Richard Shimooka: The ArriveCan scandal represents an even deeper rot

This debacle is indicative of broader problems than just one botched procurement
Canada's ArriveCAN app log in screen is seen on a mobile device, Monday, Feb. 12, 2024 in Ottawa. Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press.

Canadians have been treated these last few months to the uncomfortable spectacle concerning the development of ArriveCan, a border control app developed during the pandemic for screening entrants for COVID-19. Claims of malfeasance, poor management, and oversight have only multiplied as the weeks have dragged on.1It is also important to note that the program’s history is part of an ongoing investigation and there is quite a bit that has not been uncovered at this time. As both the auditor general and procurement ombud has noted, a large amount of documentation has been lost, either through lack of care or deliberate deletion. Much of this is a preliminary analysis, based on news reports, parliamentary committee testimony, and some discussions with individuals familiar with the program.

Ironically, the application has enjoyed heightened scrutiny in the public eye despite its relatively low value. Even at its potentially inflated cost of $59.5 million, the program remains far outside the most expensive federal procurement projects. Yet despite its relatively small price tag, the ArriveCan debacle has become a firestorm with such a high public profile because it was representative of several controversial COVID-era-related restrictions and the attendant contentious political debate surrounding the pandemic.2While important for understanding the context surrounding ArriveCan, the political angle is not really germane to the focus of this article.

Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, this saga is illuminating in that it casts a harsh light on the government’s overall program management capabilities. 

Procurement in Canada

First, some context of how procurement operates in Canada. All government procurement in Canada is overseen by the Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC), which acts as a purchasing agent. In reality, these operations are always a collective effort between several departments and agencies. In the case of ArriveCan, it involved the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) as the lead agency alongside the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Treasury Board. 

In Canada, the procurement system is highly focused on what is colloquially known as the “process.” As it sounds, this is a semi-formalized set of reporting requirements, relationships, regulations, and other procedures that are supposed to guide procurements from their inception to their delivery. 

You’ll hear officials talk about it in reverential terms, even if they despise it, as they describe how they’re “working the process.” Yet much of what determines the “process” is not rooted in laws or statutory elements, but is really built-up bureaucratic convention. The more significant expansions of it occur when there’s a perceived failure that needs to be addressed. A significant impetus for this approach is to eliminate risk—each layer of the process has been put into place to avoid a previous failure, often ignoring a host of other factors that also impacted the issue. Much like sedimentary rock, these get layered on top of each other and solidify into a single, impenetrable mass. 

This is important, as the process is ingrained in the very culture of government departments. It dissuades individual leadership or deviations from the norm. Each involved department has its specific concerns and responsibilities, which all play into the overall progress of a procurement. In the Department of National Defence, the military merely generates requirements which PSPC then turns into a request for proposal-come-contract that is non-negotiable for bidders. There’s no flexibility in the process, and this thus handcuffs the winning contractor while saddling them with all the risk. 

However, as one long-time official remarked, “So long as people believe in the process, it holds power.” They can just as easily be ignored in certain circumstances, which is relevant for ArriveCan’s implementation. The alternative, which is likely more familiar to people in the private sector, is a management-centric approach, where individuals are given authority and resources to make decisions, which rewards good leadership. Oversight, statutory procedures, and regulations still exist under this model, but the responsibility for fulfilling them falls upon a small number of managers who are given greater latitude in implementation. This takes years of training and experience to undertake successfully, and can be more risky on any specific procurement, but overall tends to provide much better results in terms of delivery timelines and costs. 

At best the current process ensures mediocrity—programs eventually deliver, but usually with significant delays and at higher costs. The most significant challenge emerges when the political leadership decrees that a project needs to be delivered rapidly, and/or needs to incorporate very high levels of complexity and risks. That is precisely what occurred with ArriveCan. 

Developing ArriveCan

In the spring of 2020, the government of Canada faced a unique set of circumstances. While the pandemic had become ensconced globally, there was a pressing need to resuscitate cross-border travel. ArriveCan was to be a critical part of that effort, allowing for more rapid, socially distanced processing of individuals entering the country. The stated desire to reopen air travel as soon as possible created a major impetus to develop the app rapidly. And while CBSA had been working on concepts similar to ArriveCan prior to the pandemic, these were by no means commensurate with their successors’ scale. Perhaps this gave those involved just enough knowledge to be dangerous but not enough to be successful at their task. 

Likely the most critical deviation from the normal process was to award a sole-sourced contract to the now-infamous GC Services based on what presently seems like questionable justification. The app’s development was clearly rushed, with normal processes being bent or set aside completely in order to get something, anything, into service. 

Procurement of software-based systems is inherently challenging: such acquisitions do not resemble traditional programs like brick-and-mortar infrastructure or frigates. The government’s in-house coding capability is extremely limited, thus it requires external contractors to implement. Again normal procurements use the current process to create oversight and accountability from these contractors. They are by no means ideal; they are awkward and ponderous and create greater delays in delivery without actually resolving issues, but the vast array of them is effective at creating guardrails for most projects.  

The lack of documentation and poor outcomes could be a sign of some sort of malfeasance and subsequent cover-up. The ongoing investigation may still turn up evidence of this. Certainly, though, this was an extremely poorly managed procurement by staff unconstrained by the regular guardrails and ill-prepared for the challenge before them.

Auditor general Karen Hogan appears as a witness at a House of Commons standing committee on Public Accounts on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, Feb. 12, 2024. The committee continues its study on the ArriveCan app following the AG’s report being tabled in the House of Commons. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press.
What would fix the underlying problem?

It does not have to be like this. There have been a number of cases where other government bodies have had to deliver a program on a tight timeline. Defence has done so a number of times, most notably during the War in Afghanistan. Major procurements were made based on relatively urgent requirements and were delivered on budget and on time as required. 

However, National Defence is different from every other government department in one important respect: it possesses a strong engineering and project management capability. The military in particular has a large cadre of staff who are trained to operate as managers throughout their professional lives. No other government agency or department retains any similar capability. This is why in similarly urgent situations, those projects tend to have better outcomes than those with the “normal” process in place. 

In sum, the ArriveCan scandal points to the critical failure within the government of Canada: the lack of program management capability across most departments and agencies. In some way, the bureaucracy has built up a critical mass of processes that are severely retarding program delivery across government. These squander the talents of individuals with real management skills, often ensuring mediocrity and disappointment—outcomes hardly in Canadian interests. 

Moving towards a management-based approach is a long and difficult road. It requires a complete change in the culture of governance, including accepting a significant jump in program risk. Staff require years of education and hands-on training as well as lived experience for the critical tacit knowledge. The United States government has a Defence Acquisitions University devoted to training officials and regularly sends promising candidates to obtain graduate degrees to build up their management skills. This practice is a rarity in Canada. That change is essential here. Unfortunately, it will take decades to implement effectively. 

The alternative is a disappointing future filled with more of the same: poor outcomes, squandered dollars, and a public that is increasingly distrustful of its government’s ability to resolve its problems. The public is right to demand better than that.

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