Federal contracting issues could lead to more Arrivescam scandals: report

‘The federal government breaks almost all globally accepted best practices for IT procurement, a reality which explainx why we have scandals like the ArriveCAN debacle,' reads an IT report.

Federal contracting issues could lead to more Arrivescam scandals: report
The Canadian Press / Giordano Ciampini
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A new research paper found federal IT procurement rules are so terrible they violate most globally accepted practices.

Canada’s lengthy and costly contracts facilitated a “dearth of in-house competency,” it reads. 

“The federal government breaks almost all globally accepted best practices for modern public sector IT procurement, a reality which we argue helps explain why we have scandals like the ArriveCAN debacle that’s still unfolding,” wrote author and Carleton associate professor Amanda Clarke.

“More importantly, we argue that unless we reform federal IT procurement so that it gets up to speed with widely accepted best practice in the field, any attempts to drive forward meaningful digital reform in the Government of Canada are bound to fail.”

Government has yet to learn from its mistakes with IT contracting, according to the research paper.

“I haven’t heard anything concrete about whether or not we’re going to see mandated open source,” Clarke said in an interview.

Notably insufficient open source recruitment was a problem. Since 2017, nearly a quarter of the $20 billion spent on IT contracts has gone to either IBM Canada, Bell Canada or Microsoft Canada.

“We [also] haven’t heard anything about an interest in bringing in concrete IT spend controls,” she said.

Government IT spending exploded under the Trudeau government, the authors noted. Spending on IT consulting leapt from $1.17 billion in 2017 to $1.82 billion in 2021.

“You’re probably going to see more ArriveCan-type debacles, certainly you’re going to see more of these bound-to-fail projects,” Clarke said.

The study also articulates greater reliance on IT consultants than department staff, with the ratio of IT contractors to government staff as high as 151% at Public Services and Procurement Canada. 

Clarke considers this a “striking imbalance” against multiple government departments, including Canada Border Services Agency (131%) and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (109%).

“Such a ratio would be unimaginable in other core public sector job categories, such as policy analysis, program evaluation, or communications, and is particularly striking given the central role that the IT function plays in delivering key public services in the digital age,” reads the report.

Clarke also noted public service IT salaries are “laughably off” compared to the private sector.

The report proposes multiple solutions to fix federal m IT services and procurement, though implementation is likely years away.

“If you don’t give them power, they’re just going to get ushered away with the other government house elves,” said Clarke. “They’re going to leave because they’ll be completely unfulfilled, and they could make much more money elsewhere.” 

Cutting all IT consulting spending suddenly would land the government in similar hot water, she added.

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