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Scott Taymun: More rules are not the answer to the ArriveCan fiasco

Commentary

As a former federal public servant—including time in the Canadian Border Services Agency and previously on the post-sponsorship scandal response—I’ve closely followed media reporting and now the auditor general’s report on the development and implementation of the ArriveCan mobile application. I’m appalled by what we’ve learned but would caution politicians from over-responding with more rules and red tape that risk slowing the system down without necessarily solving any inherent problems. 

Let’s start with a recap of the lowlights of the AG’s findings, including:

  • the project’s final cost was estimated at $59.5 million—hundreds of times the original estimate of $80,000—though the auditor general noted that the lack of clear record-keeping means the true cost could be higher (or lower);
  • 18 percent of invoices submitted by contractors did not provide enough information to determine whether they were expenses related to ArriveCan or another information technology IT project;
  • the average per diem cost for the ArriveCan external resources was estimated at $1,090—nearly double the average daily cost for equivalent IT positions in the government of Canada;
  • some Canada Border Services Agency employees did not comply with the agency’s code of conduct by disclosing that they had been invited to dinners and other activities by contractors; and
  • the lead IT consulting firm, GC Strategies, was involved in setting the narrow terms for a $25 million contract that it ultimately won.

It was also reported that GC Strategies has had much a deeper relationship with the government of Canada, including as many as 140 contracts (including 46 untendered) since 2015. The total value of these contracts has been the subject of some debate, though one estimate put it as high as $258 million. 

While the extent of the scandal is not yet fully known (with reports that the RCMP is also looking at the AG report and its findings), what is known so far recently led former NDP leader Thomas Mulcair to declare it the “scam of the century,” noting “we are indeed facing the first major Canadian political scandal since sponsorship, and its scale risks being even greater.”

Even if one finds Mulcair’s rhetoric a bit hyperbolic, the comparisons to the sponsorship scandal are interesting and worth some reflection. For those not fully up to speed, here’s s a primer. In the late 1990s, the government of Prime Minister Jean Chretien put in place a sponsorship program to support activities to celebrate Canada, strengthen the federal presence in Quebec, and counter efforts by the Parti Quebecois to promote Quebec independence. The well-intended program eventually became associated with various financial scandals.  

In February 2004, the AG tabled a damning report on the sponsorship program that found the following:

  • the program operated in a weak control environment;
  • those responsible for managing the program broke the government’s own rules in the way that they selected firms and awarded contracts;
  • documentation was very poor and there was little evidence or analysis to support expenditures of more than $250 million;
  • over $100 million of the total costs was paid to firms as production fees and commissions (for little to no work done); and
  • oversight mechanisms and essential controls failed to detect, prevent, or report violations.

The AG’s report triggered RCMP investigations, a Commission of Inquiry (the Gomery Commission), and ultimately contributed to the fall of the government led by Prime Minister Paul Martin in 2006.

The sponsorship scandal (as it came to be known) eventually precipitated a long list of public administration reforms to ensure such a thing “could never happen again.” I was involved in the development and implementation of many of these operational and policy responses. 

The first wave of reforms was captured in a publication entitled “Strengthening Public Sector Management: An Overview of the Government Action Plan” in 2004. In an attempt to restore accountability and trust in government, it set out several key initiatives, most of which were implemented, including:

  • The re-establishment of the Office of the Comptroller-General;
  • appointing professionally accredited comptrollers to sign off on all new spending in every department;
  • putting in place independent audit committees, again in all departments;
  • proactive disclosure of all contracts entered into by the government of Canada for amounts over $10,000;
  • implementation of the Management Accountability Framework to assess management practices system-wide;
  • a commitment to review the Financial Administration Act to determine whether additional compliance mechanisms were required to prevent and deter mismanagement in the public sector; and 
  • development of specialized programs to better train public sector executives on core management functions, particularly with respect to financial management, procurement, and internal audit.

Many of these reforms were enacted (or launched) under Martin’s government. Following the 2006 election, the newly-elected Harper government built on them with its own Federal Accountability Act, which set out various other reforms intended to prevent financial malfeasance within the government. 

While many of these changes were sensible (and arguably justified), the growing ArriveCan scandal demonstrates that there are limits to regulating impropriety out of existence. The various legislative, machinery of government, policy, and oversight changes enacted following the sponsorship scandal have proven insufficient to guarantee that this kind of breach of public trust can’t happen in the 21st century.  

A person holds a smartphone set to the opening screen of the ArriveCan app in a photo illustration made in Toronto on June 29, 2022. Giordano Ciampini/The Canadian Press.

Of note, there appears, at least so far, to be key differences in the two scandals. The biggest is the lack of a smoking gun linking the ArriveCan fiasco to the political arm of the government. ArriveCan seems to have been initiated and overseen by public servants free from political direction. At the same time, however, both the sponsorship scandal and the ArriveCan scandal do share some common elements including:

  • Glaringly poor record keeping;
  • sign-offs on invoices without proper documentation to verify receipt of goods/services received (required under section 34 of the Financial Administration Act);
  • millions in fees and commissions for little work done of value; and
  • failure of oversight mechanisms.

While it is likely too early to come to comprehensive conclusions, I am certain that there will be calls for more rules and oversight to ensure such a mess can never happen again. In this regard, let me offer up some advice from the past. I can personally verify that 20 years ago there was active consideration and discussion of putting in place reforms to strengthen deterrence and the consequences of mismanagement, including making it an offence to fail to keep a decent record of key decisions involving large sums of taxpayer money. We’ll probably hear about similar ideas again. 

I understand the impulse. But I think it’s a mistake. You can’t regulate humans, fallible as they may be, out of the government. Governing inherently comes with tradeoffs, including the risk that those who populate these systems are going to screw up or break the rules in place. This is not to absolve any particular bad actors in the ArriveCan case or any others that arise in the future; quite the opposite. It is just to say that the cost of imposing further rules—including a slower, more risk-averse, and ultimately less effective public service—isn’t worth it. Worse, adding them will not even solve the core problem, anyway.

The legacy of this debacle should not be a bureaucracy burdened by even more ineffective and easily disregarded regulations that bring us no closer to achieving what should be our main objective: genuine, enforceable oversight of the system.

Put simply, I am not convinced the system needs more rules. It needs people—particularly public service executives—to pay attention to the rules, apply them, and suffer meaningful consequences when they do not. Only with such accountability can we empower the hardworking, capable individuals in government—who make up the vast majority of the federal service—and ensure they can properly do their jobs. Canadians deserve nothing less.

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.