Alberta ministries didn’t provide clear picture of how $4B was spent on COVID-19, audit reveals

A new report from Alberta’s auditor general says it’s not always clear what $4 billion in COVID-19 spending in 2020-21 actually achieved.

The report, released Wednesday, looked at the results analysis and financial information sections of 20 ministry annual reports.

Among its findings, the audit could not trace how $1.3 billion in federal aid for the Safe Restart Agreement made its way through ministries and was spent.

Auditor General Doug Wylie said the lack of disclosure is an accountability issue.

“What we’re trying to highlight is that there’s an opportunity to improve that to Albertans so they get a better sense of not only what it cost — we can see that it cost $4 billion or the Safe Restart Program was $1.3 billion,” Wylie said in an interview Wednesday.

“But what was achieved with that? Where did the money go? And what were the results?”

One key finding was that results analysis did not always include spending and results. Examples listed include:

  • Ministry of Health disclosing the quantity of PPE and rapid test distributed but not how much was spent on each of the categories of PPE, contact tracing and rapid testing.
  • Ministry of Health not disclosing the number of vaccines received from the federal government.
  • Ministry of Health not describing what it achieved by spending $260 million to protect staff and residents in long-term care.
  • Ministry of Education not disclosing individual initiative spending or results for $263 million in spending for the safe return to class.

The report also notes that the finance ministry did not have a standard COVID-19 reporting format, meaning program spending, objectives and results could not be easily compared. Information related to COVID-19 activities was also not always cross-referenced, it said.

Looking ahead

Wylie said incorporating those missing pieces can help identify strengths in certain areas or weaknesses in others — valuable learning information for the future.

“Unless you start integrating and, and looking at it from that perspective, you just don’t have that information to make those kinds of decisions.”

The report did note some examples of good reporting practices, including the Small and Medium Enterprise Relaunch Grant program.

Wylie’s office offered no new recommendations but reiterated one from 2019: that Treasury Board and Finance improve guidance and training for ministry management for results in annual reports and processes to monitor ministry compliance with results analysis reporting standards.

“We certainly believe that, by implementing these recommendations that will help the whole process, so no matter what comes up in the future, the process should be able to handle that going forward,” Wylie said.

Reporting standards updated

Paul Hamnett, press secretary to Finance Minister Jason Nixon, said after reviewing the annual reports, Finance and Treasury Board directed ministries to develop dedicated COVID-19 sections at the beginning of their results analysis sections.

Those updated standards were reflected in the 2021-22 annual reports released Tuesday, he said.

“The department continues to work with ministries to address the [Office of the Auditor General’s] recommendations to improve results analysis reporting,” Hamnett said.

Opposition Leader Rachel Notley said the report highlights that Albertans “cannot trust the UCP to manage their money.”

“While no one’s suggesting that it wasn’t used in government … Travis Toews did not succeed in providing a clear picture in how exactly it was used.”

Toews, MLA for Grande Prairie-Wapiti, was finance minister until May 31, when he resigned to run for the UCP leadership. In an emailed statement, Toews said responding to the pandemic was the ministry’s primary concern in 2020-21 but that reporting practices continue to be improved and updated.

“The truth is that unlike when the NDP were in office, Alberta now has not only a balanced budget but a massive surplus for the benefit of Albertans.”

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