The annual transfer to provinces is a rarity: funding with no strings attached. But we need to know how the money is spent. We need accountability.

Picture this: two business partners decide to expand to a new city. Partner A will continue to take care of the head office. Partner B heads off with a large sum of cash to set up the new operation, finding a space, hiring staff, attracting new clients.

And then they never talk about it again.

Who would behave in such a way?

The federal government does, every year, when it dumps the Canada Social Transfer into the provinces’ and territories’ general revenue. This $14-billion yearly block transfer is intended for social assistance and social services, including early childhood education, child care and post-secondary education, among other things. But for all we know, it could be used to fill potholes. There are no mechanisms to guide the dollars, and no requirement to report back on what is done with the money.

Accountability has been a cornerstone of this federal government’s mandate: it has placed a high importance on data, science and innovation. It ties funding for some things, such as home care and mental health, to performance indicators. This means that funding is set aside for specific purposes, and results must be measured, giving taxpayers and policy-makers crucial information: whether the funding was ample enough for the purpose, whether the funding improved a situation and whether the money was used effectively.

Billions of dollars are earmarked for social services through the Canada Social Transfer. Social services are a core component of what government does in Canada. But without a way to measure the impact and outcomes of the Canada Social Transfer, we’re missing a crucial piece that could help unite — and, more importantly, inform — the new, historic federal strategies on poverty reduction and housing. We’ve never had a legislated poverty line in Canada before, and never has the federal role in housing been so clearly enshrined.

In short, these strategies illustrate the value of federal leadership: we haven’t been able to solve our country’s most difficult problems in provincial and territorial silos. But the federal efforts could be hampered by the lack of data and accountability.

When the spring budget drops March 19, politicians, pundits and the Twittersphere will be abuzz about federal spending because Canadians care about how the feds spend our money.

Yet no one talks much about how the Canada Social Transfer’s billions of taxpayer dollars are spent each year, or what impact this money is having on communities.

We need accountability for this huge block transfer and we need to start collecting critical data. To do it, we need legislation. Let’s call it the Social Care Act.

Admittedly, the federal and provincial governments aren’t exactly business partners. But it’s time the Canada Social Transfer was more visible. People need to be aware to care.

The Canada Social Transfer is the only transfer with virtually no accountability measures and no requirement to report back on what’s done with it. There’s not even a requirement that the dollars be used for social services.

This stands in stark contrast with the Canada Health Transfer, which provides long-term stable funding to the provinces for health care. The federal government can claw back any of that money if it finds it isn’t being spent properly, which is to say in ways that support the principles of the Canada Health Act. Those principles are comprehensiveness (with all necessary services available), universality, portability between provinces and territories, accessibility (with everyone having reasonable access to services) and public administration.

Without a mechanism like this for the Canada Social Transfer, none of these or any other principles can figure into the equation. These five principles are not controversial; we can all get behind them, and they would be a great place to start in creating a Social Care Act.

Here’s the thing: the provinces and territories might well be using the money from the Canada Social Transfer in great, innovative ways. But wouldn’t it be nice for the federal government to know that? Or the other provinces and territories? Wouldn’t many regions appreciate an opportunity to demonstrate their successes or show their citizens the cost of social services?

Here’s a scenario: Two provinces each start social assistance programs with the aim of lifting more people out of poverty. One costs less per capita and is a great success. The other is more expensive and doesn’t work so well. A Social Care Act could be a powerful mechanism to share this kind of valuable information between provinces and territories. It could well show the federal government that it needs to increase the transfer, which would be a benefit for all jurisdictions. The Canada Social Transfer is Canadians’ money, after all.

A new act would also help create a common standard for the services and care we receive, regardless of which province or territory we call home. And having an act with accountability, a requirement to report back on how the money is being spent in each province or territory, would allow all Canadians to better understand social outcomes — like poverty rates or how many people are using social assistance — along with their price tags.

A Social Care Act has the potential to be one of the federal government’s most powerful levers to help us know our country better. We live in an era when we finally understand that loneliness isn’t good for our health, that poverty can shorten lifespans and that addiction can be caused by a lack of social connection. So, while we’re developing policies that account for the interconnected nature of our social, economic and physical well-being, it’s time to acknowledge that the Canada Health Transfer’s “social” counterpart needs an act to guide it and measure its outcomes.

An act would give us the right data and conditions to make sure this government’s ambitious nationwide strategies work as they are intended, a framework to ensure we’re doing the best we can with the resources we have and a structure to ensure social spending can’t be overlooked.

We can always stand to spend more on social services. But first let’s figure out how we’re already spending.

Photo: Shutterstock by Lijphoto


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