Perhaps every government gets the spending scandal it deserves.
During the last Conservative government’s time in office, it was the G8 Legacy Fund — $50 million used to spruce up a cabinet minister’s riding, nominally for the purposes of celebrating the hosting of the G8 summit in 2010. The auditor general found that Parliament wasn’t informed and no paper trail existed to explain how the projects were selected.
The resulting controversy was big enough that even a young parliamentary secretary named Pierre Poilievre had to field questions about it.
Given that experience, one might have expected Poilievre to be more guarded in his response to the Liberal government’s ArriveCan troubles. Instead, the Conservative leader is committed to the idea that the ill-fated app — “ArriveScam,” the Conservatives call it — is indicative of a profligate and incompetent government.
“He took $60 million of your dollars and put it into this ArriveScam,” Poilievre told Canadians during a news conference on Monday. “Think of that when you see homeless people who can’t afford a place to live. Justin Trudeau took their money for this ArriveScam app.”
In fairness, the Liberal government is already committed to spending $4 billion to alleviate homelessness (although $60 million toward that effort certainly wouldn’t hurt).
There is undoubtedly much to be said — and asked — about the ArriveCan endeavour. But it’s not clear (and not for the first time) that any elected official is ready or willing to think about it too deeply.
The politics of a botched contracting process
The government’s very limited defence involves the plea that the app was being developed in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic — that time was of the essence.
But the unique circumstances and demands of the moment scarcely offer a fig leaf to cover what the auditor general laid bare on Monday.
“Overall, this audit shows a glaring disregard for basic management and contracting practices throughout ArriveCan’s development and implementation,” Karen Hogan told reporters. “I don’t believe that an emergency is a reason that all the rules are thrown out the window.”
Hogan’s report also may not be the last word. The Canada Border Services Agency is doing its own investigation and has referred matters related to “certain employees and contractors” to the RCMP.
If there is a mitigating factor here for the Liberals, it’s that the mess is contained to the public service side of the government. No ministers or political staff have been linked to the app’s contracting and development.
Not that the lack of any such connection stopped the Conservatives from invoking the prime minister as much as possible when discussing ArriveCan on Monday.
“Will the prime minister not admit the app is just like him, not worth the cost and not worth the corruption?” Poilievre asked during question period.
“Why did the prime minister rig the process so that insiders get rich and taxpayers foot the bill?” asked Conservative MP Stephanie Kusie, asserting claims that are not in evidence.
There are echoes here of the spending controversy that gripped the imaginations of opposition MPs almost exactly a year ago. In that case, the furor concerned the federal government’s spending on outside consultants. That controversy ran hot right up to the point where attempts to draw a political connection reached a dead end.
If the case of ArriveCan has more staying power, it’s because there may actually be corruption to uncover and because it’s easier to understand as a simple waste of public money. The app is also a tidy symbol for what the Conservatives argue is a wasteful government.
But like that brief burst of interest in the public service’s use of consultants (namely, McKinsey) the hunt for a political angle may be obscuring bigger questions about how the federal government works and what needs to be done to make it work better.
The bigger questions
On Monday, Poilievre said a Conservative government would “slash the waste” and “respect your tax dollars.” He also said he would ensure that the public service does more IT work in-house.
“We want to cut back on outside consultants because public servants do the work more accountably and more affordably,” he said.
A CBC reporter asked the necessary follow-up: Wouldn’t that require investments to ensure the federal public service has the people and skills it needs to do that work?
Presumably, if the public service already possessed the capabilities necessary to make something like ArriveCan, it wouldn’t be turning so often to outside contractors.
“But why is it the public service doesn’t have these skills?” Poilievre asked, apparently unsure of the answer himself.
The Conservative leader noted that the size of the public service has grown since Trudeau’s government came to office in 2015 — and he’s not wrong. But that growth came after several years of steep cuts by the previous government. Relative to the size of the Canadian population, the public service was still smaller in 2023 than it was in 1984.
But size may be only one part of the equation.
Fourteen months ago, three experts in government and technology wrote that ArriveCan was just a small aspect of a much larger move by the public service toward the use of private IT vendors.
“A lack of public-sector digital talent and resources, unhelpful internal rules and processes, and an outdated procurement model have trapped Ottawa in a system where high-cost, low-value contracting with private firms has become standard practice,” they wrote in an op-ed for the Globe and Mail.
A few months later, one of those experts — Amanda Clarke, an associate professor at Carleton University’s school of public policy and administration — told a committee looking into the contracts for McKinsey that the reliance on management consultants is not an accident.
“It’s an inevitable dynamic of a public service that has suffered from a lack of investment in talent and recruitment and in reforming HR practices to make it easier to bring people in,” Clarke said.
“Also, I think over the years it has suffered from unhelpful oversight and reporting burdens and a kind of error-free ‘gotcha’ mentality in a lot of scrutiny, and the demands for error-free government make it very difficult to be creative and innovative in the public service.”
The Liberals may have come into office with a belief in the power of government to do good things. And they may have done a fair bit to restock the public service. But the controversies of the past year — and Clarke’s comments — raise important questions about how much has been done to build a better government.
And it’s not obvious that the Conservative leader is interested in smarter government, rather than merely smaller government.