November 5, 2007

Sustainable development strategies fail to meet Parliament's expectations

Ten years after federal departments began preparing sustainable development strategies, as mandated under amendments to the Auditor General Act, these strategies are rated as "a major disappointment" by both Auditor General Sheila Fraser and the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, Ron Thompson.

Their annual reports for 2007, both released October 30, conclude that the strategies that have been prepared to date are not helping to ensure that departments assess the environmental, as well as economic and social, impacts of their plans, policies and programs.

In a chapter of her report, titled "Matters of Special Importance," Auditor General Fraser notes the persistence of significant weaknesses in sustainable development strategies. She says it is clear that the strategies are not encouraging departments to take environmental issues into account as originally envisioned when the government set the process in motion.

Commissioner Thompson, in his more detailed report, observes, "The ambition and momentum that existed in the early stages of sustainable development strategies have faded."

The Commissioner's tenth annual report on sustainable development strategies says key weaknesses in the strategies noted over the past decade persist. Most departments examined by the Commissioner have still not determined the most significant sustainable development impacts of their policies and programs and how those impacts would be addressed, which was Parliament's expectation for the strategies.

"We found little evidence that the Strategies have encouraged departments to integrate protection of the environment with economic and social issues in a meaningful way," Thompson stated.

A detailed examination of selected sustainable development commitments did yield some notable achievements, however. Industry Canada's Computers for Scools (CFS) program, for example, succeeded in surpassing its targets for re-use of computers and diversion from landfill, in addition to fulfilling a range of other economic and social goals.

This initiative, operated in co-operation with provinces, territories and private and volunteer organizations, collects and refurbishes donated surplus computers from government and private-sector sources for use in educational institutions. Natural Resources Canada is making satisfactory progress in developing a national strategy for dealing with forest alien invasive species, expanding its scope to take in native pests such as the pine beetle.

The report also notes that despite repeated commitments, the federal government still has no overarching sustainable development strategy to guide the efforts of the 32 departments and agencies now producing strategies. What guidance has been provided to departments for their most recent strategies is ambiguous and optional, says the Commissioner. The report further observes that has been no thorough review of the government's approach to sustainable development strategies since they were introduced in 1995. Accordingly, the Commissioner calls on the government to carry out a thorough review of what needs to be fixed. Such a review, says Thompson, should result in a concrete action plan to ensure that the government delivers results that will meet Parliament's expectations, as envisioned in the 1995 amendments to the Auditor General Act.

"I am pleased that the government has agreed to complete a review by October 2008," he concluded.

The Commissioner's report also discuses environmental petitions, letters sent by Canadians to the Auditor General as a way to present their environmental concerns and questions to specific ministers of the federal government. Ministers are required to respond in writing within 120 days.

In reviewing this component of his mandate, the Commissioner found that both petitioners and departmental officials share the view that petitions have influenced the government's management of environmental and sustainable development issues.

"Our retrospective shows that that petitioners value the process which provides a forum for voicing their concerns and assures them of a formal response," said Thompson.

The report also outlines opportunities to improve the petitions process, including making Canadians more aware of it and providing better guidance to petitioners.

The full report may be viewed on the Office of the Auditor General Web site, www.oag-bvg.gc.ca.

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