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July 14, 2024

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Auditor General Report on Enviroment and Sustainable Development


Auditor General finds half of the work on Environment and Sustainable Development
to be falling short of Federal Strategies and Goals

WT staff

WT Interview with David Normand, Office of the Auditor General, Commissioner of Environment and Sustainable Development, on Nov 29, 2021 . The transcription below hhas been edited for clarity and length.

WT: I have with me today, David Normand, who is a principal at the Auditor General for Canada. Thanks for doing this, David.

When I was reading this report, the more I read, the more dismal it seemed to get. What I have so far, is that about half of what these departments were supposed to do around keeping our lakes and oceans pristine wasn’t done. Can you speak about how the audit worked, and where did this “half of actions required” weren’t done come from?

Normand: Just a point of clarification upfront, when we looked at this year's Federal Sustainable Development Strategy topics, we looked at three goals: healthy coasts and oceans, pristine lakes and rivers, and sustainable food. In any of those three topics, we did not reach what we call internally, audit level of assurance, all we looked at was the quality of the reporting. This is actually the third time we did this – as this is the close of the federal development three-year cycle strategy of 2016 – 2019 – our third year of reporting against the progress, the third year we looked at the quality of reporting against the progress. Three years ago, we were looking at a goal called Sustainable Lands and Forest, and we found that in many items government was reporting in the annual report tabled to Parliament, either the quality of the reporting was really poor, or the activity reported was beside the point of how the goal is defined. At the time we felt there is no point in auditing in-depth since the quality of reporting is so poor in the first place, so we thought maybe as an office we could add value by recommending to the department how to better report.

So, we did this the following year also, in 2020, we looked at the quality of the reporting and you are right, one of the results we looked at was pristine lakes and rivers. Basically, what happened there, the reporting was either incomplete or unclear, and we found problems with reporting in 79% of the government activities. The kinds of problems we found were for example there was no starting point defined for the period, or the department had not specified the target to be reached, or some activities were missing a performance altogether. In 79% of that bad reporting the department did not follow the treasury board guidance on how to report, we could still make some sense out of it but at the end of the day there was still 46%, so as you pointed out almost half, of the reporting for which we couldn’t see any results, we could not see progress, as it was reported.

WT: I read the report, as anyone else could, my understanding is the purpose of what the departments were supposed to be doing came down to three things essentially, healthy coasts, lakes and rivers, to get excess nutrients out of the water, and then the third one I found was really interesting, food security, and specifically for northern communities. Can you talk about the food for the north audit? We have quite a few communities in the north as our audience. What wasn’t reported around the Food for the North program, what did they expect around sustainable development, I am interested to see what the goals were, where the feds dropped the ball, and what they think they can do about it?

Normand: Overall, concerning these three goals, we looked at 52 of what they call contributing options of the federal strategy and we looked at the progress towards making those, but as I said we did not look in substance at the specifics of what they were supposed to do. I can get you some information on the sustainable food goal in the strategy itself – I would have to get back to you with the specifics on this particular goal.

WT: How many departments did you look at in this audit?

Normand: This year we looked at twelve departments, we looked at the quality of their collective reporting. This is why, not only in the report, we don’t dive so much into the subject matter like we usually do in our other reports with the Commissioner of Environment and Sustainable Development, but we basically scratched the surface to look through their actual reporting, we looked at twelve.

In many items government was detailing in the annual report tabled to Parliament, either the quality of the reporting was really poor, or the activity reported was beside the point of how the goal is defined.

WT: What do they have to do better? The more I read the more dismal I’m getting. If 50% aren’t reporting, what can be done, what do they have to do? Where is this going off the rails?

Normand: I would say two things. This is where I think, in the big machinery of the government things get complicated. For many of the activities that contribute to reaching the targets under these goals, they need to report concrete progress in terms of what they do. I will give you an example that did not quite work for us that will illustrate this completely

There is a lot of tables with huge amounts of information and there was this activity that was aimed at determining a performance indicator for ecosystem health. So we said ok, they were asking stakeholders what the performance indicator could be for this, the goal in and of itself was not to improve things, but to determine a performance indicator. And then we looked at this and saw that the department was reporting its progress in terms of the number of meetings done to meet with stakeholders, etc., etc., not working towards identifying the indicator. So, after two years, we could not even tell if the government had established an indicator for this thing. Part of the intermediate steps where they were supposed to liaise with stakeholders, they weren’t even reporting on the number of stakeholders met, they were reporting on the number of stakeholders that received the package from them. What does this mean for sustainable development in Canada? It is very clear you need to have a guide set out for the period with a starting point and an endpoint, and you need to report how far you got in the three-year period.

There was 46% of the reporting for which we couldn't see
any results, we could not see progress, as it was reported.

Another problem we found is that many of the departments have a bit of an issue with aligning their activities with those that are set out under the goals in the federal strategy. This year, for 24 of the projects, 46% of the departmental actions were not aligned with either of the targets under the goal. 

WT: They get a list of what needs to be done, what needs to be reported, and then a bunch of these departments went off and did something else and said it was contributing to the goal. You are saying according to the Auditor General, it was beside the point, is that right?

Normand: Yes exactly. We were going to make a recommendation, but we decided not to. This is something that will be allowed in the future, I find this a little bit concerning, as we speak there are 27 departments and agencies that relate to the sustainable development act. Soon there will be Close to 100 of them that need to annually report their progress. Imagine, we have 13 goals in the federal strategy, and we are going to have 100 organizations reporting against these targets and goals. Now imagine that half of all the reports to be produced are beside the point of the federal strategy.

For us, it’s our job and to go through the trouble to review this reporting, but for the average Canadian they would open these tables and understand basically nothing.

What is very concerning for sustainable development in Canada, we have big objectives, big things to achieve and as long as we have these kinds of problems with the reporting, Canadians cannot get a clear sense of what is going on and the progress made

WT: It sounds to me that some Minister or the Prime Minister has to, or maybe the Privy Council, someone has to say “No -- it has to happen like this” Have you reached out to any of these people that can actually say “No, it has to be done like this?”

Normand: This is a good question. Actually, on behalf of the government, the Sustainable Development Office in the name of the Department of Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) is coordinating this process. They wrote the guides on how to produce and develop the strategies, they developed the guidance on how to report, etc., it is a complex business. I think we need to bear in mind that any of the organizations that contribute to the federal strategy have many sections that roll up and submit reporting centrally to the people that produce these reports.

So, we met a few times with ECCC and we have had these conversations with them, over the years they improved their guidance, and we continue the dialogue each year. For the second year now, other things we did to really bring value and meet with the people who have produced the reporting, we met with officials in each of the twelve organizations that we looked at this year. In the report we don’t name the department, there is no point, it's really the information at the aggregated level that matters but we did have individual conversations with each department on how to report and they were very pleased.


WT: How did that go? From where I sit, it looks like they have taxpayers' money to do these things, and now, not only do we not know the information they collected, or changes, we don’t know how the money was spent and what it was spent for – I’m really curious to hear what happened when you sat down face to face with these departments.

Normand: I can say that they were really receptive, no one does these things in bad faith. They welcome the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. We could give them concrete examples of points where they failed. There is one service that we provide repetitively, the alignment of whatever they do, lining up their activities with the targets as they are defined. Sometimes we get pushback there, they feel their activities contribute nevertheless to meeting the goal in the federal strategy, but one of the goals we emphasize is reporting against the number of meetings they hold or the number of documents that they communicate, in our view at the AG, this is not proper progress reporting toward Sustainable Development.

At this point, it has been three years now that we have looked purely at the quality of the reporting. At the end of the day, we want to know, did the job in substance get done, did they spend the money as they were supposed to? This year we are taking a different approach, we will not be able to cover 12 – 15; there were years we covered all 27 organizations, it is a daunting task, especially in light of the upcoming 100 or so organizations that will be part of this. As the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, we cannot continue to look broadly at so many contributing actions as we did last year, so for the next report, we are taking a different approach, to look at aspects more narrowly, do more of an investigation to get to the root of these things, to see first of all, if the job was done, if there are results to show, to compare against actual reporting and then to how they can better report.

WT: From my point of view, I like that last part, indeed investigate, you are doing important work. Canadians really do want to know where the money went, and we really do want to know if the departments are meeting targets. This is phasing into almost a fake news kind of argument where you have federal ministers saying we are going to be doing this, we are going to be doing that for Sustainable Development, here is the amount of money Canadian taxpayers have put up for this initiative, it makes no sense at all that no one could explain how come they didn’t report, where the money went. It just seems surreal to me, David.

Normand: Chuckles. I understand you, I understand.

For the goal of pristine lakes and rivers, part of this goal is aimed at reducing the pollution in lakes and rivers. 

There is one particular case we looked at more closely this year, its goal was to reduce phosphorous in Lake Erie. For this particular one, we could not get any sense of where we are at in terms of reducing phosphorous levels in the Great Lakes, based on the reporting that we saw.

One thing I need to say is that every three years, ECCC publishes a progress report on the status of the overall progress on environmental indicators toward the federal goals. This report is just about to be issued; it should be released on December 10. We are going to look at this report obviously because where we are at with the annual progress reporting we could not get a sense of the progress toward lowering the phosphates in the Great Lakes, but hopefully, we can see some statistics and get some information from the upcoming progress report.

WT: I will call you back on the 10th for a short chat if that’s alright.

Normand: Yes, we could do this, but I must let you know when this report comes out, we will reply, we will issue a report in this regard, however, this report will be published at the same time as the other report I described earlier, where we dive in-depth into things. Both reports will be tabled in the Commissioner’s report in Oct 2022, so with this one, we will look again at the quality of the reporting, is it complete, is it misleading? We will have the opportunity to look into this report when it comes out.

WT: On behalf of every person in the remotes that ends up paying 20 bucks for a head of moldy lettuce, among our folks this is one of the most important issues of our time. Thank you, David, a principal at the Auditor General, we wish you luck, thank you for doing this, this has been as dismal a series as any I can remember.

Normand: You are welcome, my pleasure.

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