Quebec falling short on construction oversight and personal data, among other areas: auditor general

Years after flagging a critical lack of staff at Transport Quebec, the province’s auditor general says the problem still hasn’t been solved—the ministry is still missing the employees it needs to properly monitor contracts and ensure there aren’t cost overruns.

This is one of the main shortcomings highlighted in a new 300-page report released Wednesday by Quebec Auditor General Guylaine Leclerc. It criticized provincial shortcomings across a wide range of departments, from Transport’s cost management to how the Culture Department protects, or fails to protect, heritage buildings.

The problems at Transport come down to 255 missing staffers—the extra engineers or technicians that were supposed to be hired. 

Leclerc says that now, without the needed oversight, her auditors found that almost half of provincial construction contracts were overvalued or undervalued by at least 10 per cent.

LEAVING PERSONAL DATA VULNERABLE

Another chapter of the report is devoted to how the province handles personal information. Leclerc focused particularly on the RAMQ health insurance agency and Retraite Quebec, but she found that they were just two of 57 government entities had failings in data management.

In 40 per cent of cases, after a provincial employee quit, it took over 10 days to destroy their passwords, the report said, leaving the information system vulnerable.

Leclerc acknowledged that data management is such a sensitive area that even if the report’s recommendations are followed completely, there’s no guarantee that data won’t be leaked.

“There is no zero risk,” she said. “Zero risk doesn't exist. What we say is there are a few windows that are open, so they have to lock every window.”

The government’s political opposition says this is an area they’re especially worried about, too. Vincent Marissal, the Québec Solidaire MNA for Rosemont, recalled Wednesday that one of the worst examples wasn’t long ago—the Desjardins data breach last year, which was one of the biggest instances of data theft in Canada, affecting all 4.2 million Desjardins members.

“The hour after someone is leaving your organization, you should cut access for that person for your personal data,” Marissal said.

LETTING HERITAGE BUILDINGS DETERIORATE

The report also pointed to many problems around the preservation of Quebec’s heritage buildings, such as the one that partially collapsed in the Plateau last year. Important buildings should not necessarily be left in the hands of municipalities, which don’t often have the tools to properly preserve them, Leclerc said.

Méganne Perry Mélancon, the Parti Québécois MNA for the Gaspé, agreed with this assessment.

“The municipalities and the owners of those buildings... they don't have what it takes, the financial aid, to keep good preservation of our buildings,” she said.

Leclerc’s report notes that 20 per cent of requests for heritage designation have been under study for more than 10 years, which the report deems "excessive."

The Culture Department was unable to say why, just as it was unable to give a fair idea of the heritage value of the housing stock of the organizations it oversees.

Quebec classifies some buildings as being "of national interest," but does not define the term, Leclerc wrote.

Furthermore, the government sets a poor example by failing to maintain its own heritage buildings.

"As the owner of buildings with heritage value, the state must set an example in an area where collective membership is crucial," she wrote.

In 2014, the department committed to inspect heritage buildings at least every four years to assess their state. In 40 per cent of cases this was not done, the auditor wrote.

The examples of government shortcomings include the case of the old Les Cedres hydroelectric station in the Montreal region, which is vacant and has been deteriorating for more than 20 years. The heritage department, however, waited until 2019 to begin work to restore the classified heritage building.

The report sets out 26 recommendations and says they need to be addressed now, especially now that the province is tabling its new plan to restart its economy after COVID-19.

With files from The Canadian Press.

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