The initiative will begin to herd some 640,000 email boxes, spread across hundreds of servers, in a bid to rationalize a balkanized system that's inefficient, costly and vulnerable to cyber attacks.
Shared Services Canada, a giant agency created last year to bring order to the federal government's sprawling IT empire, has sent out an industry notice asking for the qualifications of interested firms.
The measure is a key step to eventually consolidating and standardizing email accounts, while ensuring a common level of security.
Anti-virus, anti-spam and intrusion-detection systems vary widely among the 43 departments which now must rely on Shared Services Canada for their IT services. The variations have created "inconsistent approaches to security and data privacy," says the notice, posted Wednesday.
There are currently more than 1,700 servers of various makes, models and ages that handle federal email accounts.
Some 184,000 existing email accounts appear to be dormant, because of retirements, transfers or other reasons. Another 75,000 accounts are generic, with the remainder distributed among about 378,000 public servants.
The plan will also integrate mobile devices with the new email system. The federal government has issued some 70,500 BlackBerrys to workers in the 43 participating departments and just 367 other smart phones to employees.
The departments in the initiative include data-hogs, such as the Canada Revenue Agency, Statistics Canada, National Defence, the RCMP and Human Resources and Skills Development.
The notice also highlights the wildly varying policies on retention of email data.
"No single email characteristic demonstrates the noticeable differences between the partner departments and agencies as much as data retention guidelines," says the document.
"While some organizations keep their data for 30 days, others keep it for up to seven years, and one partner indicated that they retain the information indefinitely."
The total volume of email storage now used, based on a survey last November and December, is 950 terabytes — a massive quantity of digital data, about three times bigger than all the web data captured to date by the U.S. Library of Congress.
A spokesman for Shared Services Canada did not immediately respond to questions about the email project, including the cost of the initiative.
Wednesday's notice follows an earlier three-day consultation with industry in mid-June, and a formal request for information issued June 22.
The email project is one of three areas handed to Shared Services Canada, the others being data centres and networks, all of which are being consolidated. The agency has a $1.7-billion budget for 2012-2013.
In last year's federal election campaign, Prime Minister Stephen Harper touted savings from the IT consolidation project as a big part of balancing the books by 2014.
But an internal report commissioned by the government from PriceWaterhouseCoopers suggested the whole IT project would actually cost the government money and take at least a decade to complete.
Shared Services Canada has taken over responsibility for some 6,000 IT employees, most of whom remain located in their original departments.
The $2.5-million PriceWaterhouseCoopers report suggested many of these technical specialists are paid far more than equivalent jobs in the private sector.