The Phoenix pay system debacle - Canadian Government Executive
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September 12, 2018

The Phoenix pay system debacle

In the spring of 2018, the Auditor General of Canada, Michael Ferguson, released a hard-hitting report on the Phoenix pay system. The overarching question was whether Public Services and Procurement Canada “effectively and efficiently managed and oversaw” the implementation of the new pay system. The report confirms that tens of thousands of public servants have experienced problems with receiving compensation since Phoenix was implemented. In many cases, this has caused significant and long-term financial hardship for individuals and their families. Phoenix has cost the government money too; the report says that, so far, the federal government has devoted $1 billion to attempts to solve Phoenix-related problems.

The Auditor General’s report didn’t exactly mince words. Ferguson described the whole thing as an “incomprehensible failure of project management and oversight.” Further, he has claimed that the public service of Canada suffers from a “broken culture” which, in his view, contributed to the Phoenix debacle. Michael Wernick, the Clerk of the Privy Council, has registered his disagreement with Ferguson’s generalizations about the culture of the public service, but has also conceded that the public service is “too risk averse” and “needs to be more innovative and creative.”[1] Even early on in his tenure as Clerk and well before the Phoenix pay system crisis and subsequent report, Wernick described the public service as “a bit of a fixer-upper” and expressed his view that too many rules and managers add up to a bureaucratic logjam that slows responsiveness. The public service needs to be more quick and nimble.[2]

Wernick is not alone in these views; but where does this leave public servants who are tasked with speaking truth to power in an increasingly vulnerable climate?

As part of the conversation on Phoenix, the Clerk has suggested that Parliament consider legislative measures that would allow the government to fire public servants for poor performance. He has confirmed that he does not want the possibility of termination to be used as a tool for “harassment and bullying.” However, it is both understandable and unavoidable for public servants to wonder how the relaxation of rules around termination could affect their ability to speak truth to power. What is meant by poor performance? And how can we expect public servants to become more risk-averse, self-possessed, creative and innovative at the same time that it becomes more possible to fire them if they fail? What’s in it for them?

It is not an easy time for the public service anywhere in Canada. Ontario Premier Doug Ford has imposed a hiring freeze in the public sector, fired Ontario’s Chief Scientist, and has halted discretionary spending for public servants. Also, he has announced salary freezes, a review of executive and management pay, and has promised to follow through on a new expenditure management strategy. It is not at all a new thing for a government to target the public service in its bid to save money, and it is easy to find support among the electorate for these kinds of cost-saving measures. However, it is worth noting that Premier Ford’s government is new and its campaign platform was light on detail. There is a vital need for strong public service advice in any government, but the public service’s role in government transition and in supporting a new government is indispensable. To be clear, fiscal restraint and cost-saving measures are not, by definition, hostile to the public service, and it is too early to characterize or define the Ford government’s relationship with the public sector. That said, the early days have caused a sense of uncertainty about what is to come.

Canada’s public service has been heralded as the most effective in the world by the International Civil Service Effectiveness Index on accounts of its high scores in policy making, crisis management, openness and inclusiveness, and financial management. The ability to speak truth to power, above all else, is the foundation of our strong performance on each of these measures. In the spirit of true and meaningful public service reform, we need new infrastructure, both institutional and cultural, to encourage and support both accountability and innovation.

Lori Turnbull is interim director at the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University and fellow at the Public Policy Forum.

[1] May, Kathryn. 2018. “Tag, you’re it: Auditor General passes ‘broken’ PS culture to politicians to fix. iPolitics. Available at: https://ipolitics.ca/2018/06/20/tag-youre-it-auditor-general-passes-broken-ps-culture-to-politicians-to-fix/

[2] May, Kathryn. 2016. “PS needs to pick up pace of reforms.” The Ottawa Citizen. Available at: https://ottawacitizen.com/news/local-news/ps-needs-to-pick-up-pace-of-reforms-privy-council-clerk

(Photo: Pixabay)

About this author

Marcello Sukhdeo

Marcello is responsible for content strategy for Canadian Government Executive, IT in Canada Online and WRLWND and also is the host of WRLWND Radio. An avid technology enthusiast, he has worked on content leadership strategies for a number of industries including the public sector, life science, technology and defence.

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