USA: Our Government Runs on a 60-Year-Old Coding Language, and Now It’s Falling Apart

Similar in Canada I believe, making it all that more impressive how well public servants were able to ramp up so quickly EI claim processing and implement CERB (WatchJohn Ivison: Amid staggering unemployment rate, public servants handling EI claims are unsung heroes).

Similar issues arose regarding lack of COBOL programmers during Y2K:

Over the weekend, New Jersey governor, Phil Murphy, made an unusual public plea during his daily coronavirus briefing: The state was seeking volunteer programmers who know COBOL, a 60-year old programming language that the state’s unemployment benefits system is built on. Like every state across the nation, New Jersey was being flooded with unemployment claims in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. And New Jersey’s data processing systems were unprepared.

“We literally have a system that is 40-plus years old,” Murphy said.

To COBOL programmers, it was a familiar ask. In times of bureaucratic crisis over the last 50 years, Americans have been faced time and time again with the dusty, dated systems that undergird much of our government, and economy. In response to Y2K, when it was unclear whether the date of the new millennium might cause cascading errors across the entire world’s computing systems, legions of programmers fluent in largely forgotten languages like COBOL were specifically hired to fix government and enterprise code. As a result, Y2K was largely a nonissue.

Over 20 years later, much of the state, federal, and banking systems still run on these very same programming languages.

New Jersey isn’t the only state that depends on COBOL. Connecticut’s computer systems for processing unemployment also runs on it, the state’s governor said last week, which is causing weeks-long processing delays. Connecticut and four other states are creating a joint effort to recruit retired COBOL programmers who can update the state software.

The scarcity of COBOL programmers has led to increased interest in startups like COBOL Cowboys, made up of older, experienced programmers who have the know-how to operate these systems.

COBOL debuted in 1960 and was largely used on IBM mainframes for business tasks like accounting. IBM continues to sell mainframes compatible with COBOL.

The Government Accountability Office has repeatedly warned about the use of legacy programming languages for critical systems. In 2019, the GAO issued a report summarizing 10 federal computing systems that were in desperate need of an overhaul. For instance, the Department of Education’s system for processing federal student aid applications was implemented in 1973. It takes 18 contractors to maintain the system, and since it’s written in COBOL, it requires specific hardware and is difficult to integrate with newer software languages.

GAO considers COBOL a legacy language, which means agencies have trouble finding staff that knows how to write the code at all. And when they can, the specialist contractors charge a premium.

It also means that when a system breaks, there might not be somebody there to fix it. And that’s where New Jersey finds itself now, with a sagging system and lack of qualified engineers.

Despite its age, and the fact that so many programmers have moved onto C and Java, COBOL is still a widely used programming language. It’s tried and true, which is partly why it was so widely adopted by banks and governments in the second half of the 20th century.

Today, nearly half the world’s banking systems run on COBOL, according to Reuters, and more than 80% of card-based transactions use the code.

“I show COBOL programs written in 1960 that you can still compile and run today,” says J. Ray Scott, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, and one of the few professors who still teaches COBOL.

“I would hate to be a bank and have Python, and Python 3 came out and broke everything, and then we have to recompile all our code,” he said.

Scott attributes the lack of COBOL programmers to a number of issues, from the absence of an open-source version of the software in the ’80s and ’90s to the simple appeal of newer databases that natively connect to the internet.

“There was a period of 20 years where people were sure COBOL was dead, so there was nobody teaching it, nobody learning it,” he said. “COBOL started before there were disc drives, let alone the internet.”

A sliver of hope, Scott says, is that COBOL isn’t a particularly complex language to learn. When he was starting his career programming for steel mills in Pittsburgh, he says companies would perform aptitude tests for workers on the floors of the mills. If they passed, they were sent to a two-week COBOL class at IBM and then put onto the job in the IT department.

Bill Hinshaw, who runs COBOL Cowboys, says that the 60-year old programming language still has some life in it, especially in industries where it’s inexorably linked to critical functions. In his experience, governments are simply working with older versions of software and hardware, compared to banks and other industries.

“We’re dealing with more and more people who want to modernize COBOL,” Hinshaw says. “COBOL is not going away.”

Still, governments relying on a system too arcane for most working engineers can be perceived as a structural failure. Murphy’s plea for COBOL engineers is also a sign that local, state, and federal governments have overwhelmingly failed to update their technologies to meet the needs of citizens.

“There will be lots of postmortems,” after the coronavirus passes, Murphy said in his address to New Jersey. One of them on our list will be, ‘How the heck did we get here where we literally needed COBOL programmers?’”

Source:  Our Government Runs on a 60-Year-Old Coding Language, and Now It’s Falling Apart

Tata Immigration Case Could Shake IT Companies to ‘Very Core’

Similar to the 2013 controversy in Canada when RBC replaced some of its IT workers by temporary foreign workers (RBC replaces Canadian staff with foreign workers | CBC News –

A class action accusing Tata Consultancy Services Ltd. of bias against U.S.-born workers could make big waves in the information technology staffing industry.

The case is one of seven asserting that IT staffing companies prefer foreign workers from South Asia over qualified Americans. All of the companies being sued are heavy users of H-1B guestworker visas, which go to skilled professionals in “specialty occupations.”

Should a court rule that Tata Consultancy’s and other consulting firms’ use of those visas violates anti-discrimination laws, it could force the companies to change their long-standing hiring and business models. If there aren’t enough U.S. workers to take the place of H-1B visa holders, as the companies say, that could force them out of business.

Daily Labor Report® is the premier resource that the nation’s foremost labor and employment professionals rely on for authoritative, analytical coverage of top labor and employment news.

Tata Consultancy is the second largest H-1B user, with 14,697 visa petitions approved in fiscal year 2017, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services data. By contrast, the company recruited about 3,000 U.S. workers last year, and 12,500 over the past five years, a spokesman told Bloomberg Law.

Cognizant Technology Solutions Corp., a defendant in one of the other class actions, led the H-1B pack with 28,908 approved petitions last year.

The case against Tata Consultancy is one of “straightforward pattern and practice of discrimination that violates federal discrimination laws,” Daniel Kotchen of Kotchen & Low in Washington said in an email to Bloomberg Law. Kotchen’s firm is acting as lead or co-counsel in all seven class actions.

“Plaintiffs are confident in their case and look forward to trying the issues,” he said.

Outsourcing More Common

As more and more U.S. companies outsource their IT functions, that work has been absorbed by the overseas staffing companies, Allen Orr, second vice president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told Bloomberg Law. It’s much cheaper for a company with a temporary IT project to contract it out than to hire an H-1B worker directly, he said.

IT staffing companies have high numbers of H-1B workers because the work that otherwise would’ve been spread out among their clients is concentrated in those organizations, said Orr, who practices with the Orr Immigration Law Firm in Washington.

A finding of discrimination could put those companies out of business, but that wouldn’t end the dominance of H-1B workers in the IT industry, he said. It just “shifts the market demand” back to direct hiring of H-1B workers, he said.

IT staffing companies’ use of the H-1B program has been under fire by various government officials since a pair of high-profile cases in 2015 in which U.S. tech workers at Southern California Edison and Walt Disney World were laid off and required to train their H-1B replacements. The H-1B workers were employees of the IT staffing companies that SCE and Disney contracted with in lieu of retaining their own IT departments.

The Trump administration also took aim at the specialty visa program with an April 2017 executive order requiring employers to prioritize hiring of U.S. workers.

Big Shakeup

The class action cases take aim at seven different companies, each with roots in India or Sri Lanka. They include: Koehler v. Infosys Techs. Ltd., E.D. Wis., No. 2:13-cv-00885; Buchanan v. Tata Consultancy Servs., Ltd., N.D. Cal., No. 4:15-cv-01696; Palmer v. Cognizant Tech. Solutions Corp., C.D. Cal., No. 2:17-cv-06848; Phillips v. Wipro, Ltd., S.D. Tex., No. 4:18-cv-00821; Sugg v. Virtusa, D.N.J., No. 3:18-cv-08036; Grant v. Tech Mahindra (Americas) Inc., D.N.D., No. 3:18-cv-00171; and Voll v. HCL Techs. Ltd., N.D. Cal., No. 5:18-cv-04943.

Wipro “will vigorously defend against these meritless allegations in court,” the company said in a statement provided to Bloomberg Law. It added that Wipro “is committed to the principle of equal employment opportunity and provides all our employees with a work environment that is free from discrimination and harassment of any kind.”

“Tech Mahindra denies the allegations and is challenging the matter in court,” a company representative said in a statement provided to Bloomberg Law. “Tech Mahindra does not discriminate against any group or individual on the basis of race, creed, sex, sexual orientation, age or national origin,” the representative said.

“HCL is an equal opportunity employer and does not tolerate discrimination or harassment based on national origin, age, gender, color, religion, sexual orientation, pregnancy, disability etc.,” the company said in an email to Bloomberg Law. “We take great pride in our employment practices, including diversity at workplace.”

Representatives for the other IT staffing companies couldn’t be reached for comment about the national origin bias allegations.

A win for U.S. workers “would shake those corporations to the very core,” said David North, a fellow with the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports lower immigration levels.

The IT staffing industry in the U.S. is dominated by companies and workers from another part of the world, said North, who served as assistant for farm labor to the secretary of labor in the Johnson administration. “You cannot imagine a parallel situation to what we have with the Indian outsourcing companies,” he told Bloomberg Law.

A representative for NASSCOM, the trade association representing Indian IT services companies, declined to comment on the cases.

Tata Case Could Set Standard

The Tata Consultancy case is the furthest along, with a trial date set for Nov. 5 in federal district court in California. That makes it the most likely to set the standard for other cases to follow.

The judge presiding over the case last year refused to throw out the lawsuit and allowed it to go forward as a class action. Last month, she also rejected Tata Consultancy’s “hail-Mary effort” to restrict the workers’ remedy to just monetary damages.

That means the company could be subject to a court order requiring it to change its hiring and employment practices.

The company, however, denies the allegations.

“TCS is an equal opportunity employer, and as such, bases its employment decisions—including recruiting, hiring, promotions, retention, and discipline—on legitimate non-discriminatory business reasons without regards to race, national origin, color, religion, gender, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, age, veteran status, or any other characteristic protected by federal, state or local law,” a Tata Consultancy spokesman said in a statement provided to Bloomberg Law.

The company believes the allegations are “baseless,” he said.

But Kotchen said the company “has a corporate preference to predominantly staff U.S. positions with South Asians, including visa holders from India.” As a result, employees who aren’t South Asian aren’t given work to do and are fired at “strikingly disproportionate rates,” he said.

“It’s hard to show that there’s discriminatory intent,” especially when a company can’t be certain which employees it can hire in a given year, Orr said. For the past several years, demand for H-1B visas has outstripped supply, resulting in a lottery to determine which employers can access the visas.

Employers filed 190,098 applications this year for a total 85,000 H-1B visas.

Many employees of IT staffing companies also wind up getting green cards, a process that requires a labor market test, Orr said. “If U.S. workers had those qualifications, then they’d be filling those jobs,” he said.

‘Niche’ Discrimination ‘Gets Ignored’

The Justice Department’s Immigrant and Employee Rights section launched an initiative to combat discrimination against U.S. workers, but it only has jurisdiction to prosecute national origin claims against small companies.

“It’s hard for government officials to get their minds around the concept that maybe a minority is being discriminated for as opposed to against,” North said. On the political left you have the feeling that you shouldn’t attack a minority group, and on the right you have a reluctance to attack corporations, he said.

It’s a “niche situation” that often “gets ignored,” North said.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has jurisdiction over large companies, but it’s prohibited by law from confirming or denying the existence of specific discrimination charges, or from providing information about ongoing investigations, agency spokesman Joseph Olivares told Bloomberg Law.

He did point to an EEOC report finding that the tech industry in general employs a higher share of white, Asian, and male workers than the private sector in general.

Business Model

Sara Blackwell, a Florida-based attorney who represented former Disney tech workers in a lawsuit that was later dropped, said a class action win “would open the doors for a lot of these American workers.” She said “their opportunities are really small.”

But “unless you change the business model, this isn’t going to fix” the problem for many U.S. workers, Blackwell told Bloomberg Law.

Congress needs to change the law to have a meaningful impact on the practice, she said.

Source: Tata Immigration Case Could Shake IT Companies to ‘Very Core’

ICYMI – Bagnall: Could cloud services signal the end of ‘big zombie IT projects’ in government?

Still will face the same management challenges as conventional IT and the particular difficulties governments have in fixing and sticking to specifications. But certainly worth exploring:

As federal government announcements go, this one could have been a real snooze-fest.

Treasury Board President Scott Brison and Carla Qualtrough on Wednesday jointly unveiled a new information technology policy that had been in force for months, involving a once-obscure branch of technology called cloud services.

But their short show-and-tell, delivered on Facebook Live, hinted at something more profound taking place.

Brison in particular has accepted the idea that big government has to change the way it builds and manages its IT infrastructure — and that cloud services, which allow departments to lease computer capacity a bit at a time from private sector firms such as Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure — offer the way to do it.

“We can’t be a Blockbuster government when we’re serving a Netflix citizenry,” he said in comparing a defunct video rental business with a video-streaming company.

Brison appeared to be taking aim in part at Shared Services Canada, the government’s central computer services agency, which reports to Qualtrough. Since its formation in 2011, Shared Services has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in new data centres to house information and software that underpins programs ranging from the Canada Pension Plan to Statistics Canada’s census.

While the data centres are fresh and modern, Shared Services hasn’t impressed many federal departments because it’s been slow and inflexible in setting up new online services and ordering the new hardware.

Over the past year, smaller departments have forced the issue by quietly running their own pilot projects using Azure and other cloud providers. Private contractors now have dozens of cloud-based IT procurements in the works, such as applications designed to make scientific or business data available to the public.

Brison, whose department sets the overall policy for government IT, has reportedly been impressed with what cloud technology can do. On Wednesday he enumerated key benefits, such as how departments using cloud services can experiment with software applications a bit at a time, learning from the inevitable mistakes along the way.

“It’s better to learn the lessons early,” he said in an apparent reference to IT disasters such as the botched rollout of the Phoenix Pay system, “than to have big zombie IT projects rumbling on, trapped under the tyranny of sunk costs.”

How would Phoenix have developed in a cloud-based world? We could actually have an opportunity to find out if Qualtrough opts to restart the entire project. Nothing on that prospect Wednesday, though.

Of course, it’s very early days in the cloud services revolution. Qualtrough, who also seemed very much on board, noted her department had negotiated 22 contracts to date with companies that are selling cloud services to seven government departments and agencies, including Correctional Service Canada.

However, the value of these contracts — which are brokered by Shared Services in exchange for a fee — barely tops $2 million. This is a tiny fraction of Shared Services’ annual budget of more than $1.5 billion.

And there’s the other matter of security. Most of the government’s data is secret (a Protected B or higher classification), and Shared Services still has a monopoly over storing this information. Wednesday’s announcement was for unclassified stuff such as government websites that are to be viewed by the public.

Private contractors are suspicious that Shared Services is relying on security designations to retain its share of the government’s IT business.

It’s not clear how long its monopoly will last. Qualtrough noted the government is mulling further changes that would allow departments “in the future” to store even secret data in the cloud — one of the reasons tech giants such as Google and Amazon have been adding data centres in Canada.

This much is clear: providers of cloud services have secured their foothold in government. If they deliver as promised, this could be the beginning of the end of monster IT failures. There’ll be many small ones, to be sure. But the egregious example of Phoenix Pay has taught us that’s a much better way to run.

via Bagnall: Could cloud services signal the end of ‘big zombie IT projects’ in government? | Ottawa Citizen

Phoenix Pay: Government got conflicting advice before launching ill-fated system

Don’t think I would recommend S.i. Systems given their candy coating compared to Gartner.

But Bagnall’s conclusion is right: really hard to put on the brakes on a major initiative at a late stage, given bureaucratic inertia and that people are vested in it going forward:

In the wake of last week’s damning report by auditor general Michael Ferguson — who concluded the pay system is at risk of chewing up $540 million more than its budgeted $310 million by 2019, with no end in sight — it’s worth re-examining some of the independent advice government agencies were getting in early 2016.

Treasury Board, along with Phoenix-sponsor Public Services and Procurement Canada, commissioned at least two reviews that were delivered just days before the February 2016 launch of the new pay system.

One review, by Gartner Inc., offered a number of important warnings, but the second report, by S.i. Systems, was surprisingly upbeat about the Phoenix project’s chances for success.

“The (Phoenix) initiative is very likely to achieve its goals and desired outcomes within the first year or two of full operations,” S.i. Systems noted in its draft final report dated Jan. 18, 2016. “All in-scope work has been completed, a (software) code freeze has been imposed on Phoenix and the Miramichi pay centre is fully operational.”

Ferguson last week gave short shrift to such sentiment, pointing out that roughly one in two federal government employees was experiencing a significant pay issue as of last June — fully 16 months after the launch of Phoenix.

S.i. Systems couched some of its conclusions with caveats, noting that the system was not yet fully automated, with the result some pay transactions were being dealt with manually. However, the consultants viewed this as a “temporary” issue during the transition from dozens of older pay systems to the consolidated Phoenix system.

S.i. Systems nevertheless was clear that Public Services and Procurement Canada — the department in charge of the project — should move ahead with Phoenix. Such a move “will be challenging,” the S.i. Systems report noted, “but it is likely that the problems and difficulties will be manageable.”

The consultants concluded “The (Phoenix) project team is to be commended for bringing this complex initiative to its current stage.”

The Gartner report, dated Feb. 11, 2016, offered a much different view. Not only did Gartner identify a dozen significant risks facing the impending rollout of Phoenix, it offered strategies for minimizing them. Many of the risks proved all too real, while the tips for reducing them were ignored.

Consider this item, offered in a discussion of potential problems associated with testing the new pay system: “End to end testing has not been performed by any department that Gartner has interviewed,” Gartner noted, “Best practice would dictate multiple end-to-end cycles be tested prior to go-live (in February 2016).”

The Gartner document added that its consultants were never provided with “a clearly documented testing strategy and plan.”

Gartner was hired on Dec. 21, 2015, leaving it just enough time to interview eight federal departments. Nevertheless, the sample included some of the largest ones (Health Canada, Employment and Social Development Canada and Public Services).

Other key risks identified by Gartner included training, support and transition.

For instance, Gartner notes that federal departments hadn’t yet implemented their training programs. This meant that if any gaps in training emerged it would be impossible to address these through revised or remedial courses before Phoenix went live. Gartner concluded the training shortfall could result in “unanticipated consequences such as an incorrect pay calculation.”

Gartner also brought attention to what has proved one of Phoenix’s most intractable problems — technical support for government employees using the system, a problem exacerbated by the reduction in the number of pay administrators starting in 2014.

Gartner correctly predicted there would be a very large number of queries facing pay administrators at the central location in Miramichi, N.B. — not least because employees across government had little opportunity beforehand to become familiar with Phoenix’s many quirks.

The consultants offered a number of suggestions for reducing the risks of the Phoenix rollout, including trying a more piecemeal approach. Divide the two main waves of employees into multiple waves, for instance, and start with the least difficult departments — those with relatively few seasonal employees, shift workers and other complicating features when it comes to pay.

Critically, Gartner also suggested running Phoenix in tandem with the older pay system as a contingency in case the new system didn’t perform as advertised.

These and other recommendations were ignored, with the result now all too plain to see. Nearly 350,000 pay transactions are today choking a system designed to accommodate 80,000.

To be fair, S.i. Systems also took note of the potential risks involved in abandoning the old pay system before making sure Phoenix actually worked. “(We) did not see evidence of a fallback or test strategy to mitigate this potentially risky event,” the S.i. Systems report noted in an Annex.

But the consultants downplayed the risk in its summary assessment that declared the Phoenix project was using an “excellent testing strategy” and that “when problems were encountered, appropriate and timely action was taken.”

But no matter the consultants’ advice, the final call about moving ahead with a project this big belonged to government. After nearly a decade in development, Phoenix suffered the flaw of unstoppable bureaucratic momentum. The directors of the project seemed not inclined to pay much attention to last-minute advice unless it happened to line up with where they were going anyway.

via Phoenix Pay: Government got conflicting advice before launching ill-fated system | Ottawa Citizen

New passport processing system $75M over budget

Yet another failing project, once again pointing out political and public servant accountability and management issues:

Another government IT project is going off the rails, this one intended to issue Canadian passports faster and cheaper than the current system.

The so-called Passport Program Modernization Initiative, launched in 2014, is at least $75 million over budget and well behind schedule.

“From its outset, the complexity … was underestimated,” says an internal document, explaining a series of setbacks to the ambitious plan.

“The project management capacity and expertise was insufficient for the complexity and scale of the initiative.”

The January 2017 document, obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act, says that in initial tests the new system actually increased processing times, rather than decreased them as planned, and allowed breaches to Canadians’ confidential information.

The passport mess joins the botched Phoenix payroll system, the struggling email transformation initiative and the project as IT schemes inherited by the Liberal government that have bogged down in delays and cost over-runs.

That’s because passport fees are much higher than the actual cost of producing the document, and surpluses can be used for improvements in passport processing, including the modernization project and its budget overruns.

Online renewals

The passport project was first approved in December 2013 with a five-year, $101.2-million budget, and was intended among other things to let Canadians apply online for renewals. The project was to be complete by June next year.

But Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada — which has run the passport office since July 2013 — now says modernization will cost at least $176 million, a 75 per cent increase so far, and will not meet next year’s deadline because of delays.

“The project schedule is under review and planned activities are being resequenced to occur at a later date,” says a report on the project.

CBC News has previously reported on the first flubbed test of the new system, starting on May 9, 2015, in which at least 1,500 passports were produced that were vulnerable to fraud and tampering.

But unlike the other three, the fees Canadians pay directly for their passports are going to bail out the modernization project rather than general tax revenues.

‘The reporting did not track project spending … against budgeted activities.’– Internal report on passport modernizaton project

The test was carried out despite warnings of some officials that it posed significant security risks. In the summer of 2015 the department suspended its use of the new system, which was plagued with hundreds of glitches. Officials said none of the 1,500 problematic passports was issued to any citizen.

An internal audit of the initiative’s first stages found a raft of problems, including lack of cost control.

“The reporting did not track project spending against budgeted activities,” says the February 2016 audit report, adding the project “did not include a plan for security requirements.”

In 2013, the new fee for a five-year passport was set at $120 compared with $87 previously, and the department introduced a new 10-year passport for a $160 fee.

Revenues currently far exceed expenses; the passport program generated a surplus of $253 million for 2015-2016, the most recent year reported.

Revenue to drop

But because more Canadians are holding 10-year passports, the department expects revenues to drop significantly starting next year as fewer people need renewals.

The program will start drawing on its accumulated surpluses after next year to avoid deficits — but the modernization program’s cost overruns will add to the fiscal pressures.

That’s the opposite of the original plan, which was for the passport modernization project to dramatically cut the cost of issuing passports, and help IRCC get through the lean years from 2018 to 2023 as revenues decline because of the effect of 10-year passports issued in 2013 and after.

Source: New passport processing system $75M over budget – Politics – CBC News

Federal government to downsize failing project

Another failing IT project.

As someone who regularly accesses government information, never found terribly user friendly or easy to find the info I was looking for. The old departmental websites were more efficient from my user perspective (although that may reflect my comfort and familiarity with them or the more policy information that I was looking for).

And a bit disappointed the IRCC is one of the sites that will remain as it is one of the sites I consult with the most.

As with the other major IT failures – Shared Services Canada, Phoenix – one has to question the competence of the senior officials who made and prepared the case along with the Ministers who provided oversight and approval:

The federal government is substantially curtailing the multimillion-dollar project, acknowledging that its plan to merge 1,500 departmental and agency websites into a single website is sputtering.

Instead of migrating all departments and agencies to a single platform, the $11.8 million earmarked for the project will be used government wide, with a focus on four of the largest departments offering services most used by Canadians: health, environment, Canada Revenue Agency, and immigration.

Those departments will have until the end of this year to migrate their content to the new platform.

“The 2012 plan to migrate all government web content to the platform under delivered from the beginning in part due to poor project management, planning and underfunding from the outset by the previous Conservative government,” said Jean-Luc Ferland, press secretary to Scott Brison, president of the Treasury Board.

“We are refocusing project funds where they can make the biggest impact to improve Canadians’ online experiences.”

Most telling about the government’s flagging support for the initiative is that remaining departments and agencies will not be compelled to continue.

“Other departments will continue to have the option of migrating content to as resources and technology advances allow,” said Ferland.

Over budget and behind schedule

The initiative was launched with the goal of making it easier for people to find and use government information online. A $1.54-million contract for a new content management system, where all government websites would be moved, was awarded to Adobe in 2015.

But as CBC reported at the end of last year, the project is more than 10 times over budget and more than a year behind schedule, making it yet another failing government IT project, not unlike the Phoenix pay system or the email transformation initiative. It’s also another project the Liberal government is blaming on its predecessor.

A government source not authorized to speak on the record said the decision to pare down the initiative, yet allow it to limp along, was making the best of a bad situation.

“It’s like we walked into the kitchen where the meal is poorly planned and off to a rough start. Some dishes were forgotten, grill is overstuffed … your herbs are wilting on the counter. You don’t freak out and throw everything out. The responsible thing to do is to focus on your guests and make the most of everything you have.”

Tens of millions spent so far

In response to inquiries from CBC, the Treasury Board conceded that as of June, only 230,542 pages were hosted on, up from the 10,000 tabulated six months ago, but still an incredibly slow rate of movement over to the new portal.

There are more than 17 million government of Canada web pages in total.

As well, the Adobe contract has ballooned to more than $14.9 million, according to government figures. That does not include the tens of millions spent by departments and agencies that are responsible themselves for the actual migration of the websites, using existing budgets and staffing.

Since 2015, eight of the largest departments have spent or budgeted nearly $32 million on the project. Those departments include:

  • Employment and Social Development Canada.
  • Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship.
  • Health.
  • Environment.
  • Canada Revenue Agency.
  • National Defence.
  • Fisheries and Oceans.
  • Global Affairs.

A slow migration

“This is great news from a taxpayer’s perspective,” said Joel Brockbank, chief technology officer at OpenPlus, a content archictecture company that had submitted a bid to create the new content management system for

“These large IT renewals have a lot of momentum and it’s difficult to change course if it’s not going as planned. It’s amazing they are not doubling down and putting a lot more money into something that will ultimately fail.”

Experts who have warned against unmanageable, large, one-size-fits-all government IT projects agree.

“To focus the money on key sites which Canadians use most is the right decision,” said Timothy Lethbridge who teaches software engineering and computer science at the University of Ottawa.

The December deadline for the four big departments is probably still unrealistic, according to Lethbridge, but the idea of letting other departments off the hook is smart.

“To slowly migrate, as time permits, is more cost effective than a forced death march to get to an artificial deadline,” he said.

A time to cut losses

A government source with first-hand knowledge of the project, and who was speaking on condition of anonymity, said IT government workers have been told that none of the government’s arm’s-length agencies have been moving their material over to the new site for some time.

“In fact we are not even talking about anymore,” said the source, adding “the vast majority of the content on government sites is not being migrated at all.

“It probably just won’t happen.”

Source: Federal government to downsize failing project – Politics – CBC News

U.S. consultants slam Shared Services Canada for failing projects

To the current government’s credit, it engaged Gartner to review the implementation of the shared services initiative.

The question remains whether officials who promoted and supported the previous government’s strategy provided sound advice on the risks and mitigation strategies, and whether or not Ministers and the government accepted it or not.

Complex IT projects are hard, and government by its very nature is not agile, further exacerbating risk:

Ottawa is in way over its head by attempting a massive transformation of its information-technology (IT) systems under Shared Services Canada, says a scathing indictment of the agency’s failings since 2011.

The government of Canada “has vastly underestimated the size, scale and complexity of this effort. … They are attempting the largest and most complex public-sector shared-service implementation ever considered,” concludes a $1.35-million report by international consultants.

“We … lack confidence in the ability of SSC (Shared Services Canada) and the GC (Government of Canada) to successfully execute the plan.”

The Jan. 12, 2017, report by consultant Gartner Inc. was ordered by the federal government last August, after repeated failures of the Phoenix payroll system and complaints from departments about Shared Services Canada’s inability to deliver technology upgrades, including new email systems.

U.S.-based Gartner brought together a five-person expert panel to examine the agency and its projects, a group that included executives experienced in public-sector digital transformations in California, Massachusetts and Northern Ireland, as well as the former IBM executive who handled big projects within that firm.

Shared Services Canada outsourcing

A $1.35-million consultants’ report, obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act, says Shared Services Canada is in way over its head trying to manage a massive transformation of technology. (Shutterstock)

The report lauds the project of consolidating the federal government’s information technology, including creation of a single email system, but says “very little progress” has been made in the last six years because of persistent management failures.

“Decision making cannot follow current approaches,” said the document, obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act.

“Execution must be based on agile, effective decision making, with clear and singular accountabilities. This is the antithesis of governance today.”

The report repeatedly underscores the enormous scale of the consolidation project, likening it to combining the infrastructure of between 30 and 40 large banks.


The consultants say Shared Services Canada is slow-footed, partly hobbled by complex procurement rules, so that an email solution it chose in 2011 and still has not completed has since been outmoded by new cloud services.

“The world in 2016 is much different from how it was in 2011, and the expert panel and Gartner believe developments such as cloud services should be given much more prominence in SSC’s future,” said the 198-page report.

Some of the document is redacted, including key financial information. The authors make a series of recommendations, chief of which is the appointment of a deputy minister for IT for all of government, to whom the head of Shared Services Canada would report.

In April 2011, then-prime minister Stephen Harper lauded the project to consolidate the government’s IT systems and data centres, saying on the election campaign trail that year that “we know we can save all kinds of money there.”

‘The project was set up to fail through underfunding, lack of service standards, and poor planning from the previous government.’– Jean-Luc Ferland, spokesperson for Treasury Board President Scott Brison

The new agency charged with carrying out the transformation, Shared Services Canada, was announced on Aug. 4, 2011, after Harper won a majority.

But two projects in particular went off the rails in the early going, one to consolidate cell and telephone services, the other to consolidate email services. Both have been plagued by delays, among other problems.

And the new agency was immediately required to cut costs as part of a government-wide effort to wipe out the federal deficit by 2015.

Shared Services Canada data centre

Shared Services Canada is the department responsible for the federal government’s IT services, including its data centres. A new report says the federal government must create a new deputy minister of IT, to help get the troubled agency back on track. (Shared Services Canada)

Jean-Luc Ferland, a spokesperson for Treasury Board President Scott Brison, welcomed the consultants’ conclusions and recommendations, pinning much of the blame for the bad results on the former Conservative government.

“As the report makes clear, the motivation and objectives behind the creation of Shared Services Canada are even more relevant today than they were when it was conceived in 2011,” said Ferland.

“The report is equally clear that the former Conservative government failed to put in place the basic fundamentals for success at the time SSC was created. The project was set up to fail through underfunding, lack of service standards, and poor planning from the previous government.”

No timeline

Ferland said the government is still reviewing the recommendations, alongside those of the auditor general, House of Commons committees and other consultations. He did not provide a timeline for solutions.

“Our government’s ambition is to provide exemplary service to Canadians while making a seamless transformation to the age of digital government — not booking false savings, arbitrarily hobbling the public service, or cutting corners.”

Source: U.S. consultants slam Shared Services Canada for failing projects – Politics – CBC News

Wayne Smith, former Chief Statistician, continues his critique of Shared Services: Questionable transfers from Statistics Canada to Shared Services Canada


Program helps new immigrants find their footing in Canadian tech sector

Appears to be a good and successful program:

When Rohum Azarmgin immigrated to Canada in April, 2015, he wasn’t fully prepared for the job hunt he would encounter. As an established and educated IT professional in Iran, he never had an issue finding work. But his new home was different, and he didn’t fully understand how the recruitment process worked.

“I didn’t have trouble landing interviews, but I wasn’t able to secure a job,” says Mr. Azarmgin. That’s despite having both an IT degree and an MBA as well as 12 years’ experience as a project manager in his home country. It was a tough time, he recalls, and focusing all his attention on finding a job meant burning through much of his savings.

Mr. Azarmgin’s experience is one common to many immigrant tech workers, who come to Canada with expertise and education, but struggle to find their footing amid a hiring process and work environment vastly different from that in their home country. A program funded by the Ontario government called Integrated Work Experience Strategy (IWES) aims to help newcomers with technical experience like Mr. Azarmgin continue their careers in Canada.

Offered by the not-for-profit Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC), the program involves three weeks of in-class training in Scarborough, Ont., followed by three months of one-on-one coaching for a fee of $399 plus HST. Over 85 per cent of graduates of the IWES program have landed jobs within six months of completing the program, with average salaries starting at $50,000. Since the pilot in 2009, approximately 450 professionals have been through the program.

It’s a win-win situation, says ICTC program manager Maureen Ford. “Information and communications technology professionals connect to the labour market, securing opportunities commensurate with their education and experience, and employers find skilled talent to meet their increasing digital skill needs.”

The need for technical talent in Canada is massive, and many tech leaders say the shortage is impeding the growth of their firms. Andrea Gilbrook, director of talent programs at the tech organization Communitech in the Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont., region, has witnessed it first-hand. According to Communitech’s estimates, there are currently around 3,000 open positions in tech companies as well as tech positions in non-tech companies in the region. That number, she says, is expected to exceed 5,000 in five years.

“We need more students and new grads, but we also need more experienced hires,” she says.

Many in the sector are hoping for an increased chance to bring in tech-savvy newcomers due to tightening immigration rules in the United States. Ms. Gilbrook sees the value in programs that help integrate skilled newcomers, and says Communitech has launched its own three-month pilot program targeted at skilled immigrants and career changers.

In the IWES program, guest speakers and visiting recruiters introduce the participants to the norms of Canadian workplace culture. Participants learn how to conduct job searches and interviews, and improve their resumes and social media presence. But it’s the one-on-one coaching portion that many participants, like Mr. Azarmgin, find the most helpful.

After four months of struggling to find work in his field, he enrolled in the IWES program. He was paired with volunteer coach Chris Hamoen, formerly director of growth at Toronto-based software company Hubba. Mr. Hamoen since moved on to create his own startup and hopes to use the IWES program as a resource for talent.

Together, they revised Mr. Azarmgin’s resume, ran through mock interviews, and helped formulate a job search strategy. Mr. Azarmgin says having Mr. Hamoen on his team made him much better prepared for the job hunt.

By December, 2015, Mr. Azarmgin successfully landed a position in Halifax with NTT Data, a systems integration company. Today, he’s moved on to a more senior position as a project manager at CGI.

“A lot of their [participants] end up at IWES when they’re giving up almost,” says Mr. Hamoen. “They’re far into their time in Canada and aren’t using their skills and are just finding a way to pay the bills.”

Source: Program helps new immigrants find their footing in Canadian tech sector – 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

The Privy Council Office needs some new computers — and they want to buy Apple, not Windows

Fun piece by David Akin on PCO’s purchase of Apple. As a long-time Mac user, was frustrated by the corporate IT folks who were overly slavish with respect to Windows and Blackberry.

But Macs have generally always had a place in the Comms shop for videos and other creative work:

Between federal government civilian employees and the RCMP and Canadian Forces uniformed members, there must be close to 500,000 people.  Almost all of those folks would need a desktop computer. Many would need a laptop computer. And many would need a government-issued smartphone.

All those devices — not to mention the servers that store government data and software — present one heckuva a challenge from an information technology management point-of-view. The federal government’s I.T. chief has to worry about security, about cost, interoperability, and ease of administration when it comes to training and software updates. For those reasons, the government has for years standardized on computers that run Microsoft’s Windows operating system which means, almost by default, a standard deployment of Microsoft’s Office suite — Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Access.

The standard smartphone deployed to government employees has, for years, been a BlackBerry.

But things are changing.

Example: Last night, the government posted a tender for a supplier to fix up bureaucrats who work in the Privy Council Office with 52 computers — from Apple!

Now, maybe the PCO was working on Macs before this tender offer went out. I’ve asked the department if that’s the case and we will update here. I am told, in fact, by a PCO spokesperson that it is not unusual for departments to have a small number of Apple computer in use “for specialized requirements.”


…The PCO is the federal government department that supports the work of the prime minister. It is the civil service mirror/partner, if you will, of the PMO — the Prime Minister’s Office. Officials in both the PMO and PCO work closely together. In my personal experience, I have seen many PMO officials using Apple products. And I know via some documents I dug up using an access to information request that the prime minister himself had some Apple products purchased for his use at his home office at Rideau cottage. He bought (if memory serves) an iPad Pro, among other devices and information technology.

But Trudeau is not the only prime minister to have picked Apple. That’s right: Stephen Harper was an Apple guy. The one and only time I ever saw Harper use any piece of information technology, it was his own personal Apple MacBook, which he brought into the House of Commons one night during a long “take-note” debate. Interestingly, the Apple logo that is on the front of any MacBook had been covered on Harper’s device with a family photo.

And it was another Conservative politician — Stockwell Day — who was the first MP I ever saw to bring a tablet into the House of Commons and, you bet, that tablet was an iPad. Nowadays, if you look down upon the House of Commons, you will see a sea of iPads.

But I can tell you House of Commons I.T. had to be dragged kicking and screaming to agree to have iPads on the House network or to agree to support iPads.

And so it may be with the broader government-wide I.T. community, already dealing right now with a very rough transition to some common platforms and computing environments via Shared Services Canada. (And we won’t even talk about the fiasco that is the computerized Phoenix payroll system.)

But at the Privy Council Office — the command-and-control centre for the entire civil service — 50 Apple computers are on the way.

Why are they going Mac and getting off of Windows? Unknown at this point. Again: Questions are in to PCO and we’ll see what they say. But there might be a few reasons.

First, speaking as a guy who used the original Apple McIntosh to paginate my university paper back in the 80s, who used to be a technology reporter and who still has a working Apple G4 Cube at home, Macs are just, well, machines for the rest of us. (See that famous Apple ad, below, which introduced the world to the McIntosh).

But there is also some evidence that, even though a comparable Apple desktop is more expensive versus a comparable Windows box, the total cost of ownership — TCO in I.T.-speak — is actually lower once you factor in how much it costs to provide tech support to users of device and other issues.  Heck, even IBM now buys Macs and encourages its clients to do so because of lower costs. (IBM, incidentally, was widely believed to have been the firm that was mocked in that original 1984 Apple ad.)

Source: The Privy Council Office needs some new computers — and they want to buy Apple, not Windows | National Post