September 10, 2017 4:00 pm
Updated: September 11, 2017 7:19 am

Government email project still stalled after five years, $100 million spent

WATCH ABOVE: For the last five years, the federal government has been trying to centralize its email system for public servants. But the program is now stalled. A Global News investigation revealed the plan has already cost taxpayers at least $100 million—and it’s only one-tenth completed. Mike Le Couteur reports.

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Five years after the federal government launched a plan to upgrade and centralize its email systems, the project seems to be stalled indefinitely and internal documents show that attempts to set up other projects to compensate have also faltered.

Ottawa has spent tens of millions on the ambitious undertaking, which would have seen 63 individual departmental email systems brought together under a single umbrella.

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The so-called “email transformation initiative” (ETI), contracted out to Bell Canada and CGI Information Systems in 2013, would also have upgraded email services across government and moved everyone to a simpler address format — john.doe@canada.ca.

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But hundreds of pages of documents obtained by Global News via an access to information request confirm that the effort has been a disaster, and it only seems to be getting worse as the bill to taxpayers mounts.

Last year, with ETI nearly two years behind schedule and older email systems beginning to “rust out” or risk failure, officials at Shared Services Canada (SSC) — the central IT department created by the former Conservative government — began to work on Plan B.

Patching the holes

SSC’s response was to set up two new internally run projects, which potentially received millions in funding but were never announced publicly.

The Long-term Email Enhancement Project (LEEP) and the Medium-term Email Enhancement project (MEEP) were designed as patches, to lower the risk of email system rust-out or failure, compensate for a loss of tech support from manufacturers of older systems, and set up a new service to support Android and iOS as the government phased out its ubiquitous BlackBerry devices.

There was little time to waste, according to SSC’s own internal briefing notes.

One document, dated March 20, 2017, warned of an “imminent crisis” if the support for Android and iPhones wasn’t in place by this summer.

“The (email) systems are at risk now,” read another report from February. “Protracted planning & execution plans add further risk.”

One of the hundreds of pages of partly redacted documents obtained by Global News during an investigation into the email transformation.

In spite of this pressing need, the documents reveal that as of spring 2017, the LEEP/MEEP projects were running into serious trouble, namely the lack of money to get them through to the next stages.

LEEP alone was expected to unfold over three years and require 132 employees during “peak operations.” As early as December 2016, members of the internal LEEP committee said they were “concerned that there was no approved funding… and asked if this project was going to go forward.”

By Feb. 23, 2017, the project status had been changed to “red” and LEEP was “in jeopardy.”

Email service down

Meanwhile, government workers were experiencing the effects of the email migration meltdown.

In an email sent out to all members of the RCMP on Jan. 10, 2017, the force’s former chief information officer Pierre Perron notified the rank and file that the RCMP’s scheduled migration date of Jan. 8, 2017 was “no longer feasible.”

“Until we receive a new date… we ask that you remain diligent in keeping your mailbox size as low as possible, below the migration limit of 1.5 GB,” Perron wrote.

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The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, which represents thousands of government workers, says some of the public servants who have been migrated to the new system are also struggling.

“Those government departments that have transformed to the new email system are having regular problems, sometimes they are offline for the entire day,” said union president Debi Daviau.

Global News reached out to Shared Services Canada in late August to ask about the status of ETI, LEEP and MEEP. The department acknowledged that LEEP has now been scrapped, but MEEP is still moving ahead.

“In terms of MEEP, what we are doing is upgrading software and hardware for our [government departments] with email systems that are fragile, and planning to run those until the [ETI] migrations resume,” explained SSC President Ron Parker on Friday.

“We have started, and are in the midst of, replacing some of the equipment, putting new solutions in place and upgrading software to newer versions that are more stable.”

Meanwhile, Parker maintains that the original ETI project is also still moving ahead and SSC expects Bell Canada to honour its obligations.

WATCH: PIPSC president Debi Daviau talks about the challenges of outsourcing a major government IT project.

But Daviau says the entire endeavour was doomed the instant the government decided to outsource the work to a private company five years ago. The union has always maintained the upgrade should have been done in-house.

“You start to look at these projects that have been outsourced from the start,” Daviau said.

“It started with email, that was the tip of the iceberg. Email? Bell and CGI, utter failure. Phoenix (pay system)? IMB, utter failure. Website? Adobe, utter failure. It’s not that these are useless companies… it’s that they’re not properly resourced or properly informed to integrate their systems with government systems. That cannot be done without government IT workers.”

But Parker says there’s no way to know for certain if an internal project would have worked out better.

“I think that’s a fairly hypothetical question, because we can’t go backwards and second-guess what the results of following another path might have been,” he said.

How much is this costing?

The total bill to taxpayers now exceeds $100 million.

From 2013 to the end of the 2016-2017 fiscal year, the government had already spent an estimated $74 million on ETI with little to show for it. As of this past March, just 47,734 accounts had been migrated out of a total of 550,000.

Meanwhile, millions more dollars were being poured into LEEP and MEEP (these budgets have mostly been redacted, but one document puts an estimated budget for MEEP at around $3.16 million as of January 2017).

The government has also continued to spend money just to keep the older email systems up and running across various departments, when they should have been retired in 2015. The “legacy system” costs since April 1, 2015 were sitting at $25 million last winter, according to the documents, and increasing by $1,050,000 each month.

“The government of Canada has incurred and continues to incur substantial expenses to support its existing email systems,” noted one briefing document.

Aaron Wudrick of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation called it a “boondoggle,” adding that SSC should have been more transparent about the problems.

“The purpose of contracting out is supposed to be greater efficiency, not to waste more money,” he said. “If [Shared Services Canada] is not able to do something like this, I think that begs the question what do we have it there at all for?”

Who’s to blame?

In the documents, Shared Services Canada points the finger at Bell Canada and its subcontractors for the mess, explaining that the original ETI project had to be halted nearly two years ago for vague reasons like “vendor service degradation and hardware issues” or “instability problems.”

“The vendor, Bell Canada, halted migrations to the new email service in November 2015 due to technical issues,” Shared Services told Global News.

“The technical issues have since been resolved; however, there remain missing, contracted, system functionalities to be delivered before migrations can resume.”

Public Sevices and Procurement Minister Carla Qualtrough, who was sworn in just two weeks ago, issued a statement that largely echoed SSC’s.

“The scale, scope and complexity of the modernization that Shared Services Canada is implementing is unprecedented,” Qualtrough wrote.

“The Government of Canada intends to complete the Email Transformation Initiative once the contracted system functionalities are delivered and in place.”

Bell Canada, which has other major contracts with the government outside of ETI, referred all questions about the project to the government, offering no further comment.

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Over at PIPSC, union president Daviau said that SSC probably made the right call in halting LEEP and refocusing MEEP once it became clear they weren’t working out. But it had the right idea trying to tackle the problems internally.

“You need to bring this work back in-house, back where you have the expertise, back where you have people who have knowledge of internal government systems, who have knowledge of government processes, who have knowledge of the barriers or the bureaucracy even that we face in government,” she said.

“I can assure you that the 15,000 federal government IT workers have those aptitudes and the knowledge we need to fix this.”

© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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