Lack of information about late highway contracts a 'concern': professor

The ministry of highways is in the midst of a review attempting to gather key information about why almost half of all highways contracts last year were behind schedule.

Ministry of Highways launched fact-finding review

Ministry of Highways officials were not able to respond to many iTeam questions relating to construction projects that were late. (CBC)

The ministry of highways is in the midst of a review attempting to gather key information about why almost half of all highways contracts last year were behind schedule. 

During a six-month-long CBC iTeam investigation there have been several key questions that the ministry has been unable to answer or has answered incorrectly. 

You need to have effective information systems that can gather this data and present it and make it available for decision-makers.- Public Administration professor Ken Rasmussen

In November a ministry spokesperson told CBC News that a mere 13 per cent of highway contracts were late in the 2012-2013 season. 

In an email to CBC News, Doug Wakabayashi said "the percentage of contracts that are late has been decreasing" from 32 per cent in 2011-12 down to 13 percent in 2012-13." 

And in an interview on Nov. 22 Assistant Deputy Minister Ted Stobbe told CBC "we like the trend that we're seeing today where it is getting to be that more and more contracts are being completed on time."

But this turned out to be wrong. 

Through further enquiries CBC's iTeam determined that the 13 per cent number was incomplete. It took the ministry of highways another six weeks to come up with the correct number. 

In an email on Jan. 6, the ministry revealed the actual number of late contracts was almost three times higher than what it originally said, coming in at 46 percent. 

Incomplete information a concern: professor

U of R professor of public administration, Ken Rasmussen, says this is a concern because highways and infrastructure is one of the largest ministries, spending about $400M a year of taxpayer money.

Public Administration professor Ken Rasmussen says a large ministry such as highways should have reliable systems to generate information for decision-makers. (CBC)

He says it should be able to accurately answer basic questions. 

"The fact that they don't seem to be aware of the magnitude of the problem, the severity of the problem would be a concern," Rasmussen said. "It should be a concern for the legislature and it should be a concern for citizens I think."

Rasmussen said if governments don't have accurate and complete information they can't make good decisions.

"You need to have effective information systems that can gather this data and present it and make it available for decision-makers and for legislators and for citizens," Rasmussen explains. "So I think transparency is the issue here."

Ministry has launched fact-finding review

Deputy minister Nithi Govindasamy acknowledges there was a breakdown in the ministry's communication with CBC's iTeam.

"Some of the numbers that were provided to you earlier were somewhat incomplete," he said. Govindasamy also acknowledges that there are other key areas that remain unclear, which is why he has launched a review.

Deputy Minister Nithi Govindasamy has launched a review looking into questions about the lateness of highway construction projects. (CBC)
"We need the facts," he said. "We need to understand what the circumstances are."

For example, the ministry doesn't know how late its various delinquent contracts are. As well, it doesn't have a firm handle on the various reasons behind the delays. And it can't say how much contractors have been penalized for failing to come in on time. 

Ministry unaware of late penalites paid

One of the key questions CBC's iTeam asked, back in October, was how much contractors been fined for late contracts. 

The ministry was able to report that during a eight-year period contractors were assessed $7.37M in liquidated damages. 

But it was unable say how much contractors had paid in "site occupancy" penalties. 

Executive Director of Communications Rosann Semchuk told CBC's iTeam that reporters would have to file an Access to Information request for that information.

"We have, to this point, spent many hours in providing and compiling information for you," Semchuk explained. "Please submit an FOI [Freedom of Information] request so that information-gathering cost estimates can be calculated."

Rasmussen said this is information the government should have at its fingertips in order for it to assess the effectiveness of its own contract management process.

"Given the amount of money being spent and the urgency of the issue for Saskatchewan residents, there should be greater attention to the accumulation of that information," he said.

Rasmussen said governments across the country are struggling to get accurate information in a timely way.

He said often the problem is that various computer systems inside government are unable to "talk to each other."

"I don't think there is a scandal," he said. "But I do think it's something that all governments should do a better job of and I think this is an example of where governments can obviously improve."