The Phoenix Debacle & The Politics of Digital Decline - Canadian Government Executive
Digital Governance with Jeffrey RoyGovernmentLeadership
November 8, 2016

The Phoenix Debacle & The Politics of Digital Decline

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In 2001, the OECD published The Hidden Threat to E-Government. The first line summarized the essence of that threat: “Most governments experience problems when implementing large IT projects.” Alas, fifteen years later, the Phoenix payroll debacle in the Government of Canada brings to mind the old adage: plus ca change…

The impacts of Phoenix have been widely-documented in recent months, with initial reports of several hundred impacted public servants to estimates reaching as high as eighty thousand. For a Liberal Government seemingly intent on rebuilding capacity and morale, a messed up payroll system is hardly ideal.

Naturally, since this is what Parliamentary governance does best, there is finger-pointing abound: the Liberals blame the Conservatives for launching Phoenix (who, in turn, blame the Liberals for their decision to continue implementation), and the unions bemoan their warnings long-ignored. In one rather stunning interview on CBC, the Minister even sought to deflect criticism of a privacy breach by pointedly claiming that officials had simply not briefed her.

For the White House, such missteps would resonate with unwanted memories of a faulty portal nearly crashing Obama-care before it began. As Saturday Night Live (and it’s not every day that a government IT project makes the opening skit of such a flagship program) quipped, it seemed that the new website may have been built to accommodate a maximum of six users at a time…!

Two lessons from the Obama-care rollout are noteworthy. First, the Health Secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, would ultimately resign. The second lesson stems from President Obama himself, who—clearly incensed at the botched beginning of his signature initiative—ordered the formation of a stealth team of digital leaders from inside and outside of government to makes things right. Fixing the health care portal would prove to be a starting point for an enlarged effort dubbed, “Obama and His Geeks” (the title of a Fast Company story).
By contrast, Prime Minister Trudeau tasked his most senior official, the Clerk of the Privacy Council, not exactly someone known for his digital prowess, to oversee the Phoenix mission. Within Public Works, moreover, it would largely seem to be the same folks that created the problems have been tasked with sorting them out. Except now they are operating within a fishbowl of aggrieved employees, media scrutiny, union outrage, and an investigating Privacy Commissioner.

A wider take-away is the stark absence of digital leadership politically, a condition likely to perpetuate mismanagement and stalled transformation. Consider the mosaic of federal players: the CIO Branch and its Open Government unit within Treasury Board, Public Works and Shared Services Canada, Service Canada, CRA, ISEDC (formerly Industry Canada and home of the now still-born Digital Canada 150), to say nothing of the myriad of security agencies involved in cyber-preparedness.

The Ontario Government—no stranger to IT misadventure, recently appointed what might be the country’s first explicitly labeled, Digital Minister—a person to be supported by a likeminded Chief Digital Officer. While laudable, I have often argued (most recently with respect to Shared Services Canada) that a group of Ministers should, at the very least, complement such a position in order to shine light on collaborative and holistic action.

The need for deepening political literacy also extends to the legislative branch. In his most recent report for the Mowat Centre, Mark Jarvis underscores this point, calling for the creation of a Parliamentary Committee on Public Administration, as exists in the UK. The British Committee’s salient 2011 report, A Recipe for Rip-offs: Time for a New Approach, set the stage for the formation of the Government Digital Service unit as well as the country’s recognized leadership in open data. More recently, a Digital Democracy Commission formed by the House of Common’s Speaker provided a roadmap for digitizing Parliament and renewing public trust.

Does such engagement matter? The UK now sits atop the latest Global E-Government Survey by the United Nations, closely followed by Australia where politicians have also made digitization a priority. This country, meanwhile, has slipped out of the top ten while Canada was not even included in a 2014 global survey of ten countries conducted by Accenture (a one-time fan of the federal government’s inaugural e-government efforts).

In short, the Phoenix payroll system is a serious impediment to public service renewal in the short term; but it is also emblematic of the political malaise that has greatly constrained the emergence of digital government in Canada.

Jeffrey Roy is professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University (roy@dal.ca).

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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