Amanda Clarke is an associate professor at Carleton University. Laura Chang and Sarah Niedoba are with Code for Canada.
While the recent House of Commons inquiry into the $54-million ArriveCan is much needed, the truth is that Canada’s once-mandatory COVID-19 travel app is merely a symptom of the federal government’s ailing approach to procurement and outsourcing.
A recent research project led out of Carleton University helps illustrate a root cause: an unhealthy dependence on private IT vendors, with a whopping $4.6-billion spent federally on contracting in 2021-22 alone. That was an increase of almost 8 per cent year over year.
To make matters worse, this isn’t a case of “you get what you pay for” – big spending isn’t yielding the best-in-class digital solutions Canadians would expect (and deserve) based on the price tag. A lack of public-sector digital talent and resources, unhelpful internal rules and processes, and an outdated procurement model have trapped Ottawa in a system where high-cost, low-value contracting with private firms has become standard practice.
It doesn’t need to be this way. Globally, governments have realized that in order to be successful and modern, they need to know when to “buy” and when to “build” by having both the skills to design and deploy digital services itself, but also effectively oversee contracted firms when needed.
What would it take for the Canadian government to get on board with this global movement?
First, it needs staff in-house, at all levels, that understand how to design and deliver seamless, accessible products and services. This means increased investment in attracting, retaining and retraining new and existing public servants. This way, the federal public service has access to competencies that are essential to any thriving digital-era organization, including those with expertise in design, web development and user research.
Second, public servants need the scope to work in modern ways. This means opening up access to new tools (many of which are blocked by government firewalls), redesigning counterproductive policies and requirements, and encouraging public servants to work more openly by sharing their code, discussing their work, and collaborating effectively with mission-aligned organizations. This last point is key: Government needs external partners that are equally dedicated to delivering quality services that put the public before profits.
Third, the federal government needs to update its procurement model to get in line with international best practices. The key rule here is “smaller is better” – high dollar value, long-term contracts are all but guaranteed to lead to project delay and failure, not to mention vendor lock-in. Tech projects are inherently unpredictable and one key way to manage that risk responsibly is to limit the length and size of contracts.
Smaller contracts have added benefits: They create opportunity for a diversity of firms to bid, they make it easier to dispense with a vendor if they’re not delivering good work and, perhaps most notably, they set projects up for iterative development that ultimately result in better solutions.
Alongside spending controls, we need contracts based on outcomes (not outputs) and far more transparency about who is awarded contracts, and whether these firms actually deliver value when they pocket public money. This will make it easier to scrutinize the value for money of the government’s IT procurement spend, and to make wiser choices for future bids.
Finally, we need to shift the public conversation away from spending alone. Effective public digital solutions will almost always require significant investment, but people deserve (and should demand) that the costs make sense. The question isn’t how to spend less, but how to spend smarter so that public services are more accessible, inclusive and helpful.
Successful service delivery is inherent to trustworthy, democratic governance. That’s why it is more crucial than ever to zoom out from ArriveCan and other recent digital failures and instead address the core problem – antiquated public IT procurement – so we don’t stay on the same path and expect to end up somewhere new.