All governments are doing a wonderful job at everything, according to all governments. For a more objective assessment of performance, citizens depend on the work of the Auditor General.
The “exit” report of an Auditor General — one who’s spent six years researching promises kept and promises broken by government — is of special interest.
Nova Scotia Auditor General Michael Pickup is leaving for a new job as Auditor General in British Columbia this July. Today he released his final Follow-up Report on how well the provincial government is doing when it comes to implementing recommendations he made two, three, and four years ago.
“Our recommendations to improve accountability and performance in the provincial public sector have impact when government acts upon their commitments,” said Pickup. “Our approach is that two years after an audit, we go back to see if the government completed the recommendation.”
The Auditor General’s team found 93% of its 2015 recommendations have been completed but only 70% of their 2016 recommendations have been implemented. The completed percentage rises to 81% for 2017. While Pickup applauded the 2017 numbers as “an encouraging result,” he says MLAs and citizens should pay more attention to deficiencies outstanding since 2016.
“This is disappointing, and after three years since the audits were completed, the completion rate should be higher,” wrote Pickup in a statement to the media. “There are 13 recommendations that have not been completed from five audits during 2016. The five audits cover important areas including Species at Risk, School Capital Planning, Homes for Special Care, Licensed Child Care, and Critical Infrastructure Resiliency.”
October 2019 was the deadline to submit information on what follow-up actions have been taken by departments. The review includes responses from the government departments critiqued. For instance, today’s 72-page review says Lands and Forestry had not developed a program nor management plans to monitor endangered and species-at-risk to protect biodiversity, as recommended back in 2016.
In its response, Lands and Forestry noted “Draft plans have been completed for all remaining species that fall under the N.S. provincial government’s responsibility and are awaiting finalization and approval by Recovery Teams.” A wildlife biologist was also hired. Both changes occurred after several nature-loving associations filed a lawsuit in which the verdict by the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia is pending.
Nursing homes and residential care homes
The AG says when it comes to homes for special care — nursing homes and residential care homes for disabled adults — the Department of Community Services and Department of Health did not complete a recommendation “to establish clear responsibilities and accountability for service provider performance and reporting requirements to ensure these activities are carried out. By not completing this recommendation, there is a risk that Health and Wellness may not be adequately monitoring and managing homes for special care.”
In some cases, the AG claims Community Services still did not have signed agreements with people operating group homes.
In response to these findings, the Department of Community Services says it now has signed Letters of Agreements with all non-profit groups or private companies that operate residential care facilities.
The Department of Health inspects both residential care homes and nursing homes. At last count they had a dozen inspectors for more than 400 homes. The department says it updated standards in 2016 and again in 2019 with respect to wound control (bedsores) and will continue to make changes. But don’t expect them to happen quickly. Health’s response says,
“As contracts for long term care providers are reviewed and renewed for 2022, work will begin to more formally integrate accountability and related reporting into contractual language. Estimated completion for this recommendation is 2022.”
Lack of enforcement
Enforcement is also an issue with respect to daycares. Pickup says not enough is being done to inspect daycares operating in family homes or to verify whether operators and parents receiving subsidies meet the eligibility criteria.
The current review also finds shortcomings in the Department of Health and Wellness’s ability to complete a 2017 recommendation to improve home-care services to elderly and disabled people. As one might expect, questions from the Auditor General are pointed: “How is Health and Wellness ensuring data submitted by home care providers is accurate?” and, “How will Health and Wellness and the Nova Scotia Health Authority ensure they are consistently communicating complaints to each other and taking appropriate action to address them?”
Pickup says the Department of Health and Wellness and the Nova Scotia Health Authority have not finished work to build an integrated record of home support complaints. Both the Department of Health and the NSHA manage separate databases. The NSHA says it is working “to integrate” the information from both sources into one reporting system but it’s not clear when that will be achieved.
The response from the Department of Health indicates the problems are receiving some attention. The department says it currently reviews the paperwork from home-care providers on a monthly basis. It is working with Internal Audit to develop a better way to verify information and a system should be ready by 2021.
There are also five recommendations dating as far back as the 2015 performance audit which were identified as requiring more work. They relate to procurement and management of professional services contracts, prevention and treatment of problem gambling, business continuity management, and forest management and protection.
The AG says Health and Wellness “has not established goals to determine if gambling prevention and treatment efforts are effectively reducing the number of Nova Scotians experiencing gambling harms, including those receiving treatment through the Gambling Support Network.”
And, “the Office of Aboriginal Affairs has not completed a recommendation to work with First Nations Bands to see the objectives of responsible gambling are reflected in the operation of First Nations gambling venues. This should also include clarifying the role of Service Nova Scotia’s Alcohol and Gambling Division in monitoring compliance with provincial gambling laws on First Nations reserves.”
The Forest, the Trees, and Bureaucratese
The move toward a more sustainable model of forestry has been painful and slow in Nova Scotia. The Auditor General found the Department of Lands and Forestry — formerly known as Natural Resources — still hasn’t followed up on a 2015 recommendation related to implementing its 2011-2020 Natural Resources Strategy. The AG said the department had not developed performance measures to determine if it had completed “action items.”
In what some observers might consider a major understatement, Pickup concluded, “By not completing this recommendation, it may be difficult for management and the public to assess the progress towards implementing the Strategy.” Since that Strategy, the Lahey Report arrived in August 2018. The latest response from Lands and Forestry to the concern raised by the Auditor General four years ago could lull a charging moose into a stupor:
With the release of the Independent Forest Practices Review (Aug 2018) and the Government Response to the Review (Dec 2018), the department has begun to integrate its work on implementing Review recommendations with Natural Resources Strategy commitments. The Government Response to the Review includes a commitment that the Review’s author, Professor Bill Lahey, report on implementation progress. Professor Lahey has assembled an evaluation team. The department is providing input to the team, including draft measures, to support the team’s development of an evaluation framework and their work to evaluate progress the department made in 2019 (report anticipated in early 2020). The department will also prepare a final report on implementation of the Natural Resources Strategy (planned Summer 2020).
We have asked Lands and Forestry for clarification on these timelines and will update the story later.