Federal government to downsize failing Canada.ca project

The federal government is substantially curtailing the multimillion-dollar Canada.ca project, which had aimed to merge 1,500 departmental and agency websites into a single website, but is behind schedule and over budget.

Ottawa is 'refocusing' the IT initiative, says a spokesperson for Treasury Board head Scott Brison

The federal government is substantially curtailing the multimillion-dollar Canada.ca project, acknowledging that its plan to merge 1,500 departmental and agency websites into a single website is sputtering. 

Instead of migrating all departments and agencies to a single platform, the $11.8 million earmarked for the project will be used government wide, with a focus on four of the largest departments offering services most used by Canadians: health, environment, Canada Revenue Agency, and immigration.

Those departments will have until the end of this year to migrate their content to the new platform.

"The 2012 plan to migrate all government web content to the Canada.ca platform underdelivered from the beginning in part due to poor project management, planning and underfunding from the outset by the previous Conservative government," said Jean-Luc Ferland, press secretary to Scott Brison, president of the Treasury Board.

"We are refocusing project funds where they can make the biggest impact to improve Canadians' online experiences."

Scott Brison, president of the Treasury Board, has said valuable lessons have been learned from recent failures of large government IT projects. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Most telling about the government's flagging support for the initiative is that remaining departments and agencies will not be compelled to continue.

"Other departments will continue to have the option of migrating content to Canada.ca as resources and technology advances allow," said Ferland.

Over budget and behind schedule

The Canada.ca initiative was launched 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.

But as CBC reported at the end of last year, the project is more than 10 times over budget and more than a year behind schedule, making it yet another failing government IT project, not unlike the Phoenix pay system or the email transformation initiative. It's also another project the Liberal government is blaming on its predecessor.

A government source not authorized to speak on the record said the decision to pare down the Canada.ca initiative, yet allow it to limp along, was making the best of a bad situation.

"It's like we walked into the kitchen where the meal is poorly planned and off to a rough start. Some dishes were forgotten, grill is overstuffed ... your herbs are wilting on the counter. You don't freak out and throw everything out. The responsible thing to do is to focus on your guests and make the most of everything you have."

Tens of millions spent so far

In response to inquiries from CBC, the Treasury Board conceded that as of June, only 230,542 pages were hosted on Canada.ca, up from the 10,000 tabulated six months ago, but still an incredibly slow rate of movement over to the new portal.

There are more than 17 million government of Canada web pages in total.

As well, the Adobe contract has ballooned to more than $14.9 million, according to government figures. That does not include the tens of millions spent by departments and agencies that are responsible themselves for the actual migration of the websites, using existing budgets and staffing. 

Since 2015, eight of the largest departments have spent or budgeted nearly $32 million on the project. Those departments include:

  • Employment and Social Development Canada.
  • Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship.
  • Health.
  • Environment.
  • Canada Revenue Agency.
  • National Defence.
  • Fisheries and Oceans.
  • Global Affairs. 

A slow migration

"This is great news from a taxpayer's perspective," said Joel Brockbank, chief technology officer at OpenPlus, a content archictecture company that had submitted a bid to create the new content management system for Canada.ca

"These large IT renewals have a lot of momentum and it's difficult to change course if it's not going as planned. It's amazing they are not doubling down and putting a lot more money into something that will ultimately fail."

Experts who have warned against unmanageable, large, one-size-fits-all government IT projects agree.

"To focus the money on key sites which Canadians use most is the right decision," said Timothy Lethbridge who teaches software engineering and computer science at the University of Ottawa. 

The December deadline for the four big departments is probably still unrealistic, according to Lethbridge, but the idea of letting other departments off the hook is smart.

"To slowly migrate, as time permits, is more cost effective than a forced death march to get to an artificial deadline," he said.

A time to cut losses

A government source with first-hand knowledge of the Canada.ca project, and who was speaking on condition of anonymity, said IT government workers have been told that none of the government's arm's-length agencies have been moving their material over to the new site for some time.

"In fact we are not even talking about Canada.ca anymore," said the source, adding "the vast majority of the content on government sites is not being migrated at all.

"It probably just won't happen."

The source also suggested that with the decision to make it optional for the remaining departments and agencies to move content over to the new platform, most departments would be wise to cut their losses and stop.

"If they continue down this path, they'll pay down the line anyway because the new Adobe platform is a piece of junk," he said, explaining it takes an unreasonable amount of time to publish basic content on it.

But if some departments opt out while the big four are forced in, that raises questions about the future of Canada.ca. 

The government insists it is still committed to providing Canadians with a single point of access to government services online, but also says a "strong directional change" is coming for all its digital services.