Pointing to “serious” management problems, Canada’s auditor general says the federal agriculture department needs to improve how it runs its research work if it wants to meet its stated goals.
Research handled or funded by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) is “important to Canada’s food production and its ability to compete internationally,” Sheila Fraser said in a release Tuesday.
However, she said in releasing her spring report Tuesday in Ottawa, “we found serious problems in areas that are fundamental to conducting research, such as managing funding, capital assets, and human resources.”
AAFC has a history of successful collaboration on individual research projects with other organizations, Fraser said, but added that in her audit, “the more complex collaborations we looked at were not managed well, causing a significant loss of good will among key partners.”
Fraser cited three large collaborative agreements involving several partners, in which her audit found problems such as “lack of appropriate planning for and communication of the financial and human resources to be contributed by the department.”
For example, she said, “six research networks participating in a collaborative program had already invested significant time and resources at the department’s request when they learned they would not be funded after all.”
There were also delays of up to two years in implementation, which have significant implications for five-year funding agreements, she wrote.
In some cases, budgets for research projects would be revised, but those revisions were not recorded in the project inventory database. And approved research projects would suffer from “a lack of predictable funding.”
For capital asset management, a “high percentage” of capital equipment purchases were charged to AAFC’s operating budget, Fraser noted.
As part of its collaborative research agreements, she said, AAFC bought an unspecified “major capital asset” before funding for a project was approved. And program managers were “unaware of the limited amount of funding available for a major program.”
AAFC’s Science and Innovation Strategy, she wrote, cites its goals as including promotion of excellence in research and increasing collaboration with other research organizations.
But she said there’s “little analysis of the research portfolio” as a whole to see whether its planned projects are in line with the strategic direction.
AAFC’s research branch, she noted, approved a detailed action plan for its strategic direction, but at the end of her department’s audit.
However, Fraser noted, that action plan was “not timely or complete, which is due, in part, to the evolving policy environment.”
Stakeholders and some AAFC scientists indicated a “lack of clarity about the department’s strategic direction, partly because it lacked an action plan for executing its strategic direction,” Fraser wrote.
As well, she said, “the department has not identified the human resources, equipment and facilities, and financial resources needed for its new strategic direction.”
For example, she said, about 71 per cent of AAFC’s laboratory and farm equipment is “past its useful life.”
The research branch, she said, “does not regularly assess the condition of capital assets and their use, to ensure their continued need.”
Also, she said, while many activities in AAFC’s human resource plan were implemented, “we found that there was no long-term identification of how the research branch would staff positions and no assessment of the vacant positions.”
Granted, she said, AAFC has been making “significant changes in response to evolving policy directions (and) some of the elements necessary to implement its strategic direction are being put in place.”
However, AAFC “needs to elaborate on and implement other key aspects of its strategic action plan, to ensure effective management of its research activities.”