When the auditor comes calling

The auditor general’s report on how government money is being misspent was trumped on Tuesday by the Finance Minister throwing a bunch of it in your face. Welcome to modern democracy. But it’s no way to run a railroad.

Some journalists showed up for the AG’s lockup under the impression that if the government was suddenly dropping a mislabeled mini-budget on top of her report there must be something they wanted to bury. Not so. The timing simply indicates that Mr. Harper’s respect for Parliament is as high as ever. It was contempt, not cunning.

In any case, we weren’t distracted. The auditor general’s reports can’t all be Adscam and there was nothing here especially embarrassing to the current administration. But if you read the Citizen (and if not what are you holding now?) you’ll know all of Wednesday’s page A3 was taken up with her findings, mostly troubling national security issues from poor medical care for military personnel to egregious lapses in border security to failure to follow contracting policies.

At the risk of appearing controversial or archaic I’m a bit concerned about lack of focus here. When you think auditor, you probably think of rows of numbers in small sans-serif print. (If by contrast you think Canada Revenue Agency, and what nations don’t we have extradition treaties with, I won’t detain you although the RCMP might want to.) And in the old days, the auditor general’s report on a far smaller government was a far larger document, perhaps 2,000 pages in the late 19th century, listing every pencil and envelope. But since 1977 the AG has been charged with doing “value-for-money” audits that ask questions about efficiency and sound management. And although I agree that someone needs to do such things I can’t help thinking it’s mostly Parliament’s job to decide whether programs make sense.

I grant that there’s a grey area here. An auditor can rightly ask not only whether the budget for pencils was spent on pencils but whether the pencils worked. And a number of MPs have told me that the AG’s reports are invaluable to them in knowing where to start questioning government officials and agencies. But note also that her office has about 600 staff whereas each MP has about four and parliamentary committees are woefully short-handed. If they had better staff support the AG could focus a bit more on old-time auditing.

Mind you, when the federal government spends more than $7,000 a second it’s a lot of pencils to count. And neither the auditor general nor anyone else needs to count them all. It’s perfectly sound economics that people’s propensity to be careless or dishonest is determined by the risk of getting caught times the pain if they do. If the AG’s office has fairly dependable ways of finding egregious wrongdoing, as it does, then as with the old British practice of hanging the occasional admiral it will certainly encourager les autres.

Here I can even insert a brief defence of journalists’ preference for the lurid. Yes, we tend to read (or skim) such documents looking for scandal. But people in government offices across the land know it, and try reasonably hard to avoid appearing in the auditor general’s report in that sort of setting. Sometimes, of course, they fail, and we get to read about their antics.

Curiously, this brings me to my biggest worry about the whole process. In her 2007 Main Points summary, the AG describes some behaviour ranging from sloppy to downright appalling, then declares that every department or agency in question agrees with every criticism and suggestion her office made.

It’s hardly surprising. When the AG comes calling, what’s your strategy? Argue, deny, bluster and get a nasty writeup in the report and then in the press, or nod, grin and promise? But now turn to the report by the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, bundled with the AG’s this year. His main complaint is that for a decade departments have been nodding, grinning and not doing anything useful. And why would they? Who’s going to make them?

There’s where the wheel hits the steel. And where we should be careful not to expect more of the auditor general and her department than they can reasonably do. Modern governments are very good at promising but rather feeble at delivering, and I wouldn’t want MPs, or citizens, to get a false sense of security about who’s keeping things on track. It’s Parliament, or nobody.

We could certainly have waited a week for the executive to distract citizens and legislators from how public money is disbursed by flinging heaps of it at us. At that speed it’s easy to derail.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

Columns, EconomicsJohn Robson