across the government not using or analyzing data as part of decision making. 

"Data that is collected isn't analyzed in a way to improve government programming," he said. "Or some cases data isn't collected and should be."

"Over the years, we've noticed the departments start out with the best intentions, but it's through a detailed action plan where you see demonstrable change in improvement," he said. 

Education officials note that they're in the midst of a first review of its education renewal and will continue that every five years. The first technical briefing on that program is scheduled for Friday afternoon.

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