Skip to main content
Access every election story that matters
Enjoy unlimited digital access
$1.99
per week for 24 weeks
Access every election story that matters
Enjoy unlimited digital access
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
// //

Volunteer Montana Ledoux puts on PPE at the Saskatoon Tribal Council run vaccination clinic inside SaskTel centre in Saskatoon, Sask., on April 15, 2021.

Kayle Neis/The Canadian Press

Seventeen years ago, there was a cabinet minister named Reg Alcock, the President of the Treasury Board, who invited people to his office for lectures about data.

The late Mr. Alcock was a hefty, 6-foot-8 mountain of a man with two main interests: Liberal Party organizing in Manitoba and dragging the government into the digital age. Part of the lecture he gave in 2004 was a question: Why is it that corporate executives have computers that can tell them, for example, how many trucks their company owns, but a prime minister would need a year to get the same answer from government?

On Wednesday, Auditor-General Karen Hogan issued a report on the government’s handling of stockpiles of PPE that let it be known that Mr. Alcock’s question is still hanging in the air, nearly two decades later.

Story continues below advertisement

Ms. Hogan’s team reported that the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) had a stockpile of personal protective equipment and medical devices, but it didn’t have a policy about what should be in it, or what was in it, or whether the equipment had expired.

When the biggest public-health crisis of modern times hit and provinces needed N95 masks and ventilators from the National Emergency Strategic Stockpile, well, there wasn’t enough useful stuff there. The data were so unreliable the auditors couldn’t tell how badly it fell short.

The haphazard management of the stockpile wasn’t a new thing. Internal audits in 2010 and 2013 raised those issues.

Coronavirus Update: Public Health Agency knew of PPE stockpile problems since 2010, AG report says

Canada vaccine tracker: How many COVID-19 doses have been administered so far?

Coronavirus tracker: How many COVID-19 cases are there in Canada and worldwide? The latest maps and charts

Citizens might think a decade of disregarded warnings is a scandal that will shake the halls of power in Ottawa. But for a politician, it is cause for relief. The best kind of failure is one that was going on long before you took office. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s advisers will be happy enough that the Auditor-General credited the government for responding after the crisis hit.

But note that PHAC did draft a proposal to develop a better inventory management system in January, 2020 – just as COVID-19 was spreading – but agency officials told auditors “it was put on hold because of budget constraints.”

Mr. Alcock, back in the day, didn’t just want government to get computer systems – they have a lot – but to manage data, to make more information available and usable, so that government knows better what is happening within government.

But politicians in charge aren’t good at driving change in long-term, systemic issues that voters don’t even see. Mr. Alcock, for example, was preaching for IT in a Paul Martin government busy with Liberal scandals and non-confidence votes in Parliament.

Story continues below advertisement

Two PMs later, and governments still have a hard time seeing what government is doing. The National Emergency Strategic Stockpile wasn’t much use in a crisis because it didn’t do the kind of information management that that happens at a grocery store: figuring out what you will need, buying it, tracking what goes in and out and what is going bad.

By now we know that bad data management, not knowing what you don’t know, raises risk in a crisis. And there’s something else: Most of that data can and should be made public.

Why not let the public see the running tally of N95 masks in inventory, or ventilators on the web? Most people won’t look at it, but perhaps a few experts in universities and elsewhere will analyze the policies, crunch the data and, we can hope, point out when they’re messed up. Or just missing. That applies to other kinds of data, too.

In Britain, this week’s remarkable testimony of Dominic Cummings, a former aide to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, about the chaotic initial response to the pandemic made it pretty clear that it’s no longer necessary, or wise, to leave the data inside government.

Mr. Cummings testified to a parliamentary committee that false assumptions, bad analysis, and groupthink inside government led Mr. Johnson’s government to a disastrous notion that it should try to reach herd immunity rather than slowing the spread of COVID-19. Scientists outside government, notably a mathematician, helped convince him that was “catastrophically wrong,” he said. He and the government’s top science adviser later agreed data should have been released earlier, to get input.

That’s not the same thing as PHAC’s failure to keep track of a stockpile. But then, if we want to encourage the government to keep tabs on the data, one good way is to demand to see it.

Story continues below advertisement

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies