Lessons yet to be learned in government pay fiasco
The most chilling sentence in last week’s report on the Phoenix pay project is this pronouncement: “These are lessons yet to be learned, not lessons that have been learned.”
That’s from Goss Gilroy Inc. management consultants, whose examination painstakingly lays out 17 “lessons” or, to put it simply, ways in which the federal government and senior public servants simply blew it.
They blew it by not properly defining the scope of their plan to modernize and consolidate how federal pay stubs are handled, not having a roadmap to break this huge task into smaller, cohesive projects and not making one minster or agency clearly responsible for it.
They blew it by not ensuring rigorous oversight, discouraging anyone from challenging or questioning the project’s progress, ignoring the change-resistant culture of the public service and not communicating or training people effectively.
They blew it by not ensuring the software being purchased could handle the tasks set out, not ensuring there were useful checkpoints along the way to keep things on track, insisting on ambitious savings from the start, not seeing to it that departments had the proper resources to make the changes, not properly testing the new IT setup before launch, not taking advantage of private sector expertise and by having no contingency plan if Phoenix failed to fly.
Could they have gotten anything else wrong? It barely seems possible. So, to be told the lessons have “yet” to be learned, it is to shudder.
GGI — rather kindly, given the evidence it proceeds to lay out in its 60-page report — says it was “the underestimation of the initiative’s complexity that led to its downfall.” It never uses words such as “neglect,” “incompetence,” “indifference,” “disrespect” or any of the other terms that leap to mind as one reads through its systematic takedown of the grand initiative aimed at smoothening and modernizing the way federal public servants are paid.
That something needed doing about public servants’ pay wasn’t in dispute. The government needed a better way.
But its plan unravelled quickly. A few findings from the report:
• Very few people understood the mass and complexity of the pay system, other than the government’s compensation advisers, 700 of whom were laid off as the government tried to realize savings.
• Even very senior bureaucrats didn’t understand the extent of the changes being introduced or the risks to their employees’ pay.
• No one ministry or minister had overall authority over the project, or accountability for it.
• People involved did not feel they could speak “truth to power.” Bureaucrats were discouraged from giving briefings to their superiors that contained bad news.
• Stakeholders who could have “asked more pointed questions” didn’t do so.
• The culture of the public service was “unreceptive to inconvenient feedback.”
• Project teams weren’t given enough information to handle even the strict data requirements of the plan properly.
The pay transformation project continues to flutter from disaster to disaster, up to the present, though the report itself looks at events only up to April 2016. Most of this mess happened under Stephen Harper’s regime, but so deep is the crisis that the Liberals of Justin Trudeau will wear it too.
At a news briefing, ministers could not predict when the pay system would be fixed.
They assured us, though, that they have learned the lessons GGI spelled out. On that point, we can all be forgiven for some healthy skepticism.