Income assistance programs for vulnerable Albertans need better oversight, audit finds

Albertans receiving income assistance may not be getting proper support from the province, says a new report issued Wednesday by Auditor General Doug Wylie.

The oversights coincide with Community and Social Services — the department that administers programs providing financial help to Albertans who can't meet their basic needs — seeing a 44-per-cent increase in caseload over the past three years.

The department was managing roughly 55,000 cases, paying out $663 million, throughout the 2017-18 fiscal year, the period that was subject to Wylie's audit.

The report comes after the provincial government introduced legislation to suspend indexation for both its Income Support and Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped programs, a move that is expected to save $300 million by 2022-23.

Community and Social Services policy requires staff to determine eligibility for funding and also to set service plans for clients to follow before the client can receive benefits.

The audit found client files with incomplete or improperly completed applications and files that were missing required information. It found that unsubstantiated support payments had been issued. 

According to the report, internal audits the department has been carrying out since 2010 have uncovered compliance issues with eligibility and authorization of support payments.

There was also widespread failure to follow up with people once they entered the program.

The department divides people into two categories: "expected to work" clients who are looking for work or who are working but not earning enough to meet basic needs; and "barriers to full employment" clients who have difficulty working due to hurdles such as chronic to full time employment such as chronic health problems.

When assessing a case, staff are supposed to identify "items" that could help the person deal with financial or personal challenges, such as completing academic upgrades, or developing a resumé. 

The audit identified a number of pieces missing from many client files:

  • 35 per cent of "expected to work" client files and 12 per cent of "barriers to full employment" files were missing employability assessments.

  • Four per cent of "expected to work" clients and 18 per cent of "barriers to full employment" clients had no active service plan.

  • 22 per cent of expected to work clients and 50 per cent of "barriers to full employment" clients had no items in their service plans.

The auditor general's report recommends fixing processes related to client eligibility and monitoring. It warns that failing to do so has consequences for vulnerable Albertans. 

"Poor program management increases the risk that clients who need support may not receive it, some clients may receive support payments they are not entitled to, or clients may not take the necessary actions to become self-sufficient," the report reads.

The audit report also recommends the department improve its processes to measure and report on the income support programs' performance.

Recent numbers available on the province's website show that in September 2019, the department was managing 61,253 cases — nearly half of which are in Edmonton. A case represents a household, whether it's one or more members of a family.

In a statement, Kassandra Katz, press secretary for Community and Social Services Minister Rajan Sawhney, said the  recommendations should be in place by next summer.

We appreciate and accept the Office of the Auditor General's (OAG) recommendations to improve the Income Support program," said Katz. "In fact, we are already taking action to implement the Auditor General's recommendations.

"This fall we began reviewing case files and examining our practices and processes to ensure consistency. We plan to have the balance of the OAG's recommendations in place by June 2020."