Border agency slashed external IT contracts after Arrivescam, claims senior exec

Erin O’Gorman, president of the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), said they have 68 fewer IT contracts since last May. However, the border agency will always need some outside help, she claims.

Border agency slashed external IT contracts after Arrivescam, claims senior exec
The Canadian Press / Sean Kilpatrick and The Canadian Press / Adrian Wyld
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The federal agency responsible for Arrivescam claims to have cut consulting contracts after unearthing a $59.5 million boondoggle.

Erin O’Gorman, president of the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), testified Wednesday that more work has been kept in-house since their disastrous experience with the pandemic application.

“We’ve reduced our consulting footprint; at the start of the fiscal year we had 25 fewer consultants than at the same time last year, and today we have 68 fewer consultants working in the CBSA,” she said

The parliamentary committee learned the agency reduced IT consultants from 243 a year ago to 175.

O’Gorman told MPs that despite the initial $80,000 bill skyrocketing to nearly $60 million, the app remained glitchy.

According to Auditor General Karen Hogan, contractors and federal employees failed to properly test the pandemic aid with 177 different versions of the app rolled out between April 2020 and October 2022. 

Parliament launched Arrivescam in April 2020 for travellers to upload mandatory health information, such as vaccination status, at border crossings.

“We found little documentation showing that the Canada Border Services Agency completed testing prior to releasing new versions of ArriveCan,” reads a February 12 report COVID-19 Pandemic from the Auditor General’s Office.

The lack of tests led to one version of the app, released in late June 2022, sending more than 10,000 people into a 14-day quarantine, reported The National Post.

Auditor General Hogan estimated Arrivescam costs at $59.5 million, with contractor GC Strategies receiving the lion's share at $19.1 million. 

Tory Leader Pierre Poilievre earlier told reporters that the federal public service must do more IT work. He claimed they would do the work “with more accountability” and “do it more affordable.”

“When you’re Prime Minister, how will you make that happen, given that you’re looking at cuts?” asked a reporter. “We know that because public servants don’t cost $1990.00 a day — they cost significantly less than that,” replied Poilievre.

Arrivescam contractor GC Strategies subcontracted all IT work to several companies, charging between a 15% and 30% commission rate. The firm billed Ottawa for the project between $1,000 to $1,500 per worker daily. 

The average per diem cost for external resources nearly doubled ($675) that of equivalent IT positions in the public service.

O’Gorman said while the government has reduced the number of IT contracts, she said the border agency will always need some outside help but is trying to ensure that consultants also provide information to CBSA staff.

“It wouldn’t be economical or feasible to hire all the depth of IT talent we need,” she said. “We are making a concerted effort to have a knowledge transfer.”

In COVID-19 Pandemic, Auditor General Hogan found the public service lacked the skills to do the IT work necessary for projects like Arrivescam. “So wouldn’t you need to train them, and wouldn’t that cost money?”

“Why is it that the public service doesn’t have these skills?” he posed. “It’s insane.” 

“We’ve increased the size of the public service by 50% under Justin Trudeau,” said Poilievre, “and none of those 100,000 extra people have the skills to design an app that a couple of IT workers separately, and as a joke, designed in a single weekend.”

A Parliamentary committee in February ordered a ten-year audit into all ArriveCan contractors to further investigate ‘irregularities’ with the faulty application. 

“We must have the truth,” said Poilievre. “These are incredible revelations.”

Nearly half of the 140 contracts received by GC Strategies, totalling $258 million, were handed out by the border agency, reported La Presse

In her report, Hogan blasted the CBSA for not following “good management practices in the contracting, development, and implementation of the ArriveCAN application.” 

Among the contracts include 46 that involved a non-competitive application process—including a $2.35 million Arrivescam contract in April 2020. “This gave [them] an advantage that other potential bidders did not have,” she said. 

Public Services and Procurement Canada has since paused all contracts with GC Strategies, at the request of the CBSA, who continues to pursue an internal investigation and has already referred issues on employee conduct and contractors to the RCMP.

Conservative MP John Nater asked the CBSA president for details on what documents had been turned over and who the RCMP interviewed from the agency. O’Gorman said she was not tracking the RCMP investigation into her agency, which Nater questioned.

“Your lack of curiosity about an ongoing criminal investigation involving your department is surprising,” Nater said. 

O’Gorman said the RCMP don’t report to her and investigators can have any information they need for their investigation.

“It’s not a lack of curiosity. It’s a respect for the police investigation,” she said. “If I asked employees to report to me on what documents they may have provided to the RCMP or interviews I would be sitting here being accused of interfering in a police investigation.”

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