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Richard Shimooka: The ArriveCan scandal represents an even deeper rot

Commentary

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.It 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.While 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.

Jeremy Roberts: Can local media come back from the dead?

Commentary

The news media in Canada is in crisis. Policy responses to date are failing to solve for the information that citizens need to make informed decisions about important issues and debates. The Future of News series brings together leading practitioners, scholars, and thinkers to imagine new business models, policy responses, and journalistic content that can support a dynamic future for news in Canada.

The past few weeks have seen a score of large layoffs at local media stations across the country. Local news broadcasts were eliminated or scaled back, popular shows ended, and some radio teams disbanded. It’s a sad state of affairs for the fifth estate. 

Prime Minister Trudeau indicated his anger at the decision, saying he was “pissed off.” Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, meanwhile, used the opportunity to strike back at the government, pointing to their recent multi-million-dollar investment into Canadian media as a failed government bailout. Clearly, that solution doesn’t seem to have worked.

The news has sparked considerable discussion about the future of news broadcasting and the role, if any, government should be playing in this discussion.

But there’s a missing part to this conversation. As we watch local media be slimmed back again and again due to market realities, we risk not only losing local sources of news and information, we risk losing a sense of our collective selves.

I’ve written before here about the challenges in defining a collective identity in Canada. Governments of different stripes have been trying to do this for years. And, as I’ve argued, this is for good reason. Collective identity gives us a sense of unity, of purpose, and of compassion and care for each other.

While governments have sought to shape this identity, media has—perhaps to an even larger degree—been a key driver of the conversation.

Shows like Hockey Night in Canada, with its brash tough guy Don Cherry and his unfailingly polite co-anchor Ron Maclean, brought us together as a country. It helped that the hosts were two sides of the typical Canadian stereotype. 

But let’s zoom in to the local level.

In Ottawa where I grew up, there was a long-time news anchor with first CJOH and then CTV Ottawa, the late Max Keeping.

Max was a legend in Ottawa. Not only did we see him on television every night delivering stories from around our city, but he was everywhere. He hosted the local philanthropic telethons, attended community sports, spoke at fundraising dinners, helped boost local eateries, and started his own community initiatives. Max was more than a newsman: he was a community leader. And through his platform on local news, he helped us understand who we were as “Ottawans.” 

For people who grew up with Max on the news, there was a palpable sense of community that he helped to forge. We celebrated our local stories together and felt a strong sense of camaraderie during our challenges. I remember his leadership after a pair of tragic suicides claimed the lives of two of our city’s youth. Max shaped the story and emboldened us all to take action. He told us why all of us in the city should care and drove the conversation about how we could prevent this sort of horrible event in the future.

This was also true during the 1998 ice storm when Max not only made sure that residents had up-to-date information about what was happening, but he also used his platform to share inspiring stories. Stories about neighbours helping neighbours and the resiliency of our community. These stories gave us a sense of common purpose and drew us together. Without local coverage, I fear we lose some of that. 

Although we lost Max in 2015, his legacy lived on in the Ottawa media. But it’s gradually been chipped away.

This week, the popular long-time hosts of Ottawa’s Move100 Morning Show, Stuntman Stu, Annie, and Janelle, were shown the door. Stu has always been a media figure in Ottawa in the mould of Max—someone who took his responsibility as a community leader with a platform to drive conversations and pull us together during tough times. Losing his voice on the radio is a tremendous loss for our community.

I recognize that not many people tune in anymore to local news or local radio. Certainly not many people in my generation. Why watch the news when you can get it online? Why listen to the radio when there are podcasts galore? And that’s assuming you consume news at all.

The old mediums are dying. Time marches on. 

There’s some irony here because although Canadians overwhelmingly claim to believe local media is important, the audience for it has been steadily declining. 

But even though new platforms might be taking their place, that doesn’t mean they bring the same value.

So as we mourn the gradual decline of local media, I toss this question back out: how do we preserve this vital role that local media has played in shaping our collective identity?

There are many people pondering the survival of local media, and many solutions are being considered.

Do we subsidize the hiring of journalists? As critics have pointed out, this jeopardizes the independence of media, whether through perception or reality. It’s unlikely this idea will ever gain consensus. 

Postmedia newspapers are on display in Toronto on Thursday, January 12, 2017. Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press.

Do we force the social media giants whose platforms disseminate local news to pay more towards supporting it? That policy doesn’t seem to be working well. The fight between government and these companies is putting people’s lives at risk, as we saw when people weren’t able to share up-to-date news information during the wildfires in the North this past August. 

Perhaps the key is to use the tax system to support start-up local platforms or podcasts that focus on local issues, then? As fellow Hub contributor, Bill Fox, argued here, an enhancement to the Digital News Subscription Tax Credit could be part of a market-based solution. 

Others with more libertarian leanings suggest that this is not a place for government intervention. In an interview on the Herle Burly podcast, American conservative Joe Walsh acknowledged that the collapse of traditional media is problematic, but cautioned against any instinct towards government intervention. 

So are there any solutions to this problem that lie outside the realm of government intervention?

The not-for-profit model of journalism could be a potential solution. As Geoff Russ writes here, there are some promising success stories that suggest there is still a market out there for thoughtful, local content that fosters a sense of community. 

On the issue of collective identity, we can also look to community organizations, charities, and even social enterprises as the places that will have to increasingly seize the mantle of building a sense of community. All of these organizations rely on fostering feelings of collective responsibility, of caring for your fellow man. Take the Glowing Hearts social enterprise that took off during the pandemic. Hundreds of windows on empty streets were adorned with these neon hearts, building a sense of unity through the darkness. At the time of our greatest isolation, these hearts reminded us that we would get through the tough times together. 

And there is also work being done to target the issue of apathy towards media at its root. The CTRL-F program is running in schools today across the country, teaching our youth how to be smarter and more engaged consumers of news, and hopefully inspiring a new generation of interested citizens who look beyond their social media feeds for thoughtful stories. 

All of these solutions deserve serious thought. Not just for the sake of preserving local journalism, but also, as I argue here, to preserve our ability to build identity through common stories.

As we move away from local media in the traditional sense, we lose our ability to share our stories to each other. We lose local platforms for leaders to inspire us. We lose a vital avenue to celebrate together in community. We lose our ability to rise up together to meet challenges. We lose our sense of belonging.

After several years of prolonged isolation, people are more desperate than ever for that sense of belonging and community. As the challenges we face become all the more complex, and as our population becomes more heterogeneous, it is more vital than ever that we know how to band together.

I know that the days of tuning in at 6 pm to listen to guys like Max are over. But together, let’s have a serious conversation about how we can take what they’ve taught us into the future.

The Future of News series is supported by The Hub’s foundation donors and Meta.