The minister of public and business service delivery defended the province's plan Monday to close some ServiceOntario centres and replace them with kiosks inside select Staples Canada stores — a move which has drawn some criticism.
The government didn't deny the deal with Staples was sole-sourced instead of a public bidding process. Minister Todd McCarthy suggested that process wasn't followed because this is a "pilot project."
"This type of contract is typical when governments enter into pilot projects. That's what this is with Staples, it's a pilot project that's beginning early this year," McCarthy told CBC Radio's Metro Morning Monday.
"At the same time, it was essential in this lengthy consultation process to offer only to those retail partnerships the opportunity to deliver these services for ServiceOntario based on four strict criteria. That would be obviously excellence in service, customer service, scalability, cost-effectiveness."
The minister's press secretary Doug Allingham said the government was seeking new partnership opportunities to continue its services as several private ServiceOntario providers' contracts are set to expire.
"A number of factors were considered when our government conducted lengthy consultations with retail partners, public libraries, municipal co-locations, and mobile service centres to determine how best to offer greater convenience to people," Allingham said in an email to CBC News Monday afternoon.
"New ServiceOntario Staples Canada locations will offer a 30 per cent increase in operating hours and save taxpayers almost a million dollars compared to the existing private providers they are replacing."
The minister has not said how many locations would close and which Staples Canada stores have been selected, or what the total costs for the project would be.
McCarthy said the province remains open to adding to the list of companies it's partnered with to offer ServiceOntario, which currently include Canadian Tire, IDA Pharmacy and Home Hardware. No new agreements have been finalized, the ministry said.
He added that the pilot project with Staples could become permanent.
"It all depends upon whether or not they provide the level of excellence that Canadian Tire and the other two have," McCarthy said.
"At the same time, we're continuing to have dialogue with other potential retail partners to consider whether we want to expand that model beyond the four that we now have."
LISTEN | McCarthy says province remains open to adding more businesses:
ServiceOntario centres offer Ontario residents services for driver's licences, licence plates, health cards, Ontario Photo Cards and birth certificates among other provincial documents.
McCarthy said the move to to replace some ServiceOntario centres with kiosks at select Staples Canada stores was driven by a number of factors including "ample parking," longer service hours and lower wait times.
Province should 'walk back' its move: party leader
A job opening for a regional services manager for ServiceOntario, posted online by Staples Canada, states that the candidate chosen for the position will have to "influence the monetization of ServiceOntario traffic." And that the employee will be asked to "drive sales and profit results" from ServiceOntario customers.
The job posting is cause for concern, said Ontario Green Party leader Mike Schreiner on Monday.
"Ontario taxpayers shouldn't be subsidizing sales and marketing efforts for a big-box store, U.S.-owned company like Staples, it's just wrong," he told CBC News.
Ontario residents get their driver's licences, licence plates, health cards, Ontario Photo Cards and birth certificates, among other provincial documents, at ServiceOntario centres. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)
Schreiner is calling on the provincial government to reverse course.
"I think it's just outrageous that the Ford government, behind closed doors, is doing sole-sourced contracts for public services with private multinational corporations, freezing out any opportunities for local Ontario businesses to participate in this program," he said.
"[The] government needs to walk this back like they've walked a number of their secret backroom deals, and create an open and transparent process that allows [local] businesses to submit to participate in this program."
The province has previously said that employees at ServiceOntario centres that are closing will be given opportunities to continue their employment with Staples Canada.
Taxpayers need to know upfront costs, says group
Making public services more accessible is a welcome move, said Jay Goldberg, Ontario director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, though he noted that it is unclear how this will play out with no publicly released figures.
"I think that it's really incumbent upon the government right now to come out and demonstrate to taxpayers that this actually is saving taxpayers' money and it actually is making life more convenient for citizens who are accessing services," Goldberg said.
He says in order to do that, the government must release upfront costs.
"What you see very frequently, [is] there's a high set up cost sometimes for certain things, but that over time it does benefit taxpayers [and] it does reduce costs. That's a possibility. But again, the government needs to put all their cards [on] the table."
McCarthy said the ServiceOntario pilot project with Staples Canada stores is set to begin early this year. (Patrick Morrell/CBC News)
Meanwhile Ontario NDP Leader Marit Stiles called on Premier Doug Ford to publicly address the issue.
"How is it that the government ended up with a sole-sourced contract to a big American corporation … and what does this mean?" Stiles said at a news conference Monday.
"I really question what the government's priorities are here and how they came to this decision. They should be transparent and they need to be more accountable clearly to the people of Ontario."