Editorial: No Phoenix rising from these ashes

The November 21 release of the federal auditor general’s fall 2017 report should be raising taxpayer ire across the land over the lack of competence and accountability uncovered in civil service technology updates, outsourced contract agreements and communications.

Atop the catalogue of disregard for the public purse and operational common sense is the Phoenix payroll system. Consider a few points raised in Michael Ferguson’s audit of the technological mess that has been ongoing since the system to handle the federal government’s $22 billion payroll was rolled out with the help of IBM in early 2016. More than 150,000 of the federal government’s 290,000 employees have been overpaid, underpaid or not paid at all. The initiative to replace the government’s 40-year-old pay system was expected to save Canadian taxpayers $70 million per year. Instead, as of June 30, Phoenix has generated more than $520 million in unresolved pay issues and 494,500 requests for outstanding pay. Close to 49,000 employees have been waiting more than a year to have those requests processed. The auditor general now estimates it will take years and much more than the originally projected $540 million to fix the system.

IBM’s responsibility in the debacle is unclear, as are the details of the requirements and responsibilities included in the 1,700-page contract drafted to institute Phoenix. 

Meanwhile over at the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) call centre, agents responsible for helping the public with tax questions were found during the auditor general’s audit period to have answered only 36% of incoming calls and provided incorrect answers approximately 30% of the time. As part of the CRA’s customer service, it blocked 29 million of 53.5 million incoming calls during the audit.

The foregoing is more than a woeful misallocation of funds and tolerance of substandard job performance.

But then this is the public service, where mistakes are made but no one is ever responsible.