A federal government software system designed to automate the process for hiring freelance interpreters has been delayed for a fifth time as a growing chorus — one that now includes a Senate committee — is wondering whether it should go ahead at all.

Since 2014, Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) has been preparing to launch a new procurement system, one that would replace the Translation Bureau's own staff-run system of awarding contracts to freelance interpreters.

The Official Languages Act requires French and English spoken translation for a wide range of government events, including supreme court hearings, government conferences, and parliamentary sessions.

According to the bureau, freelancers perform 60 per cent of the government's spoken translation work.

Senate committee expresses concern 

The system, which has received criticism that it could simply dole translation jobs out to the lowest bidder, is now more than a year overdue.

In an email, a PSPC spokeswoman told CBC News that the agency still intends to implement the system but is pushing back its launch from January until March to "ensure all concerns raised by stakeholders are addressed."

The government's decision to delay comes one week after the Senate committee on official languages sent a letter to Judy Foote, the minister responsible for PSPC, asking her to postpone the Jan. 23 implementation "until further notice."

Senators Claudette Tardif and Rose-May Poirier, the committee's chair and vice-chair, issued a statement in December saying that the committee was concerned that the system "could contravene principles enshrined in the Official Languages Act."

According to that statement, the committee became concerned after hearing from members of the International Association of Conference Interpreters, who represent about 200 Canadian interpreters offering freelance services.

The association — which is supported by the union representing staff at the Translation Bureau — has been public with its concern that the hiring system's algorithm could choose interpreters based on who's the cheapest, rather than selecting the interpreter best suited for the job.

Nicole Gagnon, the association's Canada region advocacy lead, told CBC News that she welcomed the decision to postpone the hiring program.

The stakes are high, Gagnon said, since the quality of the hiring decision determines whether the interpreter can deliver the promise of bilingualism guaranteed in the act.

"They'll be able to take the time to look at this a bit more closely, and see whether it needs to be reworked some more," Gagnon said.

Delays, questions, changes

The procurement tool has been plagued with glitches and delays, often related to the process of how pre-qualified interpreters are loaded into the system.

It's yet another recent example of federal software that's proven faulty, along with a "clumsy" French-English online translator and the much-maligned Phoenix payroll system.

The latest delay marks the fifth time the deadline for interpreters to add their names to the "request for standing offers" — essentially, the list of qualified interpreters available for hire — has been extended.

During information sessions this summer, the new tool failed to work correctly, with participants calling the sessions "a disaster," according to the association.

There have already been 14 changes to the request for standing offers, following close to 200 questions from freelancers since last June. 

Lowest bid only?

According to the association, the interpreters' current concern is over the government decision to have "lowest bidder" trump "best fit" in the program's algorithm when it comes to hiring interpreters for Parliament Hill.

In a list of answers provided to questions interpreters posted on buyandsell.gc.ca on Dec. 20, the government replied that "only the lowest offer principle applies."

"From the beginning we've been assured it would not apply to the parliamentary service," said Gagnon, noting that interpreting Parliament requires specialized skills — for instance, knowing how to translate legislation, policies and various bits of parliamentary lingo.

Gagnon said she fears hiring based on the lowest bid would compromise the quality of the translations — and therefore also compromise "the government's obligation under the Official Languages Act to provide quality service."

PSPC has said that the procurement tool was a "direct response" to recommendations from the Office of the Procurement Ombudsman in 2014 to both ensure transparency and reduce administrative headaches in hiring at the Translation Bureau.

"We are committed to ensuring that only high quality, certified interpreters are providing these services to the Government of Canada," wrote PSPC spokeswoman Me'shel Gulliver Bélanger in an email to CBC News.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story identified Nicole Gagnon as the president of the International Association of Conference Interpreters. She is actually the association's Canada region advocacy lead.
    Dec 28, 2016 1:20 PM ET