Opposition MPs hammer head of PHAC over ArriveCAN app

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Opposition MPs hammered the head of the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) on Tuesday for its role in not tightly overseeing the $59 million spent on the ArriveCAN app, but failed to get answers to repeated demands asking who made decisions.

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) and the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) both worked on the requirements and development of the app, used by travelers to collect their contact and health information when they entered Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic. But as a report by Auditor General Karen Hogan last week spelled out, for the first year and a half, neither agency watched spending or set goals.

In testimony Tuesday before the House of Commons public accounts committee, Hogan said confusion between PHAC and CBSA “led to an accountability void that persisted for close to a year and a half. Each believed that the other was responsible for establishing a governance structure, and neither developed nor implemented good project management practices such as developing objectives and goals, budgets and cost estimates.”

There were oversight failures on ArriveCAN at many layers, Hogan added — contracting, project management, bookkeeping, and IT management. In fact, she said, these were worse than the notorious Phoenix project, which failed to deliver a modern federal public service payment system.

PHAC, which reports to the Minister of Health, responds to public health threats.

Treasury Board Secretariat — which sets policies for the public service — asked bureaucrats during the pandemic to be more flexible and do things quickly, Hogan said, but it also said departments had to still ensure accountability. “So why were the recommendations from Treasury Board not respected?” Hogan asked. “That’s a question you should put to the department.”

The ArriveCAN project started in 2020, but it wasn’t until April 1, 2022 that CBSA took full responsibility for the app. However, Hogan said, as the initial business owner of the app, the Public Health Agency was responsible for establishing the governance structure until then.

That put Heather Jeffrey, current president of PHAC, who was posted to her role in February 2023 after serving as Associate Deputy Minister of Health, in the committee’s spotlight.

“In the face of a global pandemic, with multiple lines of operation across borders, vaccine procurement, therapeutics, and all the other aspects of public health response meant insufficient attention was paid to the governance structure of this project,” Jeffrey said, “which we regret and which we have undertaken to rectify in the future.”

Who decided that there wouldn’t initially be governance, asked the NDP’s Blake Desjarlais.

“The intense nature of the collaboration [with CBSA] meant these teams were meeting on a daily or even weekly basis,” Jeffrey replied. “There was no deliberate decision to not put in a governance structure.”

This was “a dramatic failure, and one that has cost Canadians millions,” said Desjarlais. “We cannot simply say that there were good intentions between CBSA and the Public Health Agency of Canada. They met every week but failed to address the questions of governance and cost.”

The meetings of the two agencies in 2020 were focused on the “significant time pressure to develop an app that would allow the border to permit the flow of critical people and goods,” Jeffrey answered. “The operational outcomes were the overriding subject of conversations.”

Did the Health Minister at the time, Patty Hajdu, or the Clerk of the Privacy Council — the most senior bureaucrat — ask about the costs, asked Conservative Larry Brock.

Jeffrey replied that she wasn’t at PHAC at the time, and didn’t know.

“The ArriveCAN boondoggle has to have consequences,” said Brock, “and it’s little comfort that PHAC says it will do better next time.” Other than two officials suspended for allegations around the selection of GC Strategies to contract out work on the app, have another other employees been suspended, he asked.

No, replied Jeffrey. There have been no findings of wrongdoing in investigations into PHAC employees, she added.

“Can you agree with me the cabinet ministers at the time and the Prime Minister should step up and accept responsibility for this mess?” Brock asked.

“The governance of ArriveCAN was managed within the public service,” Jeffrey said. “As deputy head of the Public Health Agency, I take responsibility for its management.”

Two committee hearings into the reports of the Auditor General and the Procurement Ombudsman into ArriveCAN and contracts awarded to GC Strategies continue.

The post Opposition MPs hammer head of PHAC over ArriveCAN app first appeared on IT World Canada.
Howard Solomon
Howard Solomonhttps://www.itworldcanada.com
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of ITWorldCanada.com and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including ITBusiness.ca and Computer Dealer News. Before that I was a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times.

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