The federal department in charge of centralizing the government's information-technology systems has made limited progress in doing so, knocking out communications for emergency workers in Saskatchewan on one occasion, and is having trouble proving that its efforts are actually saving money, a new report by Canada's Auditor-General says.
In the report tabled in Parliament on Tuesday, Auditor-General Michael Ferguson found that Shared Services Canada, which became a department in 2012, has encountered challenges in its mandate to modernize, standardize and consolidate the e-mail, data centre and network services for 43 federal departments by 2020.
Shared Services Canada "did not set clear and concrete expectations of what departments would receive in terms of ongoing service, support and information," Mr. Ferguson said in a prepared statement. "It is also unable to accurately demonstrate cost savings achieved through the transformation of government IT services."
The report also found that Shared Services did not outline "clear and concrete expectations" for how it would deliver services and "rarely" provided enough information to departments to help them meet government IT security policies, guidelines and standards.
The department's problems were made clear in a case study from March 24, 2014, when all first responders – police, fire and emergency medical services – in Saskatchewan lost radio voice communications for 40 minutes. First responders were forced to use their personal cellphones to communicate with each other, but reception was spotty or non-existent in some areas. The outage linked back to Shared Services, which managed the emergency radio services, and accidentally rendered a crucial feature of the radio network unavailable while making changes to the network.
Mr. Ferguson said Shared Services' problems originated with its implementation, and the department continues to struggle with ambitious and complex goals.
"They didn't put in place things like service-level agreements with the 43 departments and organizations that they provide services to," he told reporters. "So that starts them out in a situation where they don't really have a baseline that documents who's going to do what, what level of services should the departments expect to have, what type of information should they expect to receive to give them an in indication of how their systems are being managed."
New Democratic MP David Christopherson said the big question is whether the current effort to create government-wide technology can be fixed or should be scrapped.
"I would think that, given the mess that it is right now, that it may very well make more sense for them to start all over," he said.
But Public Services Minister Judy Foote said the government is committed to completing the IT transformation process by 2020.
The audit also found the department did not have consistent financial practices to prove that savings were being generated. For instance, Shared Services did not take individual departmental implementation cost estimates, ranging from $500,000 to $5-million each, into account when determining savings that would be achieved by moving to a new e-mail system.
As a part of its e-mail transformation initiative, Shared Services Canada had planned to migrate 500,000 e-mail mailboxes to the new service by the end of March, 2015. But, according to the audit, the department reported to its senior management that it had migrated only 3,000 by that date.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Ms. Foote said "the cost is not the issue for us right now," as "the delivery of services is what's really important for Canadians."
Wait for disability benefits too long
Canadians with terminal illnesses and grave medical conditions are waiting too long to be approved for federal disability benefits, and a tribunal that was created to speed appeals when disability claims are denied has made the system even slower, the Auditor-General says.
Although Employment and Social Development Canada usually approves or rejects claims for Canada Pension Plan (CPP) disability benefits within an acceptable amount of time, an audit released on Tuesday found the department's promise to take no more than 48 hours to process claims for people with terminal illnesses was being met in just 7 per cent of cases.
And just 59 per cent of people who have grave illnesses such as liver cancer, Alzheimer's disease or paranoid schizophrenia are getting their applications for benefits approved within the department's standard of 30 days, said the audit, which examined the claims-approvals process over five years ending in 2014-15.
"These are people who have worked in the Canadian work force and they've made their contributions to the CPP and this is one of the benefits that they expect to be there when they need it," Auditor-General Michael Ferguson said of those applying for disability benefits. "So the department needs to treat this as a service for people and make that whole system better."
The audit found that the application process for CPP disability benefits is extremely cumbersome – the application kit contains eight documents totalling 42 pages.
In addition, the audit said the Social Security Tribunal, which was established in 2014 to increase the speed and efficiency of the existing process for hearing appeals of rejected claims, was actually bogging things down. From 2011-12 to 2014-15, the average time an appellant waited for a decision increased from 402 days to 884 days.
When the department took a second look at 5,414 appeals that were in a backlog as of December, 2014, it overturned one-third of the original decisions. A random sample of those reversed decisions examined by the auditors found many were overturned without any substantial new evidence. The claim of one applicant was denied six times before it was approved.
The auditors said this suggests the department needs to do more to ensure its original decisions are consistent and appropriate.
Treasury Board President Scott Brison told reporters the problems unearthed by the Auditor-General apply to the actions of the previous Conservative government.
"It would be very easy for us as ministers of the current government, the new government, to simply lay blame. We're not doing that," Mr. Brison said. "We're actually taking action and are actually going to move forward, working with Canadians."