The Canada Border Services Agency has handed over hundreds of pages of documents related to the government’s use of private contractors to build the ArriveCan app, but the chair of the committee that requested the files over two months ago says the agency’s high level of redactions is unacceptable.
In an Oct. 17 vote supported by all parties, MPs on the Commons government operations committee ordered federal departments to hand over, “in an unredacted format,” a wide range of documents related to the app, including a list of contractors and subcontractors, and copies of invoices.
The CBSA, the main federal agency responsible for the app, missed the committee’s original deadline, which called for the documents to be supplied by the end of October. The agency said the need to have the files translated into both official languages would cause considerable delay.
Since then, the CBSA has been sending documents to the committee in batches. The most recent package of invoices was released last month. Along with that package, CBSA president Erin O’Gorman wrote to the committee to say the agency will not be revealing the identities of all the subcontractors involved in making the app. Among the other sections redacted in the documents are pay rates and the purposes of contracts.
Conservative MP and committee chair Kelly McCauley said he is disappointed the CBSA took so long to respond to the committee’s production order. Many of the documents arrived just as Parliament was about to rise until late January.
“I’m very greatly concerned that documents are redacted, blocking any ability for us to see what the government was actually buying and how many units. All we get is a lump-sum price,” he said. “I suspect the committee will probably put through another motion demanding unredacted documents.”
The government operations committee spent several weeks this fall holding hearings into ArriveCan after the Globe and Mail reported in October that federal spending on the app is projected to exceed $54-million this year, an amount that was widely criticized as excessive by Canadian tech leaders.
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, and is no longer mandatory.
The Globe reported that the company that received the most federal outsourcing work on the project, GCstrategies, relies heavily on subcontractors to deliver on its contracts. Neither the company nor the government will reveal the identities of the subcontractors.
At a committee hearing, the company’s two partners, Darren Anthony and Kristian Firth, told MPs they are the only two employees, and that neither of them personally do IT work. Rather, they described themselves as an IT staffing company. They said the company had received $9-million in contracts related to the app as of March 31, and a total of $44-million in federal work with more than 20 departments over the past two years.
The partners told MPs the two of them charge a commission of between 15 and 30 per cent of the total value of contracts, meaning they are being paid millions of dollars by the government to find IT contract workers for the public service.
The committee’s request for documents was partly an effort to learn more about the work of contractors and subcontractors, and how the cost of the project climbed to $54-million.
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Bloc Québécois MP Julie Vignola said the level of government redactions means the exact services provided and their costs remain a mystery.
“The goal is to ensure that taxpayers got their money’s worth and to suggest improvements if ever a similar situation were to arise again,” she said. “Redacting documents in this way goes beyond confidentiality and undermines the process of finding improvements.”
NDP MP and committee member Gord Johns said the redactions contradict the government’s pledges to be transparent.
“They’re hiring really expensive consultants to hire really expensive consultants to deliver services for Canadians. We saw that with GCstrategies,” he said. “They’re avoiding transparency on this because they don’t want to, again, be embarrassed for the lack of accountability.”
Liberal MP Anthony Housefather, who is a committee member and the parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Public Services and Procurement, said in an e-mail that IT subcontractors tend to be workers that are acting almost as employees of primary contractors. As a result, he said, there could be legitimate privacy reasons for not revealing their identities.
Mr. Housefather added that he is “far more sympathetic” to the concerns being raised over redactions to descriptions of the services provided.
“I do believe that we should have a clear view of what exactly was being paid for in each case, and I would be supportive of a request to receive that information in an unredacted format, provided that any commercially confidential information (pursuant to the terms of the agreement between the government and contractor) would be kept confidential by the Committee and not be made public,” he said.
Opposition MPs have also submitted requests for documents related to GCstrategies, and government app development more broadly, in the House of Commons. The government tabled three replies in December.
In one response, the government said the total maximum potential value of four contracts between GCstrategies and the CBSA, each of which is at least partly related to ArriveCan, is $35-million. Of that amount, it said $11.2-million has been spent so far.
The CBSA did not provide any response to two other questions: a request for spending details on all app-related work, and a request for details on all contracts with GCstrategies for services unrelated to ArriveCan. Other government departments did respond to those questions.
In both cases, the CBSA said it could not produce responses by the given deadline, “due to the volume and the processing that would be required to provide the detail requested.”