Review of Financial Information, Services to Marine Transportation

March 12, 2012

Key Dates

Opening conference date (launch memo)
Jun. 2010
Review plan sent to management date
Sep. 2010
Closing conference date (exit debrief)
Mar. 2011
Report sent to management date
Sep. 2011
Management response received date
Feb. 2012
Penultimate draft report approved by
CAE date
Feb. 2012
Audit committee recommended date
Feb. 2012
Deputy Minister approval date
Mar. 2012

Acronyms Used in this Report

Assistant Deputy Minister
Budget Management System
Canadian Coast Guard
Chief Financial Officer
Canadian Ice Service
Deputy Chief Financial Officer
Director General
Deputy Minister
Environment Canada
Fisheries and Oceans Canada
Financial Management Branch
Grants and contributions
Human Resources Management Information System
Oracle-based integrated financial system
Manager of Financial Services
Memorandum of Understanding
Meteorological Service of Canada
Management variance report
National Capital Region
Operations and maintenance
Program Activity Architecture
Public Works and Government Services Canada
Salary Management System
Services to Marine Transportation Program
Treasury Board (Secretariat)
Travel Expert System
Vote netted revenue

Prepared by the Audit and Evaluation Team


The review team, composed of Sophie Boisvert, Audit Manager, and Graça Rebelo Cabeceiras, Auditor, under the direction of Jean Leclerc, Director, would like to thank those individuals who contributed to this project and, particularly, employees who provided insights and comments.

Table of Contents

1 Introduction

1.1 Purpose

Environment Canada’s (EC’s) Internal Audit Division, Audit and Evaluation Branch, conducted a review of the financial information provided to the Services to Marine Transportation (SMT) program. This project was included in the 2010-2011 departmental annual Risk-Based Audit and Evaluation Plan, which was approved by the Deputy Minister in early spring 2010 as recommended by the External Audit Advisory Committee. This report presents the findings and recommendations originating from the review performed by the Internal Audit Division.

1.2 Background

EC provides two services to assist in marine transportation. The first is marine weather information, which provides warnings of ongoing weather conditions and extreme weather events that pose a threat to life and property at sea. This weather service is part of the Meteorological Service of Canada (MSC) within EC.

The second service provides information about ice conditions, and is delivered as a partnership between EC (specifically the Canadian Ice Service (CIS)) and Fisheries and Oceans (FO) (specifically the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG)). The CIS, a division of EC’s MSC, is the leading authority for information about ice in Canada's navigable waters. The partnership between the CIS and the CCG is operated through a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) and a Partnership Agreement with FO.

In addition, a third department, Transport Canada (Marine Safety, National Aerial Surveillance Program and Aircraft Services Directorate), has two MOUs to provide the CIS with the policy and regulatory framework for a safe and competitive transportation sector in Canada.

Within EC, the MSC delivers the SMT with the assistance of two other branches, which provide personnel and resources. The Atmospheric Science and Technology Directorate of the Science and Technology Branch is a key contributor to meteorological research and development, and the Chief Information Officer Branch[1] performs activities related to information management and information technology.

The following table summarizes information on EC’s program expenditures from 2007-08 to 2010-11, including costs for all three branches (Meteorological, Science and Technology, and Chief Information Officer). The financial information is presented by Program Activity Architecture (PAA) elements. The table shows that the total expenses stayed relatively stable in recent years. This financial information was not audited.

Table 1: Services to Marine Transportation Program
Total2007-08 (actual)2008-09 (actual)2009-10 (actual)2010-11 (budgeted)
 Marine (22BB)Ice (22BA & 22BC)TotalMarineIceTotalMarineIceTotalMarineIceMetareas * (22BD)Total

* The “Metareas” is information for specific geographical areas in the North, which is available only in 2010-11.

** Operations and maintenance expenditures.

*** Transfer payments made through grants and contributions

Totals may not add due to rounding.

1.3 Objective and Scope

The objective of this project was to review the adequacy of financial information available to the SMT managers in support of their decision making and management of their programs. Specifically, the review examined the mechanisms in place to provide financial information (budget, forecasts, actual expenditures, commitments, and costing models), including the management variance reports (MVRs).

This review was initially planned as a joint audit and evaluation. Because of the scope of the evaluation and the fact that the preliminary risk assessment quickly identified the issues to be more complex and likely department-wide, the audit was changed to a review. The results of this review will be used to inform and identify future audit work, and specifically, will be considered as part of the planning of the audit of financial management planned for fiscal year 2012-2013.

The scope of the review included the sub-activity of the SMT program under the MSC, covering fiscal years 2008-09 and 2009-10 under two different PAAs, and 2010-11 with the new PAA.

1.4 Methodology

This review was intended to provide a reasonable level of assurance, unlike audit work that provides a high level of assurance. The methodology included the following:

  • Interviews and consultation with program managers and the administrative staff (the sample selected for the interviews covered all parties of the program)
  • Analysis of background information
  • Conducting the preliminary risk assessment
  • Development of review criteria and program.

All criteria of this review are related to the Stewardship element of the Management and Accountability Framework, which sets out the Treasury Board’s (TB’s) expectations for good public service management.

Preliminary observations on the financial information were submitted to the program area and Finance Branch in March 2011.

2 Findings and Recommendations

The work performed as part of this review has allowed us to make the following observations on the state of financial information for management purposes.

Overall, SMT program managers believe that they do not receive all the required financial information to carry out their roles and responsibilities. The main gaps they identified are as follows:

  • The difficulties in understanding financial reports
  • The time required to “de-commit” any unused funds when contracts are completed[2]
  • The fact that “soft commitments” are interpreted differently across the department
  • The fact that the financial coding against the PAA does not necessarily meet the need for good identification of all the costs of the SMT, in particular the contribution of the A-base funding to these services
  • The late budget allocation and information.

Each of these gaps were reviewed in light of the interviews conducted, the existing policies and procedures, and the existing financial reporting capabilities.

Difficulty in Understanding Financial Reports

Managers noted that the financial reports are complicated or incomplete. Managers can obtain reports on their budget, expenses and commitments from basically two sources: Discoverer, a reporting tool reading its information from the data warehouse of the financial system (Merlin), and the MVR, a user-friendly reporting tool containing financial information updated every week from the financial system. EC also uses other finance‑related systems, mainly the Salary Management System (SMS) to forecast salaries, and the Budget Management System (BMS). The BMS is used to track some commitments, mainly the soft ones, while Merlin is used to track other commitments, mostly the hard ones.

All managers have access to MVRs through an intranet site. The MVR was developed as an interim measure to give managers an easy access to the financial information. It functions like Excel pivot tables, which makes it relatively easy to use, especially for people familiar with the use of Excel. The MVR is very flexible and enables production of reports for any cost centre of the Department at various levels, by project, by PAA element, etc.

The MVR has certain shortfalls that limit its use by departmental managers, especially at the operational level. For example, the MVR does not have information about revenues. Also, the MVR does not allow a drill-down at the level of the individual transaction. This feature is important, because there are always some financial transactions that are in transit. For example, if a contract has just been signed, the commitment may or may not have yet been entered into the system. In such a case, it would be difficult for managers to determine whether the commitment has been made, as they would only see an aggregate of all their contracts. Drilling down at the transaction level is the only way to ensure that a contract has been committed or whether it should be reflected in the forecasted expenses. Right now the only way for managers to have access to transaction-level information is through Discoverer.

Although the objective of the review was not to assess efficiency of the financial reporting tools specifically, results of the interviews clearly indicated that some managers were concerned over the reliability of the information. Essentially, having to consult multiple systems/reports to obtain a full picture of their budget situation, combined with the discrepancies in the information generated from the different systems, raises concerns. In addition, most of the managers interviewed believed that training specific to the systems is insufficient.

Most of the managers do not have direct access to Discoverer, SMS and BMS. Managers usually obtain reports from these systems through the managers of Finance Branch or their administrative assistants. Although more than one report is usually required to obtain a complete financial picture, a trained manager should be able to read and understand these reports without problems. In fact, two managers noted that they do not have any problem understanding financial reports: one acquired the financial training and the other has good financial administrative support to manipulate the reports. The advantage of Discoverer is that it allows drilling down at the level of the transaction, making it possible to do a detailed analysis of the financial situation.

All the above appear to indicate that there is a need for better communication between managers and managers of Finance Branch, and for enhanced training on financial reporting to managers and support staff.

Recommendation 1:  The Chief Financial Officer (CFO) should ensure that support and training is available to SMT managers, to ensure that they can make effective use of available financial information.

Management Response

The CFO agrees with this recommendation. Training and support is provided using a train the trainer approach. Training on the use of the BMS in response to the Deputy Minister’s (DM’s) direction to improve financial forecasts and to reflect these in the MVR has been scheduled by the Manager of Financial Services (MFS) for Downsview and the National Capital Region (NCR). The NCR training was held on October 19, 2011, and the Downsview training at the end of October 2011. Various training approaches have been, are being or will be used, depending on the system and nature of the training. 

The CFO has developed a road map to improve financial information over the course of 2011-12, and expects to have an enhanced monthly financial report (MVR plus key performance indicators, i.e., financial, human resources and), and monthly managers’ forecasts by the end of the fiscal year 2011-12. Budget management guidelines and including new rules of engagements for BMS are being developed. Training/orientation for budget holders is planned in 2011-12 (June 2012). 

De-commitment of Unused Funds

Some managers noted that it can take up to two weeks to de-commit funds when a contract is completed, and that a balance of unused funds must be de-committed. It is difficult to determine if two weeks is too long, as there are no service standards for this. At EC, the commitment and de-commitment of contract funds is centralized, which may add to the time required to reflect the actual transaction in the financial system. This process was not analyzed in the context of this review, but will be considered in the context of future audit work.

There will always be some transactions in transit, and the managers will always have to do an analysis of those before using a financial report. The less time that elapses between the financial transaction and its recording in the system, the easier the analysis will be.

Soft Commitments

Managers told us that the financial information is not reliable, because soft commitments are approached differently by various managers across departments. This lack of consistency means that soft commitments do not have the same meaning across the Department. This is not an issue when looking at one cost centre, where the treatment of soft commitment is likely homogeneous, but is a problem when numbers are added across cost centres. 

The recent Audit Update of the Economic Action Plan Funding for 2010–2011 has already recommended to the CFO that commitments be recorded, monitored and discharged in a standardized fashion.

Recording of all Costs

The current financial coding structure provides enough flexibility to track expenditures by PAA elements. Although the structure also allows tracking of expenditures with a project code in cases where the expenditures are cross-cutting different PAA elements, SMT managers noted that it is often difficult to identify all costs that may contribute to SMT. 

Managers are responsible for the coding of their transactions. It would be advisable to seek the assistance of financial experts to see how those costs can be captured better, such as through the use of a unique project code.

Recommendation 2: The Assistant Deputy Minister (ADM), MSC, should encourage branch managers to seek the advice of Financial Services when they do not have access to the financial information they need or if they have special needs and requirements.

Management Response

We agree with the recommendation and are already doing this. As current management practice, MSC managers are reminded of the systems, training, procedures and policies that are in place to support financial management decision making regarding all programs, including the SMT Program. The first source of advice if managers require assistance will continue to be divisional or directorate finance and administration advisors. If this is insufficient due to the complexity of the issue, further guidance will be sought from the office of the MFS supporting MSC, as well as others in Corporate Finance. MSC will work with the MFS to have in place a proper repository of available information, identify gaps in available documentation, and have a path forward to address this.

Late Allocation of Budget

Although the Department in recent years has made substantial progress in attributing budgets earlier in the year, our analysis has demonstrated that often they are still being rolled down at the operational level later in the year. The review team conducted an analysis of the budgets in MVRs for 2011-2012. They found that the information about budgets is distributed in the financial system early in the fiscal year at the ADM and Director General (DG) level, but that the budgets at lower levels are allocated in the systems between June and August or even September. This, combined with the pressure of budget cuts and having to work with notional budgets, increases the levels of uncertainty with their budget situation. 

Recommendation 3:  The CFO should review the budget allocation process, in particular to encourage managers to distribute the budgets at the cost centre level earlier in the fiscal year.

Management Response

The CFO agrees in principle with this recommendation, but notes that the timing of the budget distribution process is tied to the conclusion of the business planning process below the branch/DG level. The timing hinges on the “operationalization” of business planning decisions within the branch and how these translate into budget distributions. Budget distribution has been timely at the branch/DG level, but the cascading of these budgets is slower. MFS teams encourage distribution of budgets to the cost centre level and emphasize the importance for accurate financial reporting (June 2012). 

3 Conclusion

Although this review only covered the SMT program, its conclusions are likely applicable to other parts of the Department. The information from this review will allow us to better identify and scope future audit work, in particular the audit of financial management planned for 2012-2013.

This review concludes that SMT managers do not believe that they receive adequate information to support their decision making, including information on the costs of the SMT program. On the other hand, we found that the basic tools and reports exist to meet their essential financial information needs, but, at the same time, that more efforts are required to ensure managers properly understand and use the available financial information and reports.

Annex 1

Review Criteria

Criterion 1: Managers are provided with adequate financial information to support decision making

SMT managers with financial authorities are provided adequate financial information to support decision making, manage day-to-day operation and demonstrate accountability.

Criteria 2: Costing

The costing information is adequate to support the desired financial model based on the financial arrangements between the SMT program and partners.

[1]  As of 30 May 2011, the new Corporate Services Branch integrates the former Chief Information Officer Branch with the Assets, Contracting and Environmental Management Directorate.

[2]  When a financial obligation is expected, the funds required for that obligation are flagged in the financial system to ensure the funds are reserved to pay that obligation. This is known as a commitment. Commitments can be “hard commitments” wherein a legal obligation exists, such as a signed contract that is not yet paid; or “soft commitments” wherein a legal obligation does not exist but the likelihood of the expense is high, such as phone lines that can be cancelled at anytime, and which are likely expenses to be incurred for the whole year. When a financial obligation does not exist anymore, funds are “de-committed” in the system, in order to indicate that these funds are available for other purposes.

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