Ottawa must open the books on ArriveCan’s costs

The average household, according to Statistics Canada, pays about $8,000 a year in federal income tax. Which, if my math is correct, means that 6,750 of those households have to work a full year to raise $54 million for Ottawa.

The point of the math is that $54 million is the amount the government now acknowledges spending on the ArriveCAN app, the software that until a few weeks ago was required to track the vaccination status of travelers entering the Canada.

Fifty-four million is double the cost the government recognized for ArriveCAN as recently as June. And, if a range of tech executives interviewed by another news agency are to be believed (OK, fine, that was the Globe and Mail), that’s an absolutely outrageous price. They say an app with these capabilities shouldn’t cost more than around $1 million, maybe $1.5 million max.

To make matters worse, the prime contractor is a small Ottawa company, GC Strategies, which reportedly has only a handful of employees. There is a network of contractors but the details are considered confidential and the government last week offered no substantive explanation of where all the money went, merely defending ArriveCAN as an « essential tool » in the fight against COVID.

Report the outrage: shout that this is another case of liberal mismanagement, demand transparency on the money trail, etc. Almost all of this came from the right, largely for predictable partisan reasons. For them, another stick with which to beat the Trudeau government is always welcome.

But here’s the thing: Those on the left should be just as outraged. Pissing off public money (if it turns out that’s really what happened here) is not a progressive virtue – even if it’s in a blameless cause like containing COVID. Those thousands of ordinary families who struggle month after month to pay their taxes deserve much better.

Now let’s clarify that we don’t have the full picture yet. At the very least, the government should provide full details of where those millions went and to whom.

It’s highly likely that the $54 million includes more than just app development. Compliance with privacy rules, accessibility, testing, training, etc. would all add up. Maybe the tech experts who say it could have been done for a million or so are comparing apples to fruit salad.

But even if they’re way off and a reasonable price would be a dozen times what they claim, that still leaves tens of millions of dollars unaccounted for. Twitter is on fire with (so far unsubstantiated) claims that the money was funneled to liberal-friendly contractors.

The government needs to do more than just brag, as Liberal MP Anthony Housefather did in the Commons last Friday when he claimed that ArriveCAN « has saved tens of thousands of lives », which on the face of it is simply ridiculous.

The public has every right to be skeptical. Governments have a terrible track record when it comes to developing computer systems, regardless of which party is in power. To cite just one glaring example, Ottawa’s Phoenix payroll system originally cost $309 million in 2009 under the Conservatives; last April, it sucked in $2.4 billion and it is still plagued with problems.

With COVID, or at least its most acute phase, mostly in the rearview mirror, many are now calling for surveys to learn lessons from the inevitable next time around. It’s also time to take a hard look at where the money went, not just for ArriveCAN.

We have learned during the pandemic that people are willing to support spending on government programs that they deem useful. They are even willing to accept a certain amount of waste when governments respond to a real emergency that demands speed, not overly careful accounting.

But to the extent that waste is ignored or, worse, concealed, it will withdraw that support. The government should ensure that this does not happen here. It should open the books on ArriveCAN.

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