A broken government culture has to change

How could Phoenix Pay System fail

By Kevin Sorenson, M.P., Battle River-Crowfoot

On May 29, the Auditor General of Canada tabled his 2018 Spring Reports, which have been the subject of the Public Accounts Committee’s review for the last couple of weeks; a committee I chair.

While all the reports are important and worthy of diligent consideration, particularly the report on the Phoenix Pay System, it was the auditor’s somewhat unprecedented message that really caught my attention.

Auditor General (AG) Michael Ferguson concluded that Phoenix was an “incomprehensible failure” and he questioned, “Why did no one realize the project would fail? Why did no one stop and fundamentally reassess the project?” And, “How could Phoenix have failed so thoroughly in a system that has a management accountability framework; risk management policies; and program evaluations?”

Ultimately, Ferguson’s answer to his own question was that it was “a broken government culture.”

The AG challenged the government to either “perpetuate the current culture and its problems” or to “change that culture and reap the benefits of programs that work for people.” Conservative members of the Public Accounts Committee responded to the challenge beginning with a request for the chief counsel to the Prime Minister and the head of the public service, the Clerk of the Privy Council, Michael Wernick, to appear at our committee to respond to the AG’s message.

I opened that meeting on June 12 by stating:

“As it was somewhat unprecedented for the AG to write such a message, it is also unprecedented for me to open this meeting with a few words of explanation as to why the committee has requested your presence here today Mr. Wernick.

“Our focus is not primarily on the Phoenix Pay System nor is it with respect to the poor outcomes of Indigenous programs – although both are extremely important – they will be the subject of upcoming meetings.

“The objective of today’s meeting – the objective of the AG’s message – is “…to lead to a deeper understanding and correction of the pervasive cultural problems at play” within the public service; a culture that has created in the AG’s opinion, an “obedient public service that fears mistakes and risks. Its ability to convey hard truths has eroded, as has the willingness of senior levels – including ministers – to hear hard truths.” A culture, the AG claims has caused and will continue to cause incomprehensible failures.

“It is this committee’s sincere hope that this meeting today starts a process of change so that we do not experience anymore ‘incomprehensible failures’ – failures that have adversely affected so many people; failures that could have been and can be avoided in the future.’ Failures that resulted in 494,500 outstanding pay requests by public servants totally $520 million in pay errors in June 2017.”

Unfortunately, that process of change may not be forthcoming anytime soon as the clerk of the Privy Council characterized the AG’s message as “an opinion piece I take issue with.” In other words, Wernick disagrees with the AG’s comments.

The AG will have the opportunity to respond to the clerk’s comment on June 19; one of our last committee meetings before Parliament recesses for the summer. At the time of writing, I am just preparing to head into a meeting on Report 1 of the AG’s 2018 Spring Report – “Building and Implementing the Phoenix Pay System,” which will be the subject of my next column.

If you have any questions or concerns regarding this or previous columns you may write me at 4945-50th Street, Camrose, Alberta, T4V 1P9, call 780-608-4600, toll-free 1-800-665-4358, fax 780-608-4603 or e-mail Kevin.Sorenson.c1@parl.gc.ca.

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