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When the public service is outsourced, Canadians suffer

Debi Daviau is president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), which represents some 55,000 scientists and other professionals, including more than 13,000 federal IT workers.

The tears started almost before she'd begun to speak. We were standing outside the Tunney's Pasture federal office complex in Ottawa during National Public Service Week, normally an occasion to celebrate working in the public service. It was a pay week. But the long-unresolved problems with the Phoenix pay system meant many weren't in a mood to celebrate and the woman I was speaking to had just returned from maternity leave. Having fought to recover eight months of unpaid maternity benefits, she had now learned she hadn't received more than two years of retroactive pay. As I handed her a "Fix Phoenix" protest button, the gesture seemed suddenly inadequate. So we hugged instead.

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Ottawa has a problem. It's called Phoenix, after IBM's brand-name payroll software that has caused more than a quarter of the public service to be paid too little, too much, or (too often) not at all. But that's just its corporate name. The real name for Ottawa's problem is "outsourcing" and its playing havoc with much more than the public-service payroll.

A massive project to consolidate government e-mail accounts, contracted to tech giants Bell and CGI, is years behind schedule and untold millions of dollars over budget. A project outsourced to Adobe to bring all government websites under one Canada.ca site is also overdue and over budget. And a proposal to migrate most government website content to private, for-profit, cloud-based servers is fraught with what IT workers I represent believe is a looming security risk to government and Canadians' data.

While the current government has been right to criticize the previous one for laying off hundreds of compensation staff before it rolled out Phoenix, it's the decisions around outsourcing such projects in the first place that demand a rethink.

In spite of employing one of the largest IT work forces in the country, the government routinely excludes its IT employees from helping projects such as Phoenix succeed. There may be good reasons for this, but I haven't heard any and judging from past experience, they have nothing to do with saving money. (In April, the government set aside any projected savings from Phoenix for the next two years and, in May, announced a further $142-million would be spent over three years, without any promise of when it would be fixed.)

Why weren't federal IT workers consulted on the implementation of Phoenix from the start? Worse, why was IBM allowed to use its own "test bed" – a staging area to catch system flaws before they're deployed – and not the Government of Canada's? Had the government's own test bed and IT workers been used, we could have warned the government the system was programmed to fail.

But, as we've so frequently been told since this fiasco began, it was too late to change course.

Lessons then matter.

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Shared Services Canada, the department tasked with supplying the IT needs of 42 federal departments, has been the subject of no fewer than two important reports in the past year. Both were released this spring and reveal much about the doublethink behind Ottawa's decisions to outsource.

An Ipsos Public Affairs survey of Shared Services employees last fall found, unsurprisingly, that outsourcing has contributed to a massive drop in the already low morale at the department. (It has suffered from chronic underfunding and poor planning since it was launched in 2011.)

As if to add insult to injury, a report commissioned by Treasury Board last August from consultants Gartner Canada Co. proposes, among other things, spinning Shared Services off into a separate "agency, Crown corporation, strategic partnership, [or] joint venture" and outsourcing on an even grander scale. Among its panel of experts was a former vice-president of IBM.

Treasury Board President Scott Brison's frustration was on full display last month when, during a Senate finance committee meeting, he cautioned IBM about the risks to its reputation if it doesn't help fix Phoenix.

But his enthusiasm for even more outsourcing of federal government projects to small and mid-sized companies leaves one wondering if he's drawn the same lessons Shared Services employees have already learned.

Outsourcing within the public service should, by its nature, be short-term, limited and targeted to areas where missing expertise is quickly transferred to permanent employees. That means engaging federal IT workers at the start and promptly training those without the required expertise to take over, or hiring qualified new employees. To do otherwise is to undermine the very purpose of the public service.

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That so many public services – from weather forecasts to processing OAS, CPP and EI cheques – depend on constant government IT services to ensure their delivery is a testament to the value of public employees themselves. Phoenix, by contrast, fails public servants routinely.

The Trudeau government may not have invented the problem of outsourcing, but since promising in its fiscal policy document of the 2015 election campaign to reduce spending on outside consultants to 2005-06 levels, spending on outsourcing has grown dramatically.

The official estimate for the current year is $12-billion, up from $10-billion just two years ago – the equivalent of as many as eight federal department budgets combined.

For companies eager to do business with the federal government, this is of course good news. For everyone else, and especially those affected by the disastrous results, it's enough to make you cry.

Video: Liberals say ‘no choice’ but to fix Phoenix payroll system (The Canadian Press)
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