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Government data ‘not usable, not used or not acted upon’: auditor general

Auditor General Michael Ferguson
Canada's Auditor General Michael Ferguson holds a press conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 3, 2016, regarding the 2016 Spring Reports of the Auditor General. Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press

Although the government collects a huge amount of data on its programs and on Canadian citizens, the auditor general says his office has found many examples of poor recordkeeping that affect how the government makes decisions.

At a press conference announcing his latest audits Tuesday, Auditor General Michael Ferguson began his prepared remarks by commenting on data.

“One of the themes that ties a number of our audits together is that the data collected by many government organizations is either not usable, not used or not acted upon,” Ferguson said.

That’s potentially bad news for a government that campaigned on data-based decision-making: the data it uses could be flawed, and many departments aren’t using it much anyway.

The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, which manages the government’s Open Data program and information technology, did not return a request for comment by deadline.

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Not usable

There were several examples of bad data in the auditor general’s report.

The most pressing was one managed by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada: tracking addresses that had been identified as associated with citizenship fraud.

READ MORE: Holes in Canadian citizenship process could be leading to fraud

People applying to be Canadian citizens need to prove they have lived in Canada for a certain amount of time. And some people provide false addresses or ones that they weren’t living at, Ferguson said. Knowing which addresses are problematic can then help identify people who are trying to cheat the system.

His office examined that list of addresses. Out of 150 addresses they looked at, 102 had multiple entries. One of those was written out in 13 different ways.

Spelling matters: a computer reads “123 Main Street” and “123 Main St.” as two totally different entries. So if two different people both said they were living there at the same time, the computer wouldn’t read this as a problem. “It thinks that they have provided different addresses,” Ferguson said.

The auditor general also flagged a database maintained by the Department of National Defence which showed how up-to-date Army Reserve soldier training was.

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His office’s analysis showed that many soldiers were not up to date on their physical fitness or weapons training.

“When we brought that information forward to them and said, ‘Look according to your system these people have not received the level of training that they should have in order to be able to participate in missions,’ their reply was, ‘Well, the information from that system is not reliable.’”

Army Reserve units weren’t updating the system because the units had a heavy burden of administrative tasks, explained DND, according to the auditor’s report.

Not used or not acted upon

Remember that flawed address data? It wasn’t all bad. But even when the data was correct, it wasn’t always being used.

The auditors found 18 cases where a problem address was actually flagged – but then nothing happened. Citizenship officers never requested additional evidence of residence, like they’re supposed to, to verify whether the person met the residency requirements.

Ferguson’s office also noticed that almost half of veterans who had been prescribed anti-depressants had also been given prescriptions for medical marijuana – something that Health Canada recommends against.

Not an isolated problem

It’s difficult to generalize how widespread these data problems are, said Ferguson. But based on these and previous audits, he feels safe saying that it’s not an isolated problem.

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“It’s a problem that exists with a number of systems that the government uses to capture this type of administrative data and I think it’s something that the government really needs to figure out how they’re going to manage this.”

A 2015 report prepared for the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association, which interviewed a number of current and former public servants, politicians and researchers, also identified similar problems with government data: that it was partial or limited, that agencies “cherry-picked” information based on a certain agenda, and that there were too many limits on data linking and sharing which impeded the government’s ability to use relevant information.

“The current government talks about things like making data more available to people,” Ferguson said. “For that to happen, the first thing is the government needs to make sure that the data it’s capturing is accurate.”

Government programs need to determine what information they need and why they need it, and then collect it correctly, he said. Then, once they have it, they can act on it within a set framework.

“Look, the stuff you’re already doing, make sure you’re doing it right.”

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