A new cost breakdown reveals the ArriveCan app began as an $80,000 expense at the onset of the pandemic before growing to $54-million this year over the course of more than 70 updates.
The figures were provided to The Globe and Mail Monday shortly after a parliamentary committee ordered federal departments to hand over key contracting documents related to the ArriveCan app by the end of the month as part of a study into its $54-million cost.
The breakdown of expenses to build and maintain the app shows that after initially spending $80,000 to develop the app, Ottawa incurred an additional $8.8-million in connection to more than 70 updates. Other major costs listed in the breakdown provided by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) include $7.5-million for Service Canada call-centre time, $5.2-million for data management, $4.9-million in “indirect costs” such as employee benefits and accommodations and $4.6-million for cloud hosting services.
Members of the House of Commons committee on government operations and estimates agreed Monday to a slightly watered-down version of a Conservative Party request for a study into the app’s cost.
After more than an hour of negotiations, committee members approved a compromise motion that called for holding at least two meetings into the cost of launching and maintaining the app. The committee will hear from several witnesses, including senior public servants and individuals from GCstrategies, the company that received the most federal outsourcing work related to the app.
The motion called on departments to provide the list of contractors and subcontractors, the breakdown of the costs, the list of contracts and all requests for proposals and invoices related to the app.
The committee gave departments a deadline of 10 business days.
The Globe reported earlier this month that the cost of building and maintaining the app is on pace to reach $54-million this fiscal year. The Globe also reported that GCstrategies has fewer than five employees and relies on more than 75 subcontractors to deliver on its contracts with over a dozen government departments.
Both the company and the government have said the identities of subcontractors are confidential information.
The Liberals persuaded the Bloc Québécois and the NDP not to immediately support the entirety of the Conservative Party’s original proposal, which had called for six meetings and for a longer list of witnesses that would have included cabinet ministers and Canadian tech leaders who recreated clones of the ArriveCan app over the Thanksgiving weekend as a way of illustrating that the federal government overspent.
The Bloc and NDP agreed with the Liberals that the committee could reassess whether further hearings are needed after receiving the documents and hearing from the initial round of experts. Conservative MP Kelly McCauley, who proposed the original motion, had said the Liberals want to hear only from public servants who will defend the spending and that hearing from critical tech experts would provide balance.
Mr. McCauley had proposed hearing from representatives of Lazer Technologies and TribalScale, the two Canadian tech companies that cloned the app.
After the meeting, Mr. McCauley said the CBSA’s new cost breakdown raises further questions for MPs. He also criticized the Liberals for refusing to support having cabinet ministers appear to defend the app’s cost.
NDP MP and committee member Gord Johns also said the breakdown raises new questions. He said in a statement that it’s “wrong to keep Canadians in the dark” and said the Liberals have not been transparent.
Liberal MP Anthony Housefather accused the Conservatives during the meeting of providing misleading information by suggesting the Thanksgiving weekend hackathon projects were comparable to the total costs incurred by the federal government.
The Liberal MP later clarified to The Globe that he only meant to say that it is inaccurate for the Conservatives to suggest the full $54-million was spent on developing the app, when in fact the figure covers development and maintenance costs. Mr. Housefather said he does not dispute The Globe’s reporting that the full cost to build and maintain the app is on track to reach $54-million this year.
Along with the new breakdown of the $54-million cost, CBSA spokesperson Sandra Boudreau provided additional commentary about the project.
“As with any project, many elements had to come together to do this. The $54M we expect to have spent by March 31, 2023, was not just budgeted and spent on the creation and launch of the app itself, which costed $80K to launch in April 2020, but also on all the necessary work to operate, maintain and upgrade the app over the last two years,” she said in an e-mail.
Ms. Boudreau said ArriveCan “is not a simple information sharing app,” describing it as a secure tool that required regular updates as the government announced border measure changes during the pandemic.
ArriveCan was initially created as a way for travellers to upload mandatory health information related to COVID-19. It has since been expanded to allow users to answer customs and immigration questions. The app is no longer mandatory as of Sept. 30, but it continues as a voluntary option.
The start date for the committee hearings into the app’s cost have not yet been announced.
With data analysis by Mahima Singh in Toronto