Selecting an audit topic based on the impact on vulnerable populations
What is this audit about?
The Department of Justice is responsible for the Maintenance Enforcement Program, a free service that helps Nova Scotians make or receive court-ordered spousal and child support payments. Payors named in the court orders make the required payments to the Maintenance Enforcement Program, which then passes those payments to the recipients. Enrollment in the Program is not mandatory, but benefits include an accurate record of payments, a buffer between payors and recipients, and enforcement action if payments are not made as expected.
Court-ordered spousal and child support payments can be essential for some families’ financial stability. At the time of the audit, the Program managed 15,065 cases, involving 13,824 children. In fiscal year 2017-18, $54.7 million in payments was sent to recipients.
The audit aimed to determine if the Maintenance Enforcement Program is adequately monitoring and enforcing court orders in compliance with legislation, guidelines, and policies.
What did the audit find?
The audit identified a number of challenges facing the Program. Over the lifetime of the Program, $63.4 million in outstanding payments has accumulated. Of this, $15.3 million is associated with inactive accounts for which the Maintenance Enforcement Program is not currently enforcing court-ordered payments (due to payors’ situations). Another important consideration underlying the audit was the fact that the Program could not be assessed through the lenses of the traditional role of a collection agency (although it does share some characteristics and methods used by such agencies). As an intermediary between payors and payees, it must balance and mediate the circumstances of both sides, which makes the role of the Program more complex and challenging.
Audit findings were grouped in two distinct sections: Monitoring and Enforcement and Staff Training and Development.
Monitoring and Enforcement
The audit found that court orders were not properly monitored and enforced. For example, 21 of 25 cases with outstanding payments reviewed by the audit team did not have timely or appropriate enforcement and 8 of 10 inactive cases were not adequately monitored. Also, improvements to the complaints process were needed since 6 of 30 complaints tested were not addressed in a timely manner. On a positive note, the audit found that performance indicators for the Program had been improved. Finally, an important root cause underlying the audit findings was the decision to move enforcement staff located at regional offices throughout the province to a single location. This move impacted service to recipients because it resulted in a substantial loss of experienced staff, which reduced the Program’s capacity to undertake enforcement actions.
Staff Training and Development
The audit found there were no orientation process or training plan for staff. An orientation process for new hires was under development at the time of the audit but it had not been implemented. Furthermore, while training was provided to staff, it was done on an ad hoc basis, with no formal schedule. Staff performance plans and evaluations were also not completed.
What difference did the audit make?
The audit was well received by senior management. They were already aware of a number of challenges; the audit helped confirm their concerns by highlighting evidence of the impact of these issues.
Management had already taken preliminary steps to overcome some of the challenges facing the Program. The audit recommendations fostered better management of existing issues by alerting decision-makers to the potential impact on vulnerable citizens and encouraging the prompt implementation of remedial measures.
The audit recommended that the Maintenance Enforcement Program:
- implement a policy to guide staff on how to monitor inactive cases
- update and implement its quality assurance policy
- develop and implement a process to monitor caseloads
- make improvements to the complaints process
- implement an orientation process and training program for staff
- implement a performance management process for all staff.
What can we learn from this audit?
Changes in the way a program is managed can have substantial impact on the citizens who depend on it
In 2013, the enforcement staff were all centralized in New Waterford, a town just outside of Sydney on the island of Cape Breton. This decision resulted in significant staff turnover, a major loss of knowledge and experience, and a re-focus of resources on staffing and training. The outcome of the move was a diminished program capacity to enforce court orders and collect spousal and child support payments. Indeed, the outstanding balance of payments peaked at around $73 million in 2015 (compared to $63 million when the decision to move was taken). This underscores the importance for auditors of taking into account apparently purely administrative decisions that can have a negative impact on the quality of life of the most vulnerable segments of the population. It also highlights the importance for these administrative decisions to be taken after conducting a thorough risk assessment and identifying adequate mitigation strategies.
Materiality is not everything: the impact on vulnerable populations is crucial when selecting a topic
In terms of size, budget and number of employees, the Maintenance Enforcement Program is a modest program, but it is an essential component to thousands of families’ financial stability. The audit noted that cases involving 13,824 children were affected by the Program. This was a key factor in the selection of this audit topic.
Testing of files must be done with the use of considerable professional judgment
When the audit team conducted its review of enforcement files, they realized that the files had to be analyzed in the context of an enforcement continuum, i.e. an array of possible enforcement actions ranging from simple reminders to payors, to applying to the court for an arrest warrant. Therefore, to avoid being lost in the complexity of the files and in possibly less important elements of the enforcement process, the auditors decided to focus on what mattered for the payees. For instance, they focussed on the length of delays since an enforcement action was taken. They had to use considerable judgment, always thinking foremost about what mattered for vulnerable families depending on these payments. The audit team validated its judgments by touching base regularly with Program management to discuss and confirm its interpretations of the files. This did increase the time required to review the files but ensured that the analysis was rigorous and that management concurred with the audit findings.
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