Audit of Web Posting

Approved by the Deputy Minister of Finance Canada on the recommendation of the Audit Committee

June 6, 2016

Prepared by
Internal Audit
Department of Finance Canada

Contents

Executive Summary

Background

Audit Objective

Audit Scope

Statement of Conformance and Approach

Conclusion

Audit Findings

Recommendations, Management Response and Action Plan

Executive Summary

The Communications Policy of the Government of Canada requires that federal departments provide the public with timely, accurate, clear, objective and complete information about policies, programs, services and initiatives. The Policy identifies internet and social media as powerful enablers for effective communication across Canada and around the world.

At the Department of Finance, the Consultations and Communications Branch (C&C) manages the website publishing process. Communications products such as news releases, notices to the media and speeches are created and approved within C&C before following a series of approval steps. Once all the necessary approvals have been received, the product is loaded into a website staging area. When authorized to go live, the product is posted online. 

The audit objective was to provide reasonable assurance that key controls are in place and working as intended for the process to post information on the departmental website.

The audit concluded that, overall, controls are in place and the web posting process is working. However, the audit identified opportunities to improve the web posting process. Specifically, the audit provides recommendations aiming to:

  • Reduce the number of hand-offs within the C&C branch;
  • Clearly define the nature of each approval step;
  • Consistently document key decisions and approvals;
  • Formalize departmental guidelines for the official use of social media; and,
  • Add a dedicated plain language assessment early in the process.

Background

The Audit of Web Posting was authorized as part of the Department of Finance’s 2015–20 Internal Audit and Evaluation Plan, approved by the Deputy Minister on August 25, 2015.

The Communications Policy of the Government of Canada requires that federal departments provide the public with timely, accurate, clear, objective and complete information about policies, programs, services and initiatives. The Policy identifies internet and social media as powerful enablers for effective communication across Canada and around the world.

At the Department of Finance, two divisions within the Consultations and Communications Branch (C&C) manage the website publishing process:

  • Communications products such as news releases, notices to the media and speeches are created by strategists and media relations officers within the Communications Strategy Division.
  • Editing services and the online posting is managed by the Public Affairs and Operations Division.

Communications products follow a series of approval steps before being posted online. A product is first approved within C&C before being sent to the relevant program area for approval. The product is then distributed consecutively to the Deputy Minister’s Office, the Minister’s Office, and the Privy Council Office and is managed by a single point of contact. Once all the necessary approvals have been received, the product is loaded into a website staging area. When authorized to go live, the product is posted online.

Publications prepared by the Department, such as the Federal Budget and The Economic and Fiscal Update, follow separate approval and publishing processes. These publications may be accompanied by a news release or notice to the media prepared by C&C.

Depending on the communications product, the Department may notify the public about the web posting via a tweet on its Twitter account.

In 2015, 90 news releases; 44 notices to the media; five speeches; and 25 publications were posted on the Department of Finance website.

Audit Objective

The audit objective was to provide reasonable assurance that key controls are in place and working as intended for the process to post information on the departmental website.

Audit Scope

The audit scope covered departmental activities related to the posting of news releases, notices to the media, speeches, reports and other publications. The audit focused on the web posting process in place since October 2014.

The scope did not include:

  • The Department’s intranet site (Infosite), since this site is not accessible to the public.
  • Departmental correspondence, ATIP, parliamentary affairs or consultations, since these are separate activities performed by C&C and are not involved in the web posting process.

Statement of Conformance and Approach

The audit was conducted in accordance with the Internal Auditing Standards for the Government of Canada, as supported by the results of the Quality Assurance and Improvement Program.

The audit was planned and performed so as to obtain reasonable assurance that the audit objective was achieved. A risk assessment was conducted at the beginning of the audit to establish the audit criteria, which were accepted by management. The audit findings are based on a comparison of the conditions in place at the time of the audit with the audit criteria.

Audit procedures included process mapping, walkthroughs, interviews, observations, and review of supporting documents. A judgmental selection of 12 communications product files were examined in detail. The audit team also benchmarked the Department’s web posting processes against the practices of four other organizations.

Management had the opportunity to review and provide feedback on the audit findings and conclusions before they were finalized.

Conclusion

The audit concluded that, overall, controls are in place and the web posting process is working. However, the audit identified opportunities to improve the web posting process. Specifically, the audit provides recommendations aiming to:

  • Reduce the number of hand-offs within the C&C branch;
  • Clearly define the nature of each approval step;
  • Consistently document key decisions and approvals;
  • Formalize departmental guidelines for the official use of social media; and,
  • Add a dedicated plain language assessment early in the process.

Audit Findings

This section summarizes the audit observations based on the evidence gathered and analyzed during the audit.

The audit expected to find that key controls were in place and working as intended. Specifically, the audit criteria were as follows:

  1. Key controls over the web posting process have been established and communicated.
  2. The web posting process supports the posting of the right information at the right time.

To assess against these criteria, the audit team mapped out the web posting process and examined it in detail. This analysis was supported by a detailed review of 12 communication products, as well as interviews with departmental staff involved in the web posting process. The audit team attended meetings related to web posting in order to observe the process in action. The Department’s practices were also benchmarked against four other federal government organizations.

Procedures designed to manage the web posting process are established and communicated

The audit expected that protocols and procedures designed to manage the web posting process would be established and communicated. The audit found that the Department has a process in place for posting information on the departmental website. A recently updated document describes the path a communications document follows from inception, revisions, approvals, translation, web staging and finally posting on the Department’s website.

The audit team interviewed staff members involved in various aspects of the process. Although most of the interviewees had not seen the updated process document, all agreed that they were aware of the process. It was noted that the process was often discussed at morning staff meetings. When asked to describe the process all of the interviewees’ answers were in line with the process document.

The audit examined 12 web posting files in detail with an aim to assess whether the process was working as described. The audit team determined that all 12 communication products had been correctly posted online within the scheduled timeframe.

The web posting process could be simplified to reduce the number of hand-offs

The audit team mapped out the web posting process in detail and compared it to the practices of other organizations. Although a single point of contact is assigned to lead each communications product through the process, the audit found that products are frequently passed back and forth between the Communications Strategy Division and the Public Affairs and Operations Division as approvals are sought and revisions are made.

The audit team noted that other organizations have fewer hand-offs: normally the strategy division manages the development, editing and approval steps before handing the product to the web posting team. Reducing the number of hand-offs in the process can help reduce the opportunities for error as work is transferred between work groups. Efficiencies may also be realized as the process is simplified and requires less coordination between groups. The audit recommends that the number of hand-offs within the C&C branch be reduced.

The nature of each approval step was not always clear to those involved in the process

Within the web posting process, a communications product flows through a series of approval steps (sign-offs) as it is being finalized. While the total number of approval steps can vary, the documented process describes a minimum of 7 sign-offs that are required to take a product from its creation to going live on the web. Often more than one sign-off is required as the product moves from Director up to Assistant Deputy Minister.

The audit expected that approval steps would be clearly defined so that those being asked to sign-off on a communications product would know what they were being asked to approve (e.g. content; web format; quality control; release). The audit found that the requirements at each approval were not always clear to those involved in the process. For example, it was not always clear at each sign-off (1) what had already been reviewed and approved, and (2) the nature of the approval being sought. Without clearly defined approval steps, there is a risk that decisions and actions are not taken by the appropriate people. A good practice raised during benchmarking was to have an approval checklist as part of the release strategy for each product. The audit recommends that the nature of each approval step be clearly defined.

Monitoring and quality could be improved by ensuring that key approvals and decisions are consistently documented

The audit expected that the web posting process would be monitored to ensure quality. The audit found that management closely monitors the web posting process. For example, mandatory meetings are held each morning to discuss daily and weekly priorities, as well as to confirm the status of each file. Management is also copied on important emails throughout the process, to allow them to stay up to date and provide input as needed. At the end of the process a sign-off is required as confirmation that the process had been followed and all necessary approvals received.

The audit examined 12 web posting files in detail. The audit found that documents on file were not consistently organized, and evidence of approvals could not always be found. Without proper documentation there is a risk that management cannot confirm whether all steps in the process were followed. In the event of an error, proper documentation is also necessary to help determine where the process broke down. The audit recommends that key decisions and approvals be consistently documented.

Departmental guidelines for the official use of social media should be formalized

The audit team assessed whether there were established protocols for the use of the Department’s social media accounts. The Department manages accounts on Twitter, LinkedIn and Flickr; it also contributes to social media of other departments. The process for posting on social media can vary: it can follow the same process as other communications products; it can follow a separate process (e.g. campaign-specific tweets); or, it could involve coordination with other federal organizations. The audit found that (1) these processes have not been formalized, and (2) that guidelines related to creating, approving and posting on social media are verbally communicated to C&C staff.

The Treasury Board Standard of Social Media Account Management requires that departments establish guidance and plans for the use of social media. In the absence of this guidance, there is a risk of creating an inconsistent social media presence. This can result in efforts that detract from the Department's mandate and objectives, rather than promote them. The audit recommends that departmental guidelines for the official use of social media be formalized.

The web posting process could be strengthened by adding a dedicated plain language assessment early in the process

To ensure clarity and consistency of information, the Communications Policy of the Government of Canada requires that plain language to be used in communications with the public. In this context, it is important to ensure that products posted online convey information easily and unambiguously for the intended reader. The Department’s website includes general information for the public, as well as technical reports and publications intended for more specific audiences. As a result, some communications products require higher reading levels when compared to other products found on the website.

The audit considered how plain language was assessed within the web posting process. Language Services within the Public Affairs and Operations Division are involved throughout the web posting process to perform editing and translation. The audit noted however that a dedicated plain language assessment was not included in the web posting process.

Without an assessment of plain language there is a risk that online communications may not convey information at the right reading level for the intended audience. During benchmarking the audit team noted that other organizations were placing greater emphasis on plain language. An identified good practice was to include a plain language assessment at the document creation stage of the process, before the approval steps begin. The audit recommends that a dedicated plain language assessment be added to the web posting process.

Recommendations, Management Response and Action Plan
Recommendations Management Response and Action Plan
1. The audit recommends that C&C branch management strengthen controls over the web posting process with an aim to:

a. Streamline the web posting process by reducing the number of hand-offs within the C&C branch.

b. Clearly define the nature of each approval step.

c. Ensure that approvals and decisions are consistently documented.
Management Response:
Management agrees.

Action Plan:
While safeguarding the overarching objective of ensuring that key controls are in place to ensure the accuracy and timeliness of information posted to Finance Canada Web sites, C&C Branch will undertake a review of the current document production workflow and approval process, with a view to streamlining and simplifying the hand-offs between the various Divisions of the Branch. In so doing, C&C Branch will compare our own process against other organizations in order to draw upon best practices and identify where efficiencies could be made.
The revised process will be documented and communicated to C&C Branch personnel. It will include more clearly defined roles and responsibilities with regard to the nature of the approval being required from staff from the Branch’s various Divisions, and will also include clearly defined requirements with regard to appropriately documenting key decisions and approvals.

Lead:
Director, Communications Strategy Division

Target Date:
March 2017
2. The audit recommends that C&C branch management formalize guidelines for the official use of the Department’s social media accounts.
Management Response:
Management agrees.

Action Plan:
Given the recently announced changes to the suite of communications-related Treasury Board policy instruments, and the Privy Council Office’s ongoing emphasis on improving departments’ ability to adopt a “digital by default” approach to communications, the C&C Branch’s management team will evaluate and assess the role of social media at the Department, including clarifying guidelines for the use of social media channels by Finance Canada personnel.

Lead:
Directors, Communications Strategy Division and Public Affairs and Operations Division

Target Date:
March 2017
3. The audit recommends that C&C branch management include a dedicated plain language assessment early in the web posting process.
Management Response:
Management agrees.

Action Plan:
In the context of the Web Renewal Initiative, more emphasis has been placed on ensuring that Web content is not only accessible from a technical point of view, but also that it responds to users’ needs. This includes ensuring that the content is drafted in a clear manner and that it can be readily understood by target audiences. Based on industry standards, content that is aimed at general audiences should be drafted around a Grade 6 to Grade 8 level. To respond to this requirement, some departments have integrated plain language editing as an integral part of their Web content development and approval process.
C&C Branch will work to understand the full scope of work needed to include this important step early in the process; we will explore options, assess feasibility with our business module, and then integrate this best practice in our standard operating procedures. As an initial step we will identify learning and/or training opportunities for staff to ensure their skills are optimally aligned.

Lead:
Directors, Communications Strategy Division and Public Affairs and Operations Division

Target Date:
March 2017