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Friday,  May 24, 2024 3:03 AM 

“Unacceptable gaps”: Ottawa responds to damning ArriveCAN audit

“Unacceptable gaps”: Ottawa responds to damning ArriveCAN audit
The ArriveCAN app. (Pax Global Media/file photo)
Michael Pihach

Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

ArriveCAN was meant to control the Canadian border at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Auditor General Karen Hogan says federal agencies awarded contracts to build the app without bidding, maintained shoddy financial records and failed to deliver the best value to taxpayers.

“This is probably some of the worst financial record-keeping that I’ve seen,” Hogan told the House public accounts committee on Monday (Feb. 12).

This week, Hogan released a report into the creation of ArriveCAN, an app that debuted as a mandatory requirement for entry into Canada in April 2020 and was then made optional in 2022 as a reworked Advance CBSA Declaration tool.

The report found that Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) and Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) "repeatedly failed to follow good management practices in the contracting, development and implementation of the ArriveCAN application."

READ MORE: “Illogical” & “inefficient”: Trudeau criticizes ArriveCAN contracting

CBSA previously said ArriveCAN cost $54 million to create. However, Hogan says the real cost is more like $59.5 million (but due to poor record-keeping, the true price tag may be impossible to determine).

Objectives and budgets for ArriveCAN were largely absent as the CBSA and PHAC weren’t clear from the beginning on who was in charge of the project, Hogan determined.

For example: the report found that $12.2 million of ArriveCAN’s $59.5 million estimated price tag could be unrelated to the app.

“There were multiple instances where costs we determined were related to ArriveCAN were not included and where some other costs were incorrectly included,” the report reads.

GC Strategies was the primary contractor for work on ArriveCAN, receiving an estimated $19.1 million to build the platform.

CBSA told the Auditor General that GC Strategies was granted the contract based on a proposal the company submitted, but the report disputes this.

“Deeply concerned”

Hogan said she found "omissions everywhere" in the financial record-keeping, CBC reported.

"I have to say I am deeply concerned by what this audit didn't find," Hogan told MPs on the committee.

READ MORE: T.O.-based tech company holds “hackathon” to rebuild ArriveCAN

"We didn't find records to accurately show how much was spent on what, who did the work, or how and why contracting decisions were made — and that paper trail should have existed."

CBSA depended on third-party contractors to develop the app. The report found this to be a major factor in the app’s eye-popping price tag.

Ottawa admits to “unacceptable gaps”

The Government of Canada issued a statement on Monday to address the Auditor General’s findings, saying how the report has identified “unacceptable gaps in management processes, roles and controls.”

The agency says it will create a special committee to approve contracts and task authorizations moving forward, require employees to disclose all interactions with potential vendors and increase CBSA's procurement group's capacity to oversee all activities.

“Some recommendations in the report have already been implemented,” CBSA wrote in a statement.

In addition, the PSPC will continue to strengthen the federal procurement regime and use the findings in Hogan’s report to “improve the way the Government of Canada does business with its suppliers.”

Ottawa says ArriveCAN was built “during an extraordinary time and on an emergency basis.”

“ArriveCAN data was an integral part of Canada's monitoring program for the early detection and identification of new COVID-19 variants of concern, and critical to the federal government's ability to monitor, assess, and respond to COVID-19 as it evolved,” CBSA said in a statement.

The agency added that travellers “saved significant time by using the app” – about five minutes each time they crossed the border.

“It was an effective and necessary tool to collect mandatory health information while facilitating travel and trade,” the agency said.

As reported by CBC, Hogan said she understands that public servants had to move quickly in releasing ArriveCAN, but added "an emergency is not an excuse to ignore the most basic requirements of maintaining complete and accurate records.

In its statement, the government acknowledged that the gaps found by the Auditor General are “unacceptable.”

“We are taking steps to ensure all government departments are better positioned to undertake projects of this nature in the future,” CBSA said.

The sky-high costs of ArriveCAN first surfaced in 2022 – not long after a parliamentary committee ordered federal departments to submit contracting documents related to the app as part of a study into its hefty cost.

Some say ArriveCAN shouldn’t have cost as much as it did.

A Toronto-based tech company, in 2022, held a voluntary “hackathon” earlier to rebuild the ArriveCAN with new efficiencies and features.

The developers at TribalScale said it was able to recreate ArriveCAN within less than 48 hours, and if it had built the app in the first place, it would have cost less than $1 million dollars.

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