Bagnall: Phoenix — a disaster so bad, it just might spark real change

Good analysis by Bagnall:

While software experts sort through the technical problems, the government has gone on a hiring binge so Public Services and other federal departments can begin to make a dent in pay requests that require manual processing. The irony, of course, is that the Conservatives, starting in 2014, had reduced the number of compensation advisers across government from 2,000 to 1,350 in anticipation of a more efficient system.

The government today now employs more compensation advisers and support staff than it did prior to the launch of Phoenix — counting the employees within departments who have recently been reassigned — temporarily, one hopes — to handle pay issues.

Such is the “all-hands-on-deck” sentiment throughout government that even the public service unions are contemplating agreeing to simpler language in dozens of collective agreements.

They have a number of incentives to make changes in contract language, even if it potentially eliminates certain types of overtime pay or complex provisions relating to paid leave. Labour leaders have been inundated with demands from members to help get Phoenix fixed. Few blame the unions for the broken system but blame is no longer the point.

Phoenix has been in crisis so long that government employees are now making career decisions stemming from their fear of payroll consequences. If they transfer to another department, retire, go on paternity leave or accept a raise, will they be able to weather a temporary loss of pay?

There are other knock-on effects of Phoenix, most notably in other departments that are also managing complex information technology projects. Earlier this year, the Department of National Defence cancelled a procurement that would have linked part of its pay system to Phoenix. Departments are also evaluating whether they should manage IT projects in a different manner altogether.

The federal government has a long history of top-down management — intricate, massive designs that try to anticipate every contingency. But by the time all aspects are locked in, the world of technology has moved on.

In the case of Phoenix, project managers seemed to understand the risks and potential complications of the system they were proposing — but at a theoretical level. The auditor general made it clear that very little was ready when the system was launched at a practical level — not the software, the processes or the oversight. When the system early on began sounding warning sirens, those managing Phoenix didn’t know how to ask the right questions to establish a fix.

This knowledge gap existed because Public Services and Procurement Canada tried to do everything itself.

Ferguson concluded his report by urging Public Services and Treasury Board — the federal government’s main employer — to develop a sustainable repair for Phoenix based on a fuller understanding of the system’s underlying flaws.

Ideally such a fix would address the culture that produces such IT disasters. There’s too little direct experience in IT, too much fear of making errors that embarrass cabinet members and top brass in the department, too little feedback from the rest of government.

Getting all this right might mean we’d never have to read another report as damning as the one Ferguson delivered Tuesday.

via Bagnall: Phoenix — a disaster so bad, it just might spark real change | Ottawa Citizen

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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