OTTAWA – So far, the buck stops nowhere. MPs on the government operations committee have spent a year trying to untangle contracting for the ArriveCAN app and now they’re stalled trying to figure out if senior bureaucrats are lying to them. 

Public servants are supposed to work in in the shadows, so it was a jaw-dropper to watch senior bureaucrat Cameron MacDonald accuse his former boss at the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) of threatening him and lying to the government operations committee.  

MacDonald told MPs Nov. 7 that Minh Doan, then the agency’s chief technology officer, is the one who decided to hire GC Strategies, the two-person staffing firm at the centre of the committee’s probe into the ArriveCAN app that was built for travellers coming into Canada during the pandemic. 

Doan had already told the committee on Oct. 24, that “his team” had made the decision to hire GC Strategies but that he had not been “personally involved in that decision.”  

Doan basically stuck with that position Nov. 14 when he was brought back to committee, sworn under oath, to testify for a second time. He explained he was given two approaches. He could hire consulting firm Deloitte to build the app or a hybrid approach with staff building the app with the help of outside contractors. He picked the hybrid option, but he didn’t know it involved GC Strategies. 

“It was a lie that was told to this committee,” MacDonald told MPs. “Everyone knows it. We have our team here behind us. Everyone knew it was his (Doan’s) decision to make. It wasn’t mine.”  

The whole spectacle hasn’t gone over well among many public servants who worry about whether bosses will have their backs.  

The fallout is being closely watched at all levels of the public service, especially central agencies Privy Council and Treasury Board. On top of the committee probe, the RCMP and the auditor general are drawn in with separate investigations.  

It’s bad for morale and not a good look for the public service, particularly when the country’s top bureaucrat, Clerk of the Privy Council John Hannaford, has made reaffirming the values and ethics of being a public servant a top management priority.  

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And public servants across the country are watching. Some say they’re aghast, fascinated and ashamed. Others are embarrassed and bewildered. Michael Wernick, a former PCO clerk and now Jarislowsky Chair in Public Sector Management at the University of Ottawa, said it reminded him of the unravelling of the sponsorship program two decades ago, which led to the Gomery inquiry.  

No matter what the reaction is, all agree this is another blow for the public service and comes at a time when trust and confidence in it has been falling like a stone over service fiascos coming out of the pandemic. And the prospect of a new Conservative government that thinks everything is broken doesn’t help.  

Accusations of lying to Parliament are serious. If the committee believes it was misled, witnesses could be found in contempt of Parliament. That could be a career-ending blow for a public servant, who could face a reprimand, suspension or a firing. Both MacDonald and Doan came to committee with lawyers.  

Appearing at committees is part of the job. Public servants are responsible to ministers but answerable to Parliament. They follow strict guidelines when appearing at committees, where they are expected to answer questions truthfully. No opinion. Stick to what you know. Hours of work go into preparing them to be ready for any question.  

With the hyper-partisanship of politics these days, public servants’ relationship with committees has become fraught. Many say it’s becoming increasingly difficult to get public servants to volunteer for fear a misstep could land them in hot water or embarrass the government.  

But some say the committee’s unravelling of the ArriveCAN app – which began as an investigation into why it ended up costing $54 million – exposes many of the challenges the public service faces these days.  

It raises questions about the ethics of contracting, the procurement process, vendor management and leadership. One senior bureaucrat said it’s like “public servants don’t know their jobs and or their role anymore.”  

On top of that, critics have long warned about diffused accountability, fear of taking risks, speaking truth to power. And don’t forget the public service’s limited capacity to deliver with old technology and a shortage of inhouse IT talent, which has fed an unhealthy reliance on IT contractors.  

Ralph Heintzman is a former senior bureaucrat and vice-chair of the task force on values whose 1996 report became the foundation for today’s code of ethics. He said superiors who don’t take responsibility for the actions of their employees “is a failure of public service values.” 

“That immediately sows mistrust among everybody down the line, who feel those above me won’t take responsibility for my actions even though it was done under their authority,” he said.  

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Heintzman said Hannaford should intervene and use this as an opportunity to make real the work of the values and ethics task team of deputy ministers he appointed to have a government-wide discussion on what it means to be a public servant.  

“I’d say this is perfect opportunity for the clerk and his task team to start a genuine conversation about the real problems in the public service and the ethical issues they raise,” he said. 

“The exercise will only be real if it comes to grips with the real problems facing the public service. And here we’ve got a real problem, specifically values and ethics problem, where there appears to be highly questionable behaviour by a number of individuals.” 

How did they get here? 

The backstory to all this is complicated.  

The committee began hearings a year ago to find out why ArriveCAN cost so much. More recently, it zeroed in on who hired GC Strategies, the two-person staffing firm that received more than $11 million in contract work for the app.  

The committee is clearly outraged that staffing firms like GC Strategies are billing millions of dollars as middlemen. They don’t do any of the IT work, but find sub-contractors and charge commissions between 15 and 30 per cent of a contract’s value.  

The hearings, however, took a twist when Botler, a Montreal AI firm, took allegations of misconduct involving IT staffing firms to CBSA. That’s when MacDonald’s name came up.  

Botler has nothing to do with ArriveCAN. Its complaints involve GC Strategies and two other staffing agencies that worked on the app. Botler took its allegations to CBSA president Erin O’Gorman, who referred them to the RCMP. Auditor General Karen Hogan, who was already investigating ArriveCAN, expanded her probe to include Botler’s allegations. 

Both MacDonald and Doan have since been promoted. MacDonald is now an assistant deputy minister at Health Canada and Doan is now at Treasury Board as the government’s chief technology officer.  

So what’s next? 

The committee has conflicting testimony and is awaiting more documents and emails from both CBSA and Public Services and Procurement Canada to see if they can pin down who was the decision-maker, said Stephanie Kusie, the Conservatives’ Treasury Board critic.  

“What is clear is there was an abuse of taxpayer funds, but what we don’t know is by whom or why, but we will get to the bottom of it,” said Kusie, who is a former foreign-service officer.  

A big takeaway is the spotlight on IT procurement, particularly that of staffing agencies – variously called body shops, résumé shops or ghost contractors – who have a significant share of the nearly $5 billion the government spends on technology.  

This week, Procurement Minister Jean-Yves Duclos told The Globe and Mail the hearings raise questions about practices of IT staffing firms that will be looked at, such as appropriate fees for finding temporary tech talent. He told the committee a review is underway into the Botler co-founders’ allegations that their résumés were inflated and whether CV padding is a widespread problem. 

Alan Williams, a procurement expert and former assistant deputy minister of supply at Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC), said he’s alarmed because it appears neither public servants nor MPs understand how procurement works.  

He said PSPC, not CBSA, is accountable for the ArriveCAN contract, and CBSA bureaucrats were far more involved in the process with suppliers than they should have been. 

“This shows me the system is totally broken and that PSPC had no handle on it,” he said.  

“The client (CBSA’s) role is limited to saying ‘this is what I want and this is the amount of money I can afford to spend. Now go get me what I need.’ Those basic fundamentals of procurement, honestly, seem lost somewhere.” 

This article was produced with support from the Accenture Fellowship on the Future of the Public Service. Read Kathryn May’s previous articles on the future of the public service.  

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Kathryn May
Kathryn May is a reporter and the Accenture fellow on the Future of the Public Service, providing coverage and analysis of the complex issues facing Canada’s federal public service for Policy Options. She has spent 25 years covering the public service – the country’s largest workforce – and has also covered parliamentary affairs and politics for The Ottawa Citizen, Postmedia Network Inc. and iPolitics. She is also the winner of a National Newspaper Award and a Canadian Online Publishing Award. Follow Kathryn on Twitter: @kathryn_may.

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