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ArriveCan fiasco reflects the failure of taxpayer fund appropriation

The mismanagement and misappropriation of funds for the infamous ArriveCan app reflects the callousness of our government in handling a severe situation and wasting millions of taxpayer dollars for an app that did not work to begin with, and is completely useless now. This problem originated from Ottawa’s quarantine measures during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, which mandated a 14-day isolation period for arrivals in Canada, along with self-monitoring for symptoms. In a (failed) attempt to improve the tracking of travelers, there was a move to switch from paper records to electronic ones, resulting in the launch of the ArriveCan app in April of 2020. 

The Auditor General of Canada, Karen Hogan, published a recent report highlighting approximately $60 million taxpayer dollars that were spent on an app that was originally projected to cost in the range of $80,000. The report further admits that it cannot be sure of the exact expense (which may be significantly more) due to poor management of financial records by the Canada Border Services Agency. The project’s problems stem from the absence of clear leadership, non-competitive contracts, and inadequate due diligence – all things that stray from Canada’s public procurement policies. 

How was a business headquartered out of a cottage basement awarded lucrative contracts with little documentation or transparency? GC Strategies, the “agency” that was granted the ArriveCan contract, publicly states that they do not specialize in or provide IT services themselves. The company’s success in securing contracts appears to have extended across various government agencies, and recent reports from Radio-Canada and La Presse reveal that the total value of the contracts awarded to the company has exceeded $200 million since 2016. Below, we take a look at some of the major events relating to ArriveCan. 

Launch of ArriveCan App (April 2020) 

– Quarantine measures in Canada lead to the launch of the ArriveCan app to track travelers electronically in April 2020. 

– The ArriveCan app is made optional for international travelers in October 2022.

Mismanagement and Oversight Issues (2020-2022) 

– Poor financial records and lack of control lead to the mismanagement of funds allocated for the ArriveCan app. 

– The Public Health Agency of Canada and Canada Border Services Agency fail to take charge of the project. 

– Non-competitive contracts are awarded with little documentation or transparency. – Inadequate testing of the app results in incorrect instructions and false positives/negatives to users. 

– 177 versions rolled out, with at least one version wrongly instructing more than 10,000 people to quarantine for 14 days. 

Focus on GC Strategies 

– GC Strategies, a four-person “tech” firm, is awarded significant contracts for the ArriveCan app, despite a lack of documentation supporting contract procurement. 

– Concerns are raised about the procurement process favouring GC Strategies.

Audit Findings and Recommendations 

– Auditor General Karen Hogan releases a report highlighting the mismanagement and lack of oversight in the development of the ArriveCan app. 

– In almost 20 per cent of reviewed invoices, the audit could not be sure if the expenses (to the tune of over $12 million) were related to the app or another project. 

– Non-competitive contracts were awarded with little to no paper trails, even when time was allowed for a competitive process. 

– No clear directions were given by or provided to the government around the scope of work or deadlines. 

– Canada Border Services Agency employees were invited to dinners and other activities by contractors, and there is no evidence to show whether acceptance of this hospitality complied with the government’s code of conduct. 

– A separate report from the federal procurement ombudsman found that the criteria used to award contracts to GC Strategies was overly restrictive and favoured the firm. 

Ongoing Investigations and Accountability Efforts 

– Parliamentary committees and the federal procurement ombudsman continue to investigate the procurement process for the ArriveCan app. 

– Regrettably, as described by Don Martin of CTV News, there is a bombshell report from the procurement ombudsman that is so “scary” that MP’s have deferred hearings on its findings. – Calls for accountability and transparency persist as Canadians seek answers relating to the severe mismanagement of taxpayer funds. 

– With the ArriveCan app being a prime example, mismanagement has been found in other places. Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux has stated that the cost of federal government outsourcing will soon hit a record $21.4 billion per year, the increase mostly comprised of an increase in IT personnel. 

Despite calls for improved contracting practices, the mismanagement of the ArriveCan app has revealed systematic issues with government processes, raising questions about government oversight and accountability. While many pandemic programs were largely controlled, the ArriveCan app is a uniquely flawed example that raises questions about the management of taxpayer funds – years later, Canadians see no accountability and still don’t have the answers to why this project went so wrong.