Phoenix, the Senate and Digital Renewal - Canadian Government Executive
AccountabilityDigital Governance with Jeffrey RoyGovernmentTransformation
November 12, 2018

Phoenix, the Senate and Digital Renewal

The recent 2018 Senate Report examining the Government of Canada’s Phoenix debacle provides cold comfort to the thousands of individuals and families impacted by the deeply flawed payroll system. Yet it can help illuminate some of the many challenges of digital renewal facing an all-too-often antiquated public sector.

Three salient issues stand out: first, the importance of political oversight in all matters digital; second, the dysfunctional Westminster model of political and operational accountability; and third, the tenuous balance between government-wide transformation and organizational autonomy and flexibility.

With respect to political oversight, an advantage of the Senate is less partisanship than what transpires in the theatrics of the House of Commons. As with other important matters, notably medically-assisted dying and legalization of marijuana, the reformed Senate has sought to enlighten debate. The Senate Report is thus less about assigning blame for past sins and more about addressing the costly and consequential choices at hand.

Down under, Australia’s climb to the top of the UN Global E-Government Survey (number two in 2016) is owed at least in part to the important catalytic role played by the second House. A recent report by the Senate examining the “digital delivery of government services” is illustrative of such a role–deepening the digital literacy of the legislative branch (that both represents the public and breeds future ministers).

In contrast, excepting a single report on open data in 2014, the Canadian Parliament has been largely disinterested in digital matters–except when scandal arises. It must also be noted that Australia’s Senate is elected, whereas recent changes to the by-appointment configuration of the Canadian Senate remain a work in progress with uncertain prospects.

In terms of accountability, the Senate report rightly notes that “no one has taken responsibility or been held to account” for the hugely impactful mistakes associated with Phoenix. While Westminster traditionalists suggest that such is the system that shields public servants–asking instead Ministers to assume accountability–former Public Service Minister Jude Foote was quick to publicly blame department officials for providing faulty and incomplete information.

Public servant anonymity is an outdated and counter-productive notion, a point underscored by the Government of Canada’s more recent digital efforts–notably Shared Services Canada and Canadian Digital Services, both headed by Chief Executive Officers expected to work in tandem with ministers and assume at least certain elements of operational accountability. By contrast, over many years, Phoenix degenerated into a bureaucratic morass, further shackled by a flawed procurement model that insulated the private sector from assuming risk and responsibility for its own decisions.

In response to the Senate and other such reviews, the Government has announced the pursuit of a new procurement paradigm: one predicated upon greater openness and agility. Encouragingly, the public launching of this reframing featured prominent roles assigned to both Canada’s first federal Digital Minister (Scott Brison) and the Government of Canada’s CIO (Alex Benay).

The third takeaway from the Senate’s Phoenix review is ongoing tensions between government-wide transformation (initiatives seeking interoperability and efficiency) and the benefits of modularity stemming from organizational freedom. The Senate report explains that “in selecting and implementing the Phoenix pay system, the government chose a single, centralized system to serve 101 departments and agencies…This decision created extensive pay problems for organizations that have complex pay rules.”

With the advent of open-source tools and cloud-based offerings, individual entities both large and small may be better positioned to customize solutions. Accordingly, the British Government has devised a suite of options available through a single, though collaborative, ‘digital marketplace’ that aims to incentivize rather than ordain. For traditional government actors, notably central agencies, this new universe demands an entirely new mindset–further giving rise to questions as to whether they are best able to orchestrate such change.

In sum, the changes required to rectify Phoenix and build a functional and adaptable digital government transcend and intertwine all three points: digital literacy across both the executive and legislative branches; visibility, empowerment and accountability for senior public servants; and a more open and collaborative governance typology enjoining a diverse mosaic of public sector entities.

(Image: Pixabay)

About this author

Jeffrey Roy

Jeffrey Roy is Professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Management. He is a widely published observer and critic of the impacts of digital technologies on government and democracy. He has worked with the United Nations, the OECD, multinational corporations, and all levels of government in Canada. He has produced more than eighty peer-reviewed articles and chapters and his most recent book was published in 2013 by Springer: From Machinery to Mobility: Government and Democracy in a Participative Age. Among other bodies, his research has been funded by the IBM Center for the Business of Government and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. He may be reached at: roy@dal.ca

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