Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Auditor general Karen Hogan responds to a question during a news conference, in Ottawa on Feb. 12.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

We generally rely on the Auditor General to get to the bottom of things. When all else fails, when it seems whatever appalling frenzy of government extravagance has lately come to light must elude even comprehension, let alone remedy, there is always the consoling hope: wait until the AG reports.

But such was the inconceivable disarray at the Canadian Border Services Agency, which had what one might loosely call “responsibility” for the ArriveCan program, that even the AG, Karen Hogan, and her crack team of auditors were left grasping at air, unable to answer the most basic questions about it.

What we know is that to build the ArriveCan app, whose purpose was merely to gather information from international travellers as they arrived, including whether they had been vaccinated for COVID-19, the agency neither used in-house staff nor simply hired a developer, but farmed it out to a shadowy coterie of contractors, kitchen-table operations with no staff or offices, who charged millions in return for no work other than to hire a load of other contractors, some of whom appear to have done little or no work themselves.

The lead contractor, GC Strategies, was initially hired, not only without a competitive bidding process, but without even submitting a proposal. When at length the contract was put out to tender, the company was allowed to advise on the terms, which ended up being so closely tailored to its advantage that no other firm even bothered to put in a bid. To add to the impression of coziness, senior staff at the CBSA were invited by the company to expensive dinners, whisky tastings and other events, which they failed to report to their superiors.

But beyond that all is murk. Who made the decision to hire them, and why? Why were there so few records kept of where the money went, or what it was spent on? How were contractors allowed to invoice without specifying what work they performed? The AG cannot even say beyond a first approximation how much the whole thing cost: the report puts the figure at $60-million, give or take about $12-million. Suffice to say it was considerably more than the $80,000 first estimated.

The one thing that can be said with some confidence is that this will not end here. There are other investigations ongoing, of course, but even after the specifics of who did what when have been established, there will remain much larger questions to be answered.

If, after all, a number of individuals at the CBSA, as it appears, took it into their heads to hand out large contracts on such dubious grounds, with such slipshod controls, and with so little in the way of a paper trail, the logical next question to ask is not just how they could have gotten away with it for so long, but why it would even have occurred to them to try.

Whether those involved acted out of corruption or incompetence, there must first be an enabling culture within the organization: one that led them to believe it was okay to behave this way, or if it was not okay, that they would not be caught. Either way, we should not be so foolish as to imagine this would be the only such incident to arise from such a culture.

Indeed, the opaque, multilayered contracting model that so inflated costs on the ArriveCan project appears to have been used more widely, at least at the CBSA. How did that happen? On whose watch? And beyond the CBSA, or the apparently endemic inability of governments to manage IT projects – can you think of one that hasn’t failed, spectacularly? – there is the broader mess that is procurement, generally.

The numbers involved in the ArriveCan affair may be eye-popping, but they are a speck of dust compared, say, to the costs of building a dozen frigates for the Navy (original cost estimate: $26-billion; current estimate: $84-billion, and counting). Which is just one part of one project – the National Shipbuilding Strategy – in one department.

Still, delving into the particulars of even so comparatively minor a part of the overall problem of government waste as ArriveCan can be illuminating. The problem is not, as some have been too quick to claim, that the project was put out to private contractors: the problem is that it was done without competitive bids, without adequate oversight and without the most basic record-keeping, the kind that is essential to oversight of the overseers.

Which is to say, again, the problem is the culture. And if the culture in the public service, or some part of it, is rotten, then it is clear in our system who must ultimately be held to account: the responsible minister, and the government to which that minister belongs.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe