The AG’s report and a government that can’t get things done

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The AG’s report and a government that can’t get things done

Post by Trooper on Fri Nov 24, 2017 7:49 am

By Susan Delacourt. --- Published on Nov 21, 2017

Whenever politicians circulate the text of their speeches in advance, they often include a disclaimer: “Check against delivery.”

Auditor General Michael Ferguson has just stamped that warning across Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s entire government. His latest report is a stunning blow to a party that came to power two years ago with big promises to respect public servants and introduce a new philosophy of “deliverology” to government.

Ferguson’s devastating report has described a government that can’t even pay its public servants properly or figure out how to provide results-based service to citizens on one of the most basic aspects of government: taxation. “Check against deliverology” would be a good alternative title for this latest report — especially the parts about the Phoenix payroll debacle and the Canada Revenue Agency’s dismal treatment of taxpayers.

“I keep delivering the same message — that the government doesn’t understand the results from the citizens’ perspectives,” Ferguson said at his news conference on Tuesday. “It’s possible that our message of citizen-centred service delivery has been heard at the individual program level. However, we see no signs of it being picked up government-wide.”

It’s an even more withering criticism when laid against last week’s “mandate tracker” unveiled by the Trudeau government — a self-administered report card that (no surprise) concluded that things are going quite swimmingly everywhere, with the odd “challenge” here and there.

Ferguson tried to be tactful about the “mandate tracker” and “deliverology” when asked about them directly at the news conference.

Ferguson said that the mandate tracker seems to be limited only to what the Trudeau government promised to change or fix when it came to power. But there’s more to government than big-talk mandate letters for ministers, Ferguson said.

There are ongoing programs like, say, payroll and taxes, which are also critical aspects of running a country properly. And on that score the government simply isn’t delivering — to put it mildly.

Only a little more than one-third of the calls placed to Canada Revenue Agency were answered. Worse, in nearly one-third of those calls, the information relayed by CRA to taxpayers was incorrect.

Anyone wary of ‘big government’ is going to feel vindicated by this report. When the government tries to do things in a big way, with the help of big technology, things have a habit of going terribly wrong.

The scope of the Phoenix disaster keeps widening — which is, really, almost hard to believe. The AG said it’s going to take “years” to solve the problem and cost much more than the $540 million already earmarked. That in itself isn’t a surprise — Public Services Minister Carla Qualtrough said on CTV’s Question Period recently that she wouldn’t rule out the costs rising to $1 billion or more.

But it’s a massive screwup, no question.

The investigation of the CRA’s call centres was similarly sweeping — and disturbing. According to the AG’s report, only a little more than one-third of the calls placed to Canada Revenue Agency were answered, either by a live agent or by an automated service. Worse, in nearly one-third of those calls, the information relayed by CRA to taxpayers was incorrect. One-third of the calls.

“Obviously a 30 per cent error rate is very concerning, particularly because the questions we were asking were of a general nature,” Ferguson said at his news conference.

It’s hard to get the picture out of one’s mind of an entire nation of “hard-working taxpayers” (as we like to call ourselves) sitting on hold, listening to tinny music, periodically being reassured that their call is important to the federal Liberal government. (That image was exploited to some effect by the New Democrats in QP today.)

Now imagine these beleaguered citizens — still sitting on hold — killing time by reading headlines about Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s tax crackdown on small business, or offshore tax havens for Liberal fundraisers.

Suddenly you can understand why a full-court press of Liberal ministers fanned out in the Commons foyer early Tuesday afternoon, vowing to fix what Ferguson had found wrong. This report is hitting the Liberal government where it hurts the most — in the realm of ‘results’ and ‘respect’.

We probably can also understand why the Conservatives were quick to pick up on the CRA chapter of the auditor general’s report: tax fairness is a recurring political theme in 2017, part of what the Trudeau government’s opponents are crafting as a recurring narrative in their attacks.

The last thing the Trudeau government needed, in fact, was another way to portray it as indifferent to taxpayers and its tax system as unreliable. That’s exactly what this new report provides.

It was fun to watch my media colleagues trying to pry some colourful language out of the AG about Phoenix — a ‘money quote’ (pardon the pun) similar to the famous utterances from his predecessor, Sheila Fraser, about the old Liberal government sponsorship program. (Remember “broke every rule in the book”?)

The most Ferguson could muster up was “unacceptable.” He admitted it was inadequate, but the report’s conclusions, framed in his more familiar language of numbers, was bad enough. Moreover, he’s handed down a report that makes at least one other word obsolete.

So long, “deliverology.” We hardly knew you.
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