Ontario's fiscal watchdog to look into ServiceOntario deal

A ServiceOntario location is shown in Whitby, Ont. on Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024.   (Doug Ives/The Canadian Press - image credit)
A ServiceOntario location is shown in Whitby, Ont. on Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024. (Doug Ives/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Ontario's fiscal watchdog says it will look into a provincial decision to close nine ServiceOntario centres and replace them with kiosks inside select Staples Canada stores, after a Liberal MPP called for an inquiry.

The Financial Accountability Office announced the inquiry in a statement on Monday, saying it will seek to understand the "fiscal impact" of the government's decision. The FAO said the scope of its "research project" will be limited to the relocation of nine ServiceOntario centres to Staples Canada retail outlets.

The FAO's announcement comes after Stephanie Bowman, who represents Don Valley West, wrote to the FAO in January about the deal and asked it to look into plans by the government to move ServiceOntario kiosks into Staples Canada and Walmart stores. The FAO, however, says it will look at only the deal with Staples Canada.

"The report will compare the financial costs and benefits of the government's contract with Staples Canada with the alternative of continuing contracts with independent private operators," the FAO said in the statement.

The FAO says it plans to complete a report by early 2025 but access to information could affect when it wraps up its inquiry.

"The FAO must receive timely information from the province to complete the project and delays in receiving information could affect the project timeline. Further, the timeline to complete this project may be impacted if other FAO projects already in progress take longer than anticipated to complete."

Bowman said the ServiceOntario decision was done without a competitive bidding process. Ontario residents get their driver's licences, licence plates, health cards, Ontario Photo Cards and birth certificates among other provincial documents at ServiceOntario centres.

"Your analysis would shed much-needed light on the costs and benefits to the taxpayer from these arrangements; the impact, if any, on unionized jobs in the civil service; and other potential implications," she wrote in a Jan. 29 letter to the FAO.

Government needs to be held accountable, MPP says

At Queen's Park on Monday, Bowman said she hopes the inquiry provides answers because it's not clear who is benefiting from the deal.

"They're shutting down small businesses. This is not a government that's working for small business. They're working to make their rich friends richer and we think the government needs to be held accountable," Bowman said.

"This is a situation where this was simply handed to Staples without any transparency, without any clarity with what the objectives were."

Todd McCarthy, Ontario's minister of public and business service delivery, said at Queen's Park on Monday he looks forward to the inquiry and is confident that the deal makes sense.

"In this case, of course, we have more for less. We're saving a million dollars over three years and we're getting more convenience, more access, longer hours."

The longer hours mean the kiosks are open evenings and weekends.

Ontario NDP Leader Marit Stiles said the government did not make a business case for its decision.

"This was clearly another bad deal. There's no apparent business case for it. I'm looking forward to what the FAO turns up," Stiles said.

Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner added: "Why don't they just work with existing operators to extend their hours? Why do they have to pay Staples to renovate their stores to do it, when we could just have it be part of the contract with existing Ontario-based operators?"