What happened with ArriveCan?

How did ArriveCan, an app for screening travellers during the COVID-19 pandemic, become a spending scandal that has dogged the government for over a year?

What happened: The auditor general released her damning report on ArriveCan. She could only guess at the $59.5 million price tag because of the “worst financial record-keeping” she has seen in years.

  • Other records weren’t much better: 177 versions of the often-glitchy app were released with “little to no documentation of testing," and the AG couldn’t find records of who approved work in the first place.

Catch-up: The controversy centres on GC Strategies, a two-person firm the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) contracted to develop ArriveCan. The firm then subcontracted all of its work, adding commissions of 15% to 30%.

  • The CBSA initially estimated the app would cost $80,000, but the first contract in April 2020 was valued at $2.3 million, with several multimillion-dollar contracts to follow.
  • Canada’s procurement ombudsman found that GC Strategies regularly listed subcontractors who ultimately didn’t work on ArriveCan to win its contracts.
  • Minh Doan, the CBSA’s former chief information officer and Canada’s current chief technology officer, has denied accusations of lying about being involved with selecting GC Strategies and destroying documents.
  • One of those accusations was made by former CBSA director general Cameron MacDonald, one public official who has since been suspended in connection with the CBSA’s investigation into the matter and embroiled in related misconduct allegations.

Why it matters: The government is spending more than ever on outsourcing technology and IT work. And even though bureaucracy might feel incompatible with innovation, ArriveCan shows that tax dollars can be mismanaged when rules aren’t followed.

  • That leaves two options: update procurement processes to move as fast as the tech industry, or hire more tech talent in the public service.

What’s next: The CBSA’s investigation is ongoing, and certain matters have been referred to the RCMP. Last week, a secret report led members of a government committee to suspend its ArriveCan hearings, saying they could compromise those investigations.