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Industry opposition leads to delays of PSPC’s Contract Security Program

Grant Cameron
Industry opposition leads to delays of PSPC’s Contract Security Program

A move by several high-profile national construction associations to join forces and oppose changes to the federal government’s security screening process for design consultants and workers may be paying dividends.

Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) is delaying the rollout of much of its Contract Security Program (CSP) screening process that was scheduled to take effect Sept. 1 to get more input. The federal department is now working with the industry to create a more efficient system that works for everyone.

“The government has agreed to stop most of the implementation of the policy, and to work together to review the list of people currently in progress,” says Mary Van Buren, president of the Canadian Construction Association (CCA), one of four national industry associations that are opposing the new policy. “They have also committed to a weekly meeting over the next month to iron out some of the issues.”

The associations have been in contact with Gatineau MP Steven MacKinnon, who was parliamentary secretary to the minister of public services and procurement before Parliament was dissolved on Aug. 15. They’ve also been in touch with department officials and are hopeful of moving in a more positive direction.

In addition to the CCA, other groups opposing the proposed changes include the National Trade Contractors’ Council of Canada, the Facilities Operations Maintenance Association of Canada, and the Association of Consulting Engineering Companies – Canada.

The associations had been concerned that PSPC was moving forward too quickly with proposed changes to the security screening process that would negatively affect procurement and delivery of federal government projects. They maintained changes were being rolled out without proper consultation of the industry and with minimal notice.

The associations voiced their displeasure recently in a two-page letter sent to Anita Anand, who was minister of public services and procurement.

The associations noted construction workers and design consultants who require security clearances currently may have to wait up to eight months to get them if the new policy was implemented.

“Clearly, this is unacceptable and undermines the industry’s ability to hire more vulnerable populations,” the associations wrote in the letter. “We have been advocating for over a decade for a solution that will streamline the process. However, these proposed changes to the CSP would have lasting and harmful effects to procurement and work against other key targets your government has established.”

Under the present system, contractors can receive blanket security clearances for their organizations, and for workers they employ, for period of five or 10 years. This allows workers to move among many projects requiring clearances with relative ease and does not require them to request new clearances as the companies they work for bid on new work.

The changes being proposed by PSPC would remove those broad clearances. The associations argue such a move would just make an already poor situation even worse and only create additional paperwork that would make it untenable for many small- and medium-sized firms to bid on secure contracts.

Van Buren says a worker should be cleared once and not by project and there should be harmonization among the various agencies, using one system and not multiple systems with their own processes.

The process also needs to be accessible to Indigenous, remote, new Canadians and at-risk groups, as many policies or practices work against the very people companies are trying to hire, she notes.

“We were therefore surprised by the announcement of changes that did not address the root causes to reduce the backlogs.”

As proposed, the changes could have unfavourable consequences for contractors because some contracts require that workers must be pre-cleared to bid, the associations contend. There is often a quick turnaround from bid to approval, so the likelihood of approving more complex workers quickly is still an issue.

According to Van Buren, it is unclear how seasonal workers would be addressed and not all contractors roll over their projects, so they would not have a significant pre-cleared workforce.

“These issues will disproportionately impact the small/medium businesses, may result in fewer firms being able to bid, may result in project delays, and also continue to work against underrepresented groups.”

Van Buren says the matter had been deemed urgent because of the short timeline and lack of consultation on the issue.

PSPC only announced changes to the program June 30, leaving just two months before the proposed implementation deadline.

Summer is a busy time of year for contractors and it didn’t give them adequate time to figure out what the changes will mean, says Van Buren. Meanwhile, they are also still dealing with COVID-19.

The four associations contend the changes, as proposed by the PSPC, would affect the ability of small contractors, especially, to bid on projects and secure the necessary workforce at a time when the focus should be on programs that support economic recovery.

Had the PSPC stuck to the deadline it would have “undermined fairness in procurement for contractors across Canada,” Van Buren says.

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