ArriveCan Shows Government Consultants Should Prove Ethical Business Foundations Before Getting Federal Contracts

By: Donna Ringrose

The ArriveCan saga has created a reputational challenge for every consultant who works with the federal government. The worst actors have created an atmosphere of distrust and derision of external consultants. The government needs to do a better job of knowing who they are hiring. Qualifications and certifications for consultants and contractors need to be reviewed in response to this latest story.

Thousands of hardworking, ethical, and professional consultants are being lumped in with the bad apples. 
For better or worse, the federal government could not deliver its programs, policies and even funding without the help of management consultants. This reality has developed over time and has proven beneficial for both consultants and federal departments. 

Departments go through phases of ramping up and ramping down operations to fulfill the mandates given to ministers. If departments were constantly staffed up to maximum capacity, taxpayers would be on the hook for salaries and benefits that do not respond directly to urgent needs. At the same time, management consultants who work on both public and private sector projects would lack opportunities to bring knowledge gained in one sector to the other.

Thousands of management consultants bring expertise and years of experience to federal government projects daily. Often, they possess skills and knowledge that are simply not available on the project teams housed in federal departments. For the federal government, ‘contracting in’ talent has become a mainstay of delivering the services that Canadians rely on.
The ongoing investigation will show the true scope of failures that led to a failed procurement with ballooning costs. At the same time, many lessons can be learned from what we know already. The recent scandal appears to stem first not from consultants, but rather civil servants who allowed their relationships to get too comfortable with the vendors they were engaging. The contractors clearly could not deliver on the scope of work on their own, and relied heavily on contracting out work, which created a new set of risks for taxpayers.

The last budget introduced a goal of reducing departmental expenditures by 3% by 2026-2027. Management consulting and departmental travel were singled out as areas of focus for the departments tasked with implementing these cuts. The number of scandals focused on international firms and mismanaged procurement processes was casting a long shadow over the profession when these decisions were made. 

The government is clearly pushing to find efficiencies. Beyond broad directives to reduce spending, there should also be a new focus on optimizing the return on investment of working with consultants. 

Knowledge about the value of management consultants is low. That is true in the public at large, and also within federal departments. By extension, despite the long-term interdependency between consultants and federal departments, the profession is an easy political target. Acknowledging the role of external advisors and extra capacity to conduct the business of government is important for politicians of all stripes and decisionmakers throughout federal departments.

Ultimately, it is important that the government validates the competencies that consultants claim when responding to government RFPs. To avoid a similar yet reoccurring situation in the future, new policies should also require that consultants adhere to a recognized and enforceable ethical code. When procuring other professional services like engineering or accounting, the federal government requires a professional designation as part of any application. The same opportunity exists for consulting and the Certified Management Consultant designation is a good place to start.

This article was originally published in the April 17th, 2024 edition of The Hill Times. Read here

Donna Ringrose is the Executive Director of CMC-Canada, the Canadian Association of Management Consultants 

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