Feature: Canada.ca project rife with common, costly mistakes, experts say

IT professionals say problems that have plagued massive projects such as Healthcare.gov are being repeated in Canada

Tom Cochran
Tom Cochran

In February, in a cozy room in the Lord Elgin Hotel, I was part of a crowd of IT professionals and public servants attending a seminar called “Digital Transformation Under the Obama Administration: A Retrospective.”

Each of us were there to hear Tom Cochran, the former director of digital platforms at the White House. For about a half hour, he took us through the frustrating process of changing attitudes in the White House to adopt and embrace the digital tools necessary to govern efficiently. The failures along the way were numerous, and he was honest about what he saw in his tenure. Among them, the online component of former president Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, Healthcare.gov.

Though it wasn’t Cochran’s project, he saw the website’s lag times and routine failures in signing up millions of Americans for healthcare online as a “monumental disaster.”

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“It’s important to recognize there are failures, and we should not repeat these failures. I see giant IT projects failing all the time. It’s the same mistake, always: Somebody comes up with a great idea, and it gets bigger and bigger,” he told the crowd.

Cochran took a few questions at the end of his talk, and I asked him if there were any ongoing IT projects he sees in the Canadian government that are repeating mistakes he saw during his tenure at the White House.

“I can tell you one: Canada.ca.”

Bigger isn’t always better

Canada.ca is the name of website consolidation project initiated by the former Conservative government. The goal is to bring 1,500 government websites down to a single platform as a way to streamline access to government services for citizens. Project discussions began in 2013, and in 2015, Adobe and its partners were awarded a $1.54-million contract to provide a proprietary solution for the new content management system.

Page migration has already commenced, but the project’s completion has been delayed by a full year, with the most recent cost estimates ballooning to more than $9 million, according to government figures. A government spokesperson told the Ottawa Citizen last year that the project was always expected to exceed the initial contract value, but that costs remain within the “approved financial envelope,” the value of which remains unspecified.

“I don’t know if there’s a single example of a government IT project of that scale that is successful,”

Healthcare.gov faced similar challenges. Cochran says the original price for the project stood at $93 million, but quickly rose to $292 million, and by the time the website was fully delivered, total costs were well over $1 billion.

Last month, the Canadian government posted about its project on, you guessed it, Canada.ca. The post said that the new site has received 590 million visits since the project’s launch, and that mobile usage has increased by 150 per cent since 2013. However, it’s unclear if these visits are being driven by the website renewal initiative.

Cochran says that the Canada.ca project sounds well-intentioned, and there likely is room for some website consolidation, but that the scale of the project may ultimately doom it. Ottawa experts agree.

“I don’t know if there’s a single example of a government IT project of that scale that is successful,” says Mike Gifford, owner of Ottawa web consultancy OpenConcept, who also attended Cochran’s talk. “I think it’s both unrealistic and not particularly useful.”

The problem with having a single publishing system for the entire federal government is that departments often have different needs when it comes to publishing. Parks Canada and Services Canada interact differently with citizens, for example, and therefore have needs for distinct publishing tools and speeds.

Bringing dozens of government department teams onto the same page, then, is a complicated, time-consuming and costly process.

“I wouldn’t throw good money after bad money,” Cochran said when I asked how he’d fix the Canada.ca project. “That’s a hard, bitter pill to swallow. No one wants to say they messed up. But I think it’s better than continuing down the wrong road.”

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Procurement problems

Concerns of scale aside, problems with Canada.ca may have started with the procurement process itself.

Chris Smith, CEO of Ottawa-based web development company Opin, attended Cochran’s talk as well. He says the procurement proposal was not set up to genuinely consider an open-source solution. Open-source web development tools, such as the popular Drupal platform, are built, maintained and consistently updated by a community of coders.

One benefit of open-source is that there’s no vendor lock-in: It’s easy for the government to shift providers while retaining the core platform. Smith says in the current case, the government is locked into the contract, and so Adobe has a great deal of leverage to charge high licensing fees because it owns the platform.

Adobe did not respond to requests for comment on this story, but in a blog post on Adobe’s website, project executive Alexandra Noseworthy says the firm’s platform will provide the government with comprehensive oversight of its web properties. Additionally, Adobe’s solution provides built-in analytics to generate a better understanding of exactly how citizens are interacting with their government online.

“That’s a hard, bitter pill to swallow. No one wants to say they messed up. But I think it’s better than continuing down the wrong road.”

Smith says he was among the industry representatives who met with government officials before they released the request for proposals, and at that time he was given the impression that open-source solutions would be considered. But when the RFP was released, the government asked for a warranty to guarantee the platform’s security, which Smith says precluded any possible compliant open-source solution.

“The government was looking for a technology that offered a warranty … In the world of open-source, especially with Drupal, the idea of warranting the software that’s being developed for free by 100,000 developers around the world is too big of a liability for any company to take on,” he says.

As it stood, Smith says smaller companies were dwarfed by the expectations of the RFP and had little opportunity to put together a compliant bid. Ultimately, three bids were submitted, none of them based on open-source technology, and Adobe was determined to be the only compliant bidder.

Opening up to open-source

I spoke to Cochran after his talk had finished, and asked him what he felt the most important factor was in shifting an administration’s attitude to embrace technology and open-source solutions.

“You need to have a leader or leaders that are supportive and believe in it. They don’t necessarily have to understand the intricacies of technology, but they do have to understand the positive impact that it will have on the business of government,” he said.

The good news, then, is that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seems quite open to open-source, going as far as to expressly include it in his ministers’ mandate letters. “Government and its information should be open by default,” reads Minister of Public Services and Procurement Judy Foote’s letter. Gifford says Trudeau’s approach to open government is taken straight from the Obama administration.

In his new role as the public sector vice-president at international web developer Acquia, Cochran is making a point of visiting Canada because he sees opportunities for the kinds of digital transformation he was a part of in the United States.

Cochran says one of the major keys to success is in dividing government IT projects into small, doable chunks and building on those successes.

Gifford says that this compartmentalized approach, combined with the adoption of open-source technology, is the best way to provide more opportunities for local companies.

“It’d be much easier for small businesses in the Ottawa area to win bids using open-source software to work with government departments,” he says. “It’s not too late. There’s lots of ways that change can happen.”

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