Ontario’s auditor general is currently in a dispute with the provincial government over a report on the government’s response to the pandemic. The auditor general has produced a report that is critical of the provincial government’s handling of the pandemic, and the premier has responded with a strong attack on the auditor general. This conflict is not an unusual situation, but it does provide an opportunity to consider the appropriate role of the provincial auditor.
Auditing sounds like one of those green-eyeshade functions that somebody should do, but it doesn’t stir much interest. The truth is that auditing has changed over the years, and the events around the pandemic illustrate the important role it plays in modern government.
The role of the auditor general has deep roots, going back to the 19th century when it was strictly a financial function. The auditor attested that the financial statements presented by the government accurately depicted the government’s financial position. There was no value judgment about whether the money was spent wisely; simply an attestation that the figures on the page were accurate.
When James Macdonnell became Auditor General of Canada 1973, he set about transforming the character of the office by introducing the concept of comprehensive— or value-for-money —auditing. The idea was to go beyond simply attesting to the accuracy of the statements to determine whether the funds that were spent provided value for money. Provincial and city auditors general followed Macdonnell’s lead and now all of them provide some type of value-for-money audit.
This shift in emphasis has invited some controversy because a value-for-money audit requires value judgments. Do funds spent on regional economic development actually assist those regions? Or do they simply perpetuate the disparities that they are supposed to alleviate?
Over the years, the provincial auditor general has done reports on addiction treatment programs, the Pan American / Parapan American Games, farm support programs, child welfare services, and many other government activities. The purpose of the reviews is not to second-guess the professional experts who run these programs. The purpose is to offer a judgment on whether the results produced by these taxpayer-funded programs were worth the cost.
Do funds spent on regional economic development actually assist those regions?
The reports generally have two objectives. One is to provide information to the public that can be used to hold the government accountable. Do the programs do what was promised when the money was spent? The second objective is to assist the government in improving the quality of management of these programs. How can the delivery of these programs be improved so that better value for money can be realized?
In the case of the pandemic, the auditor general has produced a three-chapter report and has promised three more chapters, for a total of six.
The first chapter looks at the province’s Emergency Management Office. The auditor first looked at this office in 2017 and reported that “certain of the activities and tools needed to prepare ministries and municipalities for an emergency were not in place.” A follow-up examination in 2019 indicated that very little had been done to remedy the problems found earlier. Then, when the office faced a stress test in 2020, it is not surprising that it did not fare well.
In other words, the auditors tried to provide an early warning system three years ago, but no action was taken, leading to the unsurprising crisis that occurred in 2020.
The second chapter covers “outbreak planning and decision-making.” This chapter is critical of the operation of the health command table which is the key operational planning unit for dealing with the pandemic. It argues that this was slower to grasp the issue and not as well organized as similar bodies in other provinces, which means that it lost key early opportunities to control the pandemic.
The audit office has been criticized for second-guessing the health experts. In fact, in this chapter, the audit office argues that the government did not give the public health experts the central position in responding to the crisis that they should have had.
The third chapter focusses on laboratory testing, case management and contact tracing. The auditor concluded that generally the targets established for speed of testing, case management, and tracing were not met, which resulted in a greater spread of the virus. This provides useful information about where improvements in the system need to be made.
We can look forward to more reports from the provincial auditor that will shine additional light on the actions taken during this crisis. In particular, chapter six promises to look at long-term care. We know that the system has failed some of our most vulnerable residents in this time of crisis. The auditor general should be able to provide some advice about how to avoid a repeat of this scenario in the future.
These are difficult times. They are especially difficult for people who are charged with managing the healthcare system in the face of an unprecedented challenge. It is understandable that a report such as this one from the auditor general would trigger a defensive reaction. However, this report also provides valuable information. We should look forward to the next chapters.
David Siegel is a Brock University Political Science Professor Emeritus.