Feds spent tens of millions setting up pandemic relief call centre

The Trudeau Liberals gave Accenture PLC $208,087,625 to offer interest-free loans to small businesses during the COVID pandemic. Their duties included running a call centre for relief applicants and bringing financial institutions on board.

Feds spent tens of millions setting up pandemic relief call centre
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Federal auditors have their work cut out for them following another investigation involving millions in payments to a federal contractor.

As reported by Blacklock’s Reporter, Accenture PLC received $208,087,625 to offer $60,000 in interest-free loans to small businesses (CEBA) during the pandemic. The figure was disclosed last May 30 in the Senate.

The firm worked with more than 230 financial institutions and deployed more than 150 call centre agents at the program's height. Their duties included running a call centre for pandemic relief applicants and bringing financial institutions on board.

Yet, MPs on the Commons public accounts committee remained puzzled by the exuberant $208 million cost. An earlier access-to-information request pegged the costs at $61 million.

“We have already begun looking into the program,” said Auditor General Karen Hogan. “We are intending to make this public by November,” she added. 

However, delays may arise in acquiring the necessary information and the financial data, according to Hogan. “It is already underway,” she reiterated.

In 2020, Export Development Canada received oversight of the Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA) program, deciding against an open bid process among consultancy firms.

“We had an arrangement with Accenture that was supporting Export Development Canada on other matters,” testified EDC CEO Mairead Lavery. 

“That meant we were able to avoid what would be a six to eight-month ‘request for proposal’ procurement cycle to get the funding in the hands of companies,” she added.

Accenture claimed it had CEBA operational within two weeks of receiving the project. 

Neither cabinet nor Export Development Canada (EDC) disclosed that when Accenture disseminated funds to struggling businesses, reported Blacklock’s Reporter.

“There were 31 contracts that covered several activities that Accenture performed over the period for when the program was launched,” testified Lavery. She confirmed no other contractors bid on the program.

“Can you clarify that it was sole sourced to Accenture?” asked Conservative MP Arnold Viersen. “Yes, it was,” replied Lavery.

“You said there were 31 contracts with this company; were all of them sole-sourced?” asked Viersen. “Yes, they were,” replied Lavery.

“Is that normal?” asked Viersen. “There were different components to the contract which I guess no one anticipated at the start,” replied Lavery.

Ultimately, the Crown corporation outsourced CEBA to lend money to businesses they considered "too risky to support" that fell outside its core expertise as an export credit agency, as first reported by The Globe and Mail.

"Accenture also supports the day-to-day operations of CEBA and the ongoing buildout of collections infrastructure to ensure the government is set up for the future collection of the non-forgivable portion of CEBA loans upon loan maturity," said EDC spokesperson Shelley MacLean in a statement last year.

On April 9, 2020, Ottawa announced the creation of CEBA. They sent $49.2 billion to 898,271 businesses as of January 26, 2022.

According to a federal order paper question, Parliament identified over 50,000 businesses deemed ineligible for receiving the loan despite already receiving it from government coffers. They collectively owed over $2 billion and had to repay their loans immediately.

Briefing materials unveiled that up to August 13, 2021, Accenture delivered $61.2 million of the $78.4 million in aid through CEBA. All costs afterward were redacted until now.

Lavery also testified that costs included expenses from the call centre to allegedly field 10,000 calls a day, reported Blacklock’s Reporter. “The call centre was one of the individual activities Accenture performed,” she said.

However, Bloc Québécois MP Nathalie Sinclair-Desgagné disputed the claim. “I find it hard to believe there were 10,000 calls a day,” said the MP. “Why did people have to call a number managed by Accenture when they were dealing directly with financial institutions?”

“How many employees were there at the call centre?” asked Sinclair-Desgagné. “I would have to check but we reached up to 150 employees in the call centre,” replied Lavery.

Sinclair-Desgagné condemnes the $208 million cost as nonsensical. “I find it hard to understand how a government can set up a program during the pandemic, delegate it to an agency that then delegates it to a contractor,” she said. 

“I don’t know why this company had to spend tens of millions of dollars to set up a call centre and a website. It is astonishing.”

Last February 13, the operations committee expanded a probe into consultancy contracts to include Accenture, after MPs found Accenture's involvement with CEBA "alarming."

"We assumed it was running through the public service," said NDP MP Gord Johns. "We didn't know this until now."

At the time, the firm acquired $67 million in contracts during the pandemic, including $18 million to help deliver individual benefits.

The EDC redacted a cost breakdown for how much the firm charged under an exemption for protecting the confidential information of third parties. Neither EDC nor Accenture admitted the contract’s total value.

The House committee probing government contracts have ballooned from $50 million a year a decade ago to half a billion dollars now.

Johns said increased reliance on outsourcing means higher costs to taxpayers and a diminished public service capacity to deliver programs. He expressed concerns it could become a self-reinforcing cycle.

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