MPs to demand government put interests of citizens 1st after auditor's report

Two senior members of the Commons' powerful public accounts committee say they will start enforcing the auditor general's demand that government departments and agencies put taxpayers' interests first when delivering services.

Spending watchdog Michael Ferguson frustrated that government hasn't responded to repeated calls for change

Auditor General Michael Ferguson says MPs need to follow up on his call for government departments to put citizens first. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Two senior members of the Commons' powerful public accounts committee say they will start enforcing the auditor general's demand that government departments and agencies put taxpayers' interests first when delivering services.

Michael Ferguson expressed frustration in releasing his most recent set of audits this week that his efforts to promote a new way of measuring how well government does just isn't sinking in.

"I keep delivering the same message: that the government doesn't understand the results from the citizen's perspective," he said. "It appears that our message is not being heard at the whole-of-government level, and that concerns me."

It also concerns the two vice-chairs of the public accounts committee, which reviews the auditor general's twice-yearly reports.

"We've made a decision that we don't normally, but we are actually going to hold a public hearing on each and every chapter of that report because they were all so important,"  New Democrat MP David Christopherson said in an interview with CBC Radio's The House.

"And we've changed a lot of our methods in terms of the followup that we do. We've now started to call departments back when we're not satisfied with their answers or we're not satisfied with the pace of the progress, or we see changes that we don't think are supportive of the direction they've indicated."

NDP MP David Christopherson says public accounts prepared to put bureaucrats under the glare of public transparency and accountability. (Chris Rands/CBC)

In the reports made public this week, auditors found glaring examples of how government departments fail to understand the scope of the problems Canadians face in getting access to services.

For example, auditors found the Canada Revenue Agency's call centre blocked 29 million calls to the help line, and gave out wrong advice to nearly a third of those callers who did manage to get through.

The government also failed to adequately follow up with the provinces to ensure Syrian refugees had proper access to health-care and schools.

And the auditor general said it was clear that the problems with the Phoenix payroll system that has underpaid many public servants, overpaid some others and left thousands without a pay cheque at all, will cost far more to fix than the government has acknowledged.

He blamed Public Services and Procurement Canada and the Treasury Board for failing to recognize early enough the depth and severity of the Phoenix problem, and failed to involve other departments in developing a timely plan to deal with the issue

The vice-chairs of the Public Accounts Committee, the NDP's David Chistopherson and Liberal Alexandra Mendes, explain how they are planning to help the Auditor General. 4:32

Ferguson told The House that, despite the severity of the problems his auditors identified, he has limited ability to follow up on his own other than conducting another audit, generally years later. 

"Now we've been working with the public accounts committee on them actually bringing departments back more often on the same topic, to see whether the department can tell them what progress they have been making," he said.

"We need to have a number of different ways to try and make sure that the departments understand the importance of actually living up to what they say they're going to do."

Senior bureaucrats to be called

Liberal vice-chair Alexandra Mendes says the public accounts committee is willing to call in the government's top bureaucrat, Michael Wernick, to make sure every department head understands that business as usual will no longer cut it. She said they're also prepared to summon deputy ministers if nothing changes.

"We'll bring them back to committee, we'll ask the questions again. And it's not just to say that we're not happy with how they're going, we want to make sure that what they promised they would do in their action plans is being done.

"They know we won't forget to check."

Christopherson also said he's asked Ferguson what else the committee can do to ensure the government finally changes its approach to providing services.

"So the two things that he mentioned in regard to this are, No. 1, to continue what we've started which is to haul the departments back in when we're not satisfied, and put them under the glare of public transparency and accountability. The camera is on you folks all there."

About the Author

Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.