ITAC underscores skills gap & need for ICT to remain at the table to support GOC modernization

  • Treasury Board President Scott Brison said the “screw-up” of the Phoenix pay system taught him two lessons.

Invest in the IT skills of public servants and don’t pull the plug on an old system until the new one is up and working, Brison told delegates Friday at the annual meeting of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada.

“When you have a crisis like this, when you have screw-up like this, it is an opportunity to learn.”

Brison said Phoenix’s pay problems are unacceptable and will become a case study for all future large government-wide projects. He promised to invest in developing the skills of public servants and ensure all future projects will keep the old systems running “until we are absolutely certain that the new system is working.

“Enterprise solutions are always fraught with challenges,” he told the gathering in Gatineau. “You need to maintain a strong legacy system in place until you are certain the new one is working.”

Brison is the first Treasury Board president to speak at PIPSC annual meeting, and he couldn’t have found a more receptive audience for his list of Phoenix failings. The convention hall of union activists — who repeatedly applauded — included public servants who were victims of Phoenix pay glitches and IT workers who want the government to stop outsourcing and invest in developing the skills of public servants.

Until now, Brison has rarely waded into the Phoenix debacle, which has largely fallen on the shoulders of Public Services Minister Judy Foote.

Phoenix has had many failings, including not enough testing, but the government has blamed many of the foul-ups on insufficient training and underestimating the time needed for employees to master the new system.

Another big criticism was that the government decommissioned the 40-year-old regional pay system that Phoenix was replacing after the second rollout in April — before it was clear whether the system worked.

The previous Conservative government hired IBM to build a new payroll system based on PeopleSoft, a software suite to help manage operations, finances and employees. But PIPSC president Debi Daviau said Canada’s public servants would be getting paid properly and on time if the government had relied on and developed its own IT talent.

“I believe 100 per cent we could have done it,” she said in an interview. “We would have had to work with IBM, but we could have configured, implemented, tested the system, and trained people.”

But some IT contractors who work with government disagree. They say the government doesn’t have the in-house skills to pull off such large projects.

Alex Beraskow, a longtime management consultant who has worked with government on large IT projects, said this “buy or build” debate has raged for years.  These projects are fraught with risk and complicated and need outside firms who specialize in them.

“Why do they think that people who don’t do this full-time working on projects around the world can do it better and cheaper? It doesn’t make sense … I think the government should become a smart buyer of technology.”

PIPSC has made the drive to reduce outsourcing or contracting out a priority and has seized Phoenix as an example of what happens when the government relies on an outside contractor, rather than its own software developers, to build a new payroll system.

PIPSC has also launched a social media campaign aimed at throwing the spotlight on the perils of using contractors or the “shadow public service” to do the work of public servants.

“Government should never be over-reliant on private companies such as Bell or IBM or Microsoft for the provision of fundamental services,” Daviau told delegates.

“Real investments in public employees and public services must be made if the government, our members, and ultimately the public are to make genuine progress.”

The impact of outsourcing is a big issue for PIPSC for the current round of bargaining. The union, which represents 55,000 professionals, is seeking contract language to curb the reliance on contracting. It wants the government to use existing employees or hire new ones before contracting out, and to train employees on new technologies needed in the workplace.

Daviau said investing in public servants is an “issue of national urgency” to ensure system failures don’t happen again. Such ongoing delays, cost overruns and security problems have hamstrung government plans to consolidate its email, develop the website, or moved information to IT cloud providers.

Robert Watson, president of the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC), said government IT projects need a mix of internal workers and outside firms. He cited a massive IT talent gap for both private and public sectors and said the government should be developing its own IT workforce.

ITAC argues the 17,400 computer specialists working in government — who have an average age of 45 — are highly skilled in maintaining systems but need to be trained on how to transform them. ITAC is urging the government to create an advisory committee on digital government.

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