Sunday, April 4, 2021

Feds’ auditor general nominee says unclear if office needs to adjust request for funding boost

Feds' auditor general nominee says unclear if office needs to adjust request for funding boost

The federal government’s nominee for auditor general says the office is in the early stages of plotting the scope of its audits into the feds’ COVID-19 spending. 

Karen Hogan, the assistant auditor general, told the House Public Accounts Committee which is vetting her nomination on Tuesday, that it’s still “too early” to say whether the office will need additional funds on top of the $11.8-million request made by her predecessors. The AG’s current annual budget is about $90-million. The AG has also been legislated to audit the federal government’s unprecedented COVID-19-related spending, which is at about $151.7-billion so far, according Finance Canada’s report to the House Finance Committee. 

“Any number I put out there would be a wild guess; we’re all learning as we go,” she told the committee.

The 14-year veteran at the Office of the Auditor General was repeatedly asked by members whether her office, which is facing longstanding budgetary constraints, had sufficient resources to meet its mandate. She said her office is waiting on the 2020 budget release to see whether its request has been met. 

Chief among her priorities, she said, will be to work with government to secure an “immediate” funding boost and to establish an independent funding mechanism that would address the office’s financial constraints, which stretch back nearly a decade.

To help manage budgetary constraints, the office has had to postpone work on all but three probes, and has struck a “steering committee” to divvy up work on planned audits into the feds’ COVID-19 programs among the office’s 575 staff members. 

“We will be looking at preparedness, actions during the pandemic, and lessons learned, so we can adjust if needed, should a situation occur like this again,” Ms. Hogan said. 

Conservative MP Dean Allison (Niagara West, Ont.), chair of the House Public Accounts Committee, asked if she could return to the committee at a later date to provide an estimate of how much additional funding the office might need.

Apart from examining the rollout of the COVID-19 relief programs, the office is looking into the Liberal government’s $187-billion infrastructure program—a push initiated earlier this year by the Conservatives—and the COVID-19 related special warrants. 

Finance Minister Bill Morneau (Toronto Centre, Ont.) last week told the House Finance Committee that the government will be evaluating the AG’s $11.8-million funding request, as it does with other asks. 

Raising issues recently brought up by interim auditor general Sylvain Ricard at the House Finance Committee last week, Ms. Hogan said the office’s fall reports are likely to be delayed, as staff had to shift their priorities to the other audits. Asked which audits were in limbo, including those half finished and those that it hoped to conduct in the near future, Ms. Hogan said she was unable to recall specifics. 

“Unfortunately, I didn’t bring a list of what we had on the horizon, that we’re delaying or forging,” Ms. Hogan said, responding to Conservative MP Tim Uppal (Edmonton Southeast, Alta.). “When we look to the future, we have an excellent process to figure out what audits we might like to do. It’s just a little too early to say what those might be, given we’re not sure how long it will take us to get through the COVID-19 spending, as we would imagine it would be more than one cycle, or many audits.” 

Liberal MP Lloyd Longfield (Guelph, Ont.), vice-chair of the Public Accounts Committee, offered a list of the anticipated audits, which include a probe into the feds’ shipbuilding strategy, a follow-up on rail safety, and the Canada Child Benefit program. The latter program has been boosted to help families weather the pandemic crisis. 

Ms. Hogan said those audits haven’t been fully abandoned, but likely won’t be released until some time in 2021. “Those will not be pushed aside,” she told the committee. 

She also said her office may miss the deadline for its report on COVID-19 special warrants, as staff, who are all working remotely from home, have had to adjust to the new arrangements. 

“There might be a delay, but it’s not because we’re not working very hard,” she said. “Doing auditing work remotely is new for us. … We’re pushing forward as much as possible.”

The committee heard she applied for the position in January, and that the process was temporarily halted due to the pandemic. She received word that her name would be put before the parties as part of the government’s “consultation” process late April.

Should she be confirmed for the position through a resolution in Parliament, Ms. Hogan would be replacing the late Michael Ferguson, who passed away in February 2019.

The Hill Times

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