Federal government's Canada.ca project 'off the rails'

The federal government's bid to merge 1,500 websites into a single site is a year behind schedule and almost 10 times over budget. Experts warn it could be the next debacle, like the Phoenix pay system.

Initiative to merge 1,500 federal websites into one is behind schedule and over budget

A project to bring all federal government websites under one address, Canada.ca, is behind schedule and over budget. (Canada.ca)

The federal government's bid to merge 1,500 departmental and agency websites into a single site, Canada.ca, is a year behind schedule and almost 10 times over budget. And experts warn it is on track to be another failed government IT project, like the Phoenix pay system.

"It's gone off the rails. It's a disaster," said one government source with knowledge of the project who spoke on condition of anonymity.

CBC spoke with a number of government workers who are also familiar with the project in different departments and they all expressed similar evaluations.

The Canada.ca initiative was launched in 2013 with the goal of making it easier for people to find and use government information online. A $1.54-million contract for a new content management system, where all government websites would be moved, was awarded to Adobe in 2015.

The original deadline to have all active web content moved to the single portal was this month. But in June, it was pushed back to December 2017, which was the initial deadline for the migration of all archived content.

The contract with Adobe is now above $9.4 million, according to government figures.

The actual migration of the websites is up to the departments themselves and is to be done within existing budgets and staffing. Since 2015, eight of the largest departments have budgeted or spent more than $28 million on this project.

Those departments include: Employment and Social Development; Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship; Health; Environment; Canada Revenue Agency; National Defence; Fisheries and Oceans; and Global Affairs.

We're talking about it ultimately costing hundreds of millions of dollars. It's not a small price ticket.- Mike Gifford, CEO, Open Concept

According to the government, only 10,000 web pages have been moved to date. There are more than 17 million Government of Canada web pages in total.

"If it's cost them already 10 times their existing budget to migrate only 0.05 per cent of the content for the Government of Canada, we're talking about it ultimately costing hundreds of millions of dollars. It's not a small price ticket," said Mike Gifford, CEO of Ottawa-based web development company Open Concept, who has written articles criticizing the government's approach to Canada.ca.

New deadline 'impossible'

Based on the current timeline, Gifford said he thinks the December 2017 deadline is unrealistic. He's not alone.

"Absolutely impossible to achieve," said Timothy Lethbridge, who teaches software engineering and computer science at the University of Ottawa. "And I'm sure many people inside the project know it."

There's also a good chance of the project failing altogether, Lethbridge said, because large IT projects are exponentially more complex. "As a project of this size gets bigger, the probability of failure goes up."

If the government spread the work out over a number of years and spent a billion dollars, it might be able to make the migration a success, Lethbridge said. But he questioned whether taxpayers would be getting value for money at that point.

According to the government, only 10,000 web pages have been moved to date. There are more than 17 million Government of Canada web pages in total. (Edgar Su/Reuters)

This is not the first large government IT project to run into problems.

The government will spend at least $50 million this year to try to fix problems with the new Phoenix pay system, which has seen thousands of public servants underpaid, overpaid or not paid at all.

The initiative to transform the government's email system has been stalled for months because of problems with new software.

And Shared Services Canada, the agency created in 2011 to modernize IT-related services in government, has been slammed for its many missteps, particularly by the auditor general.

"There's a trend," said Robin Galipeau, managing partner of OpenPlus, a content architecture company. "There's definitely something going on there. Large renewal projects in IT are failing in government."

OpenPlus, along with Dell and Microsoft, submitted a bid to create the new CMS for Canada.ca.

Ministers refuse to comment

According to OpenPlus Chief Technology Officer Joel Brockbank, the federal government continues to erroneously believe there are one-size-fits-all software solutions for its IT goals.

"There never is," he said. "It's like your cross-trainer running shoes. It's not good for anything that you do."

The key to not having large IT projects fail, Brockbank said, is to simply not do them. Instead, such projects should be done in stages or "bite-size chunks."

Treasury Board President Scott Brison is one of three ministers responsible for Canada.ca who declined to comment on the project. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

None of the ministers whose departments are involved in the Canada.ca migration project were willing to comment when contacted by CBC News.

Treasury Board President Scott Brison, Social Development Minister Yves Duclos and Public Services and Procurement Minister Judy Foote all declined requests. As did Michel Laviolette, the director general of Service Canada, and John Messina, the federal government's chief information officer.

"That tells me they have something to hide," said Debi Daviau, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, the union representing many of the government's IT workers.

"If they're unwilling to be transparent about the decisions they make, that calls those decisions into question."


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