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Auditor-General Karen Hogan appears as a witness at a House of Commons standing committee on Public Accounts on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Feb. 12.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

A bromide often given lip service by politicians is that Ottawa ought to run more like a business. It’s never clear what that means.

The federal government is not a private corporation seeking profits. It is a vast public bureaucracy that oversees the delivery of programs and services critical to the well-being of citizens – justice, health care, education, infrastructure, national defence, foreign affairs and so on.

Parliament, acting as the taxpayer’s representative, raises revenues through taxes and borrowing that it then allots to the various departments and agencies.

How a vast operation that is answerable to the public via the democratic process could be managed like a private corporation is never explained by those who spout that mantra. A platitudinous veneration for business is simplistic; it’s not like companies never screw up badly.

On the other hand, the Auditor-General’s trenchant report on the ArriveCan scandal explains why that sentiment can nevertheless find traction with the Canadian public.

The AG, Karen Hogan, said this week that her audit found “a glaring disregard for basic management and contracting practices throughout ArriveCan’s development and implementation.”

Ms. Hogan said the subcontracting involved was so convoluted that it is impossible to determine the true cost of the app. Her office estimated that the Canada Border Services Agency dished out $59.5-million on outsourced work to private contractors; the in-house costs, which the AG didn’t calculate, could add another $15-million to the total cost.

The question for Canadians is, how did a relatively small job morph into something that cost so much money? After all, another pandemic-era smartphone app, the COVID Alert app, cost $3.5-million to develop and maintain, according to documents reviewed by The Canadian Press (Ottawa spent another $15.9-million promoting the use of the app).

The AG provided some clues. She said that officials at the CBSA kept poor records and sometimes paid invoices that didn’t describe the services provided. She also said that a small IT contracting firm, GC Strategies, essentially wrote the narrowly worded terms for the contract that it went on to win by being the only bidder on it – an obvious red flag.

Another report from the Office of the Procurement Ombud released last month also determined that the government’s contracting rules were not followed. And Parliamentary hearings into the ArriveCan mess last year devolved into internecine finger-pointing by senior CBSA officials, two of whom have been suspended without pay.

Clearly, there is no logical way the cost of the ArriveCan app should ever have been one-tenth as high as it was, even if it did have to be developed in a hurry. Just as clearly, there were blatant breaches of the rules regarding government contracts; from the public’s perspective, it makes sense that two people are currently off the CBSA’s payroll.

And that’s because that is what happens in the real world. The bromide about government running more like a business may originate in the fact that, in the private realm, incompetence carries a cost, and also a lesson.

If a private company asked employees to develop an app whose costs ballooned into the tens of millions of dollars without justification, and the paperwork used to justify such folly was muddied by incomplete invoices and impenetrable layers of subcontracting, there would be no question about the fate of those responsible.

Any self-respecting, properly managed business would also undertake an investigation into possible root causes – lax oversight, an entitled culture – and would rethink how it manages outsourcing from top to bottom. It might also sue to recover some of its money.

This would be especially true if that company had 1,200 to 1,400 technology experts on staff who together couldn’t produce one in-house app, which is the case for the CBSA, according to testimony to the standing committee on government operations last year by the agency’s former chief information officer, Minh Doan.

Government can’t be run like a business, but that doesn’t exempt it from accountability and common sense. The fear of many Canadians is that neither of those things will be the result of the ArriveCan debacle; that instead, we may never know what happened, and that the root causes of it will never be fixed.

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