There is nothing Orwellian about collecting accurate, real-time data: Barrie McKenna

Good commentary. Given the Conservatives legacy in downgrading the Census to the less accurate National Household Survey in 2011, their record on these kinds of issues is suspect.

And, as McKenna notes, “Worse than Big Brother is Blind Brother:”

To hear Conservatives spin it, Statistics Canada’s plan to gather the banking and spending records of hundreds of thousands of Canadians is akin to “Big Brother on steroids” and an “Orwellian intrusion into the lives of Canadians.”

The truth isn’t nearly as sinister. Rest assured, the government is not plotting a massive surveillance campaign to find out what you ate for lunch or your monthly mortgage payment.

Guess what? Ottawa already has your social insurance number – because it gave it to you. And it has your tax returns.

The government does, however, need better data to provide a complete and accurate portrait of Canada’s economy and society, in real time. As part of a “modernization” of its operations, Statscan wants banks, cellphone companies, retailers and other companies to share more of the so-called big data they have, and leverage them for the collective public good.

As Canada’s chief statistician Anil Arora put it: “Traditional statistics gathering methods are no longer sufficient to accurately measure Canada’s economy and social changes.”

Yes, some of the information Statscan wants to gather is personal. But all personal identifiers, including names, addresses and social insurance numbers, would be removed before any of it is compiled and released to the public. That’s what the agency already does routinely with census data, the monthly household survey and vast amounts of competitively sensitive corporate information.

Statscan has been peeking into our lives for a long time. Unfortunately, response rates from the agency’s traditional surveys have been falling, leaving it with often suspect and outdated data to feed into its key reports. The agency says getting access to financial transactions is vital to producing a timely, accurate picture of the economy.

As it should, Statscan is working closely with the federal Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien to ensure personal data are not put at risk, or shared publicly. It’s up to Mr. Therrien, who last week launched an inquiry into Statscan’s big data pilot project, to set the rules, and then let the agency do its job.

Statscan is hardly unique. Statistics agencies around the world are similarly leveraging big data for public policy purposes. And that’s unambiguously a good thing, according to University of British Columbia economist Kevin Milligan.

“This research is vital to forming good government policy and providing good economic information to the private sector,” Mr. Milligan says. “Statistics Canada should and does work with the privacy commissioner to balance the good that comes from research to the potential challenges to privacy.”

It’s ludicrous to suggest Ottawa is spying on Canadians. What Statscan is doing is tapping into what the private sector already knows about all of us, and aggregating it for public consumption.

If you’re seriously concerned about letting others see your financial records, shopping habits and internet surfing behaviour, well, that horse left the barn a long time ago.

Just think for a minute what companies such as Toronto-Dominion Bank, Bell, Facebook, Google, Amazon or the operator of the Highway 407 toll road already know about what you did today, or in the past month. Stitch it all together, and it’s your life in bits and bytes.

Canadians should be more concerned that there are adequate controls over what these companies are doing with your data. Perhaps Canada’s big banks are resisting giving your data to Statscan because they are more interested in exploiting it themselves.

The more ominous privacy threat may not be Statscan. The greater risk may lie with the major private-sector collectors of big data, many of which are foreign owned and store it all far beyond the reach of the government. And they often operate with far weaker privacy constraints than government agencies.

Governments already know plenty about you. There are census data, passport photos and records, tax filings, municipal property records, health records, driving offences and court records. No reasonable person would suggest this is somehow part of a nefarious Big Brother spying plot.

The agency’s data-collection pilot is not the problem. It is part of the solution. For years, Statscan’s ability to do its job was eroded by steady budget cuts. The current Liberal government reinstated some that funding in this year’s budget, with an additional $41-million over five years to improve the agency’s ability to do its job.

Worse than collecting more data is having a data deficit. Governments, and businesses, risk making major mistakes without accurate, real-time data.

Worse than Big Brother is Blind Brother.

Source: There is nothing Orwellian about collecting accurate, real-time data: Barrie McKenna

Ottawa pay mess shows how hard it is to fire anyone in this town: McKenna

Valid critique over the lack of accountability. Surprised that no one has been leaking the names:

It is one of the lamest whodunits in Canadian history.

We know that three senior bureaucrats badly botched the creation and roll-out of a new pay system for nearly 300,000 federal workers. The trio left behind a trail of misery, including a relentless stream of pay errors, disrupted lives and hundreds of millions of dollars in cost overruns.

But Ottawa won’t say who the three are or how they were disciplined. We do know that no one was fired. And two of the three officials still work for the department that runs the pay system, Public Services and Procurement Canada; the other retired.

The identity of the trio − including an assistant deputy minister and an associate assistant deputy minister − must be the worst-kept secret inside the bureaucracy. Auditor-General Michael Ferguson laid out exactly what happened in a scathing report, calling the new Phoenix payroll system an “incomprehensible failure of project management and oversight.” Anxious to stick to a schedule and stay on budget, the three officials launched the system in early 2016 even though they knew it was not working properly and had dangerous security holes, the report found.

The department of Public Services isn’t naming names, citing “internal matters.”

Nor is Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick, the government’s top civil servant and the de facto chief operating officer of the bureaucracy. Appearing last week before a parliamentary committee that is investigating the failed system, Mr. Wernick was more interested in taking swipes at Mr. Ferguson for smearing the integrity of the public service than laying blame.

Surely, the buck-passing has to stop somewhere. How can Canadians have faith in their government if no one is ever held accountable for the biggest mess ups?

Absent that, Mr. Ferguson is right. The culture inside the federal government is broken.

The mysterious Phoenix trio ignored dire warnings from outside consultants and officials in other departments that they were hurtling toward disaster. They failed to do a pilot test and had no back-up plan in place if anything went wrong. And they stripped the system of 100 key functions, such as paying employees who switch jobs or who file for back pay. They knew the system would not work properly and then apparently kept their own bosses in the dark about these problems as the system went live. All of this was done in the name of expediency and saving money, according to the Auditor-General.

Paying its employees is one of the most basic functions of any organization, and the federal government failed miserably. A system that was to have cost $310-million has soared to more than $1-billion, and the price is still rising as the government struggles to make the system do what it’s supposed to do – pay people what they are owed. Virtually every government worker has been touched in some way by the resulting mess, including tens of thousands of workers not paid for months and others paid too much (and then were overtaxed).

Given all that, you might expect heads to roll. Not in Ottawa. Public Services and Procurement Canada says only that the performance of senior officials was “assessed and appropriate measures taken.” The department did confirm that the officials involved did not get their bonuses in the year Phoenix was launched.

But what about the years before, when they made a series of fatal errors that condemned the launch to failure?

In the private sector, these would almost certainly be firing offences. Federal government leaders want to be paid on par with executives in the private sector, and many are. But they also enjoy a lot more job and pension security.

Mr. Wernick, the Clerk of the Privy Council, acknowledged that it’s extremely hard to fire anyone below the deputy minister rank for poor performance, citing protections provided by Public Service Employment Act. And he suggested that the government’s bonus and incentive system for senior managers may cause some to focus too much on cost over function.

That’s hardly confidence-inspiring for most of us who work in the private sector, where bonuses are rare and people frequently get fired when they mess up.

via Ottawa pay mess shows how hard it is to fire anyone in this town – The Globe and Mail

Someone should take the fall for Ottawa’s botched Phoenix pay system

Hard to disagree with Barrie McKenna: the lack of accountability at both the political and bureaucratic level, the inability of government to manage large-scale IT projects and the miss match between those who “sold” the project and those responsible for delivery are of broad concern, not just in the case of Phoenix.

IT in government is complex given the myriad of requirements and groups involved.

My experience with IT in government is a mixed bag. My most successful project, done with a small group of PCO policy types, was the creation of an Access database to manage the then Chrétien government annual priority setting exercise. Delivered on time, it worked  and ensured consistent tracking rather than the previous time-consuming and error prone Word-based process.

My second experience, also at PCO, but on a larger scale (more data, more users) and thus involving IT folks, was replacing the previous Cabinet meeting planning system with a more up-to-date platform with more flexibility. The IT folks and the consultant never got it to work during my time there.

Lastly, at Service Canada, we partnered with Service New Brunswick to deliver, on Transport Canada’s behalf, a system for pleasure craft licensing. When it went live, it crashed but we were able to identify and fix the problem within a few days (the data link capacity was too small, something missed in all the preparations, by all involved). After that it worked well (Service Canada eventually decided to end its involvement and focus on core services to ESDC):

The mess that is Phoenix is a story of misguided political objectives, bungled management of a major technology project and a complete failure by anyone in charge to take responsibility for mistakes.

The fiasco raises troubling questions about the government’s ability to perform one of its most basic functions – paying its bills and taking care of employees. The Phoenix system is just one of the major information-technology projects, totalling billions of dollars, now under way in the government.

Centralizing the multitude of separate payroll systems was the brainchild of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, which was convinced it could wring huge savings out of the bureaucracy. In charge were then-public works minister Rona Ambrose (now interim Conservative leader) and Tony Clement, former president of the treasury board. Neither has expressed any remorse for the fiasco.

The Conservatives eliminated 700 payroll jobs in dozens of departments, mainly in Ottawa, and created a new centralized pay centre in Miramichi, N.B. – political compensation for the shuttered gun registry. Most of those offered positions there refused to move, leaving the running of Phoenix in the hands of hundreds of untrained new hires.

The problem now belongs to the Liberal government, which could have delayed deployment of the system to work out the inevitable bugs. To his credit, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has acknowledged his government initially didn’t take the problem seriously.

“I’ll admit it,” Mr. Trudeau told a frustrated civil servant at a town hall in Kingston, Ont., earlier this year. “This government … didn’t pay enough attention to the challenges and the warning signs on the transition we were overseeing.”

But the mea culpa came three months after the government had promised to resolve the payroll mess. Now, it’s not even offering a target.

Just as troubling is the lack of accountability within the upper ranks of civil servants. Many of those responsible have retired or moved to other jobs in the government. No one has been fired.

Nor has there been a thorough investigation by Parliament of what went wrong. Deputy Minister of Public Works Marie Lemay, who inherited the payroll problem, appeared before the House of Commons government operations committee last year. But none of the original architects of the system have had to answer for their roles.

And then there is IBM Canada, which Ottawa hired to design and implement the system. It appears the government, not IBM, is on the hook for fixing the problems. So why, one wonders, would the government sign a contract that left it so dangerously exposed to financial and technical risk?

Phoenix was supposed to save Ottawa $70-million a year. Instead, the government has spent $50-million fixing the problem, including an extra $6-million paid to IBM, and there is no end in sight.

This isn’t just a story of a botched payroll system. It’s about the chronic inability of governments to manage major purchases, including technology projects.

Unless Ottawa gets to the bottom of what went wrong on Phoenix, it will keep making the same mistakes elsewhere in the government.

That should worry all taxpayers, not just government workers.

Source: Someone should take the fall for Ottawa’s botched Phoenix pay system – The Globe and Mail

Shared Services Canada, already having resulted in the resignation of the Chief Statistician (INSERT), now comes under fire from the RCMP:

CBC News has obtained a blistering Jan. 20, 2017, memo to Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale in which Commissioner Bob Paulson details how critical IT failures have increased by 129 per cent since the beleaguered department took over tech support for the entire government five years ago.

Not only that, the memo says, the duration of each outage has increased by 98 per cent.

“Its ‘one size fits all’ IT shared services model has negatively impacted police operations, public and officer safety and the integrity of the criminal justice system,” reads the memo.

The document appears to respond to a request for more information after a series of CBC News reports on the RCMP’s long-standing dissatisfaction with Shared Services Canada (SSC).

Despite the agency’s creation of special teams and committees to address shoddy service and repeated computer outages, Paulson said minimal progress has been made.

The commissioner bolstered his arguments by enclosing an appendix of recent critical incidents to show just how little appreciation or understanding there is for operational law enforcement requirements.

RCMP commissioner warns continued IT failures will have ‘catastrophic’ consequences

No excuse for Ottawa’s bungled technology: Barrie McKenna

One of the rare commentaries that connects the dots between Shared Services Canada, the Phoenix pay system, and the inability of government to manage complex IT projects (admittedly, some of the most complex around).

It does beg the question, as posed by Donald Savoie in his book, What Is Government Good At?: A Canadian Answer.

One also has to ask the question, in all the decks, analyses, MCs and TB submissions, were the risks clearly stated and assessed? Did the public servants provide ‘fearless advice’ or not?

Maybe you don’t think it’s a big deal that tens of thousands of federal government workers are going unpaid because of the botched roll out of a new pay system.

Most civil servants are overpaid and underworked anyway, right?

Many Canadians may feel similarly untroubled that government data centres are frequently crashing, downing websites and leaving key agencies, such as Statistics Canada, unable to get timely economic information to financial markets.

But it does matter. Canada isn’t some tin-pot country that can’t pay its workers, run a computer or produce timely data. It’s a G7 country, a modern, advanced economy that should be a model of good governance.

There is a disturbing back story to these embarrassing headlines.

Turn back the clock to 2010. Stephen Harper’s Conservative government was eager to demonstrate it could wring billions of dollars in savings out of a fat government bureaucracy it neither liked nor trusted.

Two of the signature initiatives that emerged from this effort was the centralized Phoenix pay system and the birth of Shared Services Canada, a $1.9-billion super agency that would consolidate all of the government technology systems.

And for years afterward it would point to these efforts to bolster its reputation as a sound manager of the machinery of government.

Both have been unmitigated disasters.

The fallout from these moves continues to reverberate through the government. Not only have the promised savings never materialized, but Ottawa is now spending tens of millions more to fix the problems.

On Friday, Statscan’s chief statistician, Wayne Smith, abruptly resigned, complaining that the agency’s independence has been compromised by “disruptive, ineffective, slow and unaffordable” technology supplied by Shared Services Canada.

Mr. Smith’s frustrations boiled over July 8 when the agency’s main website was down for nearly eight hours due to a power switch failure, snarling the release of June’s jobs numbers, one of the country’s most important economic indicators. Statscan staff resorted to snapping the document on a smartphone and faxing pages to data users at financial institutions and media outlets.

Statscan’s website routinely goes down on busy data-release days.

The problems at Shared Services, which consolidated the information technology of 43 departments, go way beyond Statscan. The federal Auditor-General concluded in a report this year that Shared Services’ operations are so dogged by hidden costs, delays, security problems and poor accounting that potential savings remain “largely unknown.”

The Liberals quietly boosted Shared Services’ budget by $384-million over two years in its March budget, in part to keep creaky old computer systems from crashing. Critics worry that much more will be needed to fully modernize systems.

In late July, smoke inside a federal data centre in Ottawa forced the temporary shutdown of government e-mail and some websites.

Meanwhile, Ottawa says the estimated bill to fix IBM’s Phoenix pay system has reached $45-million to $50-million, and could climb higher. The government has promised to cover any out-of-pocket expenses of workers who couldn’t pay bills or were forced to borrow money when they weren’t paid.

Just like Shared Services, Phoenix was supposed to save the government money – $70-million a year – by consolidating a myriad of pay systems spanning 300,000 workers in more than 100 departments. Most of the first-year savings have now been wiped out.

A big part of the problem can be traced to a decision by the Conservatives to create a new payroll-processing centre in Miramichi, N.B. Roughly 500 – mostly inexperienced – new hires, would replace more than 2,000 payroll staff from across the country.

Ottawa has since been forced to add pay specialists in Gatineau, Que., and at temporary offices in Winnipeg, Montreal, Toronto and Sherbrooke, Que. – all to help fix the problem of workers getting paid too much, not enough or not at all.

Efficiency was never the main reason for choosing Miramichi. Putting the payroll centre in the city was political compensation for the closing of the long-gun registry, which had been located there.

The Conservatives fed the country a narrative about making government leaner and more efficient.

They delivered something quite different.

Source: No excuse for Ottawa’s bungled technology – The Globe and Mail

Why Canada has a serious data deficit

More on the importance of good data by Barrie McKenna in the Globe’s Report on Business:

Prof. Gross [the C.D. Howe Institute researcher responsible for their study on Temporary Foreign Workers and their effect on increasing unemployment in AB and BC] acknowledged that perfect data is “very costly.”

So is bad data.

Employment Minister Jason Kenney recently imposed a moratorium on the use of temporary foreign workers in the restaurant industry, following embarrassing allegations of misuse by some McDonald’s franchise and other employers. And he has promised more reforms to come.

But who is to say that restaurants need imported foreign labour any less than hotels or coal mines, which are unaffected by the moratorium? And without better information, Mr. Kenney may compound his earlier decision to expand the program with an equally ill-considered move to shrink it.

The government’s troubles with the temporary foreign workers program is a classic case of bad data leading to dubious decision-making. Until recently, the government has relied on inflated Finance department job vacancy data, compiled in part by tracking job postings on Kijiji, a free classified-ad website. Statscan, meanwhile, was reporting that the national job vacancy rate was much smaller, and falling.

The problem goes way beyond temporary foreign workers. And it’s a data problem of the government’s own making. Ottawa has cut funds from important labour market research, slashed Statscan’s budget more savagely than many other departments, and scrapped a mandatory national census in favour of a less-accurate voluntary survey.

The Canadian government has demonstrated “a lack of commitment” to evidence-based decision-making and producing high-quality data, according to a global report on governance released last week by the Bertelsmann Foundation, a leading German think tank. The report ranked Canada in the middle of the pack and sliding on key measures of good governance compared with 40 other developed countries

One of the disadvantages of being in government for almost 10 years is that decisions which may have appeared to be cost-free can come back and haunt you.

Why Canada has a serious data deficit – The Globe and Mail.