More transparency needed in federal contracting

Posted on May 9, 2013 in Governance Debates – opinion/editorials – Stephen Harper’s government should provide more details on the services that taxpayers buy.
May 09 2013.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government likes to present itself as a responsible steward of our taxes with a tight grip on what its agencies are doing. So it’s a bit rich to learn that there’s little public transparency for hundreds of millions of dollars it quietly spends on management consulting in any given year.

A Star investigation by Jesse McLean and Andrew Bailey has revealed that most federal departments are ignoring guidelines that explicitly encourage them to “provide a brief description of each contract so that the public may benefit from additional context.” The Star found that 90 per cent of the $2.4 billion paid out over the past decade comes with little or no description on disclosure sites. That’s hardly accountability.

This isn’t the first time transparency has surfaced as an issue. A study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in 2011 raised concerns about soaring costs driven by a “shadow public service” of consultants, contractors and temporary workers.

All the more reason, then, for the federal Treasury Board Secretariat to take a tougher approach with balky federal departments and turn disclosure “guidelines” that contract details be made public into a formal requirement.

It can be done. The Office of the Auditor General of Canada, for example, reported that it paid consulting firm Hay Group Limited $26,695 in 2012 to “conduct an employee satisfaction survey.” That’s pretty straightforward.

It certainly beats the vague description of the services that were provided by Quantum Management Services, one if the government’s largest partners. The company won contracts worth more than 70 per cent of the $129 million spent by Service Canada, part of Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. Opaque government references to “management consulting” or “temporary help services” don’t go very far to providing an intelligible account of the services rendered.

When the Star tried to find out what its contracts entailed, HRSDC refused to comment, as did the company spokesperson. However some digging through tendering and contract records showed that most of the money went toward recruiting, training and managing workers for the government’s central help line, 1-800-O-Canada. Is it too much to ask that something that basic be put on the government disclosure site, for all to see?

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