My Opening Statement to the ETHI Committee About ArriveCAN

Bianca Wylie
4 min readNov 28, 2022

November 28, 2022

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you about ArriveCAN today. Our firm, Digital Public, does work focused on digital transformation, both in government and more broadly. I am sharing thoughts today based on my experience working with software, as a product manager, and working as a facilitator, to support democratic process.

There is a long list of what went wrong with ArriveCAN, from a digital governance perspective. At the top of the list is the inequity in public service delivery it created, and the damage it did to public trust in government, particularly during a public health crisis.

We can discuss the specific details of what went wrong shortly. For the purpose of these brief remarks, I’m going to share three proposals that may help us to avoid replicating our ArriveCAN mistakes. The recommendations fall under three headings: equity, sovereignty, and democratic accountability and oversight.

First, on equity

Most importantly: ArriveCAN should have always been a voluntary app. It never should have been mandatory.

Proposal one: Implement mandatory redundancy in digital public service delivery

What this means is that if there is a digital way to access a public service, there always needs to be a non-digital mode as well. One that is properly staffed and invested in and delivers just as high quality an experience.

Two very telling things happened over the course of ArriveCAN that illustrate why we need this kind of policy across government as a gating mechanism to force equity in public service delivery.

One: the government roundly ignored both the federal and provincial and territorial privacy commissioners, who stated clearly that technology used during the pandemic must be voluntary in order not to destroy public trust.

From the 2020 Joint Statement by the Commissioners: “Supporting public health, building public trust”:

“Consent and trust: The use of apps must be voluntary. This will be indispensable to building public trust. Trust will also require that governments demonstrate a high level of transparency and accountability.”

Two: the public service should have had a deep and clear knowledge of the access and digital literacy issues, the discomfort, and the fear, that mandating this technology created. The call to refuse ArriveCAN as mandatory should have been coming from inside the house, regardless of where the direction to do it was coming from. This is about public service ethics.

Yes, we were operating under emergency powers. If anything, this should have increased the care taken to support comfortable human experiences. Instead, the moment was used to accelerate an underlying desire to modernize the border.

Our work of democracy is easing access to each others care. The mandatory nature of this app did the opposite. It created barriers. It devalued the work and possibility of the public service.

Next, on sovereignty

Proposal two: Do not deliver public services through mobile apps/app stores.

Full stop. We should not be building the delivery of public services with and through digital infrastructure that we don’t own nor control. This should be a non-starter.

The app stores are for consumer products. They are not for government service delivery.

There is also a significant issue with moving the work done by the public service away from physical interactions and into private devices, done in private places.

Lastly, one of the problems with honing in on procurement and cost and waste is that we fast-forward past the build vs. buy decision. The opportunity cost of failing to direct investment into our long-term technical capacity within the public service. If this government wants to build robust digital service delivery it has to do it on our own terms and in ways that guarantee our control over services that impact our rights.

Finally, on democratic accountability and oversight

Proposal three: Create an independent public advisory board to oversee ArriveCAN’s ongoing development and use

Address transparency problems, open the code, explain how and where the data goes and is used, engage with communities on changes/updates, etc. This app’s development is funded into next fall, so there is lots of time to set up some improved oversight mechanisms.

In closing,

The design, development, launch, and implementation of ArriveCAN was rife with digital governance issues and errors. We can do better in future, but only if we acknowledge and understand and accept the harm caused by ArriveCAN and the lack of defensible public health rationale to do so.

Thank you. Happy to discuss any and all of this further.

(Details for ETHI committee meeting, 3.30 pm ET Nov 28, 2022)

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