Toronto’s MFP scandal: IT issues that remain in the leasing inquiry’s aftermath

Justice is only denied if nothing changes. You can’t say the City of Toronto doesn’t operate a lot differently in the five years since the inquiry into its computer leasing practices came to an end.

You can see it in City Hall every day when Janet Leiper comes to work. The integrity commissioner, appointed late last year, responds to just one of the many recommendations made by Justice Denise Bellamy in her report in 2005, which examined the testimony related to a $43-million deal between the municipality and MFP Financial Services. You can see it in the appointment just a few years ago of the city’s first CIO, Dave Wallace, which indicated a renewed focus on IT strategy over questionable technology procurement practices. And you can see it, finally, in the fact we’re spending more time talking about how the city is beginning to pursue an “open data” approach than on whether its next upgrade will involve a lot of backroom deals and bribes.

This is not to suggest that Toronto came out of the leasing inquiry unscathed. While the coverage in the Toronto Star and elsewhere focused on Tom Jakobek’s supposed vindication, there has not been much emphasis on bringing true transparency to the way the city handles IT. In the last five years there have been ample opportunities to illustrate how its more recent desktop refreshes (there almost certainly have been some) were managed with greater controls and without exposure to conflicts of interest. Perhaps no one cares to scrutinize when things are above-board.  

There is also the outrage that, after all this time, the OPP decided not to lay any charges. Given the nearly $20 million spent on digging through this scandal, critics grouse, shouldn’t someone pay the price? The real scandal here may be that, after going through the reported 800,000 pieces of documentary evidence, the whole thing may have become too complex to fully understand. Toronto’s goal from here on in should be that its procurement and upgrade process be simple enough to fill no more than two sides of a single page.

The ultimate barometer of whether the leasing inquiry and OPP probe were worth it should be whether Toronto’s technology-driven services perform any better than they did before. As recently as last year, NOW magazine gave a pretty poor report card: “When it comes to ranking the most cutting-edge cities in the world,” NOW said, “T.O. is a pretender – from the failure of city-wide wireless to the absence of big-name Web firms and the lack of work-friendly Internet cafés.”

I can think of more serious issues, actually. Toronto could probably develop better online channels for accessing and navigating city resources. The much-vaunted 311 service took longer than it should, and still needs to prove itself. If it managed to virtualize its IT infrastructure as so many other firms have done, Mayor David Miller could leave office claiming a legitimate “green” accomplishment. But these are just examples. Toronto still has an opportunity to show how a city mired in debt can innovate, to showcase efficiencies when the Pan-Am Games arrive here in 2015, and to empower everyday citizens with data. In short, it has the chance to prove the MFP scandal was an aberration and not City Hall business as usual.

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