The government’s focus will remain squarely on fixing the Phoenix pay system, says the parliamentary secretary to the minister in charge of the file, because there’s simply no Plan B if it fails.
“No one should be under any illusion that any alternative would be rapidly executed,” said Liberal MP Steve MacKinnon, who reports to Public Services and Procurement Minister Carla Qualtrough. “It would not be.”
His comments, made to The West Block‘s Vassy Kapelos this weekend, appear to throw cold water on an idea floated last week by the union representing government IT workers.
Union president Debi Daviau called on Ottawa to turn inward, tasking its existing IT professionals with building a brand new pay system from scratch based on the latest version of Oracle’s PeopleSoft software. It could then be brought in within the year and totally replace Phoenix, she argued.
WATCH: Could the Phoenix fiasco have been avoided entirely?
But MacKinnon said the government’s “gaze will not waver” from the struggling pay program.
““There is no fall-back … there was no alternative (when Phoenix launched), there was no former system to go back to, there were no people to operate it,” he said.
“We know we’ve tested the patience of our public employees. We know we’ve tested the patience of Canadians.”
MacKinnon did note, however, that Ottawa will continue to examine alternative options “in parallel” with the Phoenix efforts.
The government has already invested hundreds of millions in the beleaguered system, which was contracted to IBM by the previous government and then rolled out in the winter of 2016. Almost immediately, it experienced major problems, and the auditor general recently found that more than half of all federal public servants have been affected.
WATCH: Auditor general recommends fixing Phoenix pay system, not scrapping it
Michael Ferguson suggested that the government continue to try to fix Phoenix, however, and not scrap it.
He also made note of an abysmal level of service at the Canada Revenue Agency’s call centres. A large percentage of calls are dropped, he discovered, and when callers do connect, they are sometimes given incorrect advice about filing their taxes.
MacKinnon called that “an intolerable set of circumstances.”
“We’ve committed funds and committed a great effort to addressing those very issues,” he said.
“The old call centre technology that exists is basically at what some officials call ‘rust out’ … it’s well out of date.”
The government is investing $50 million over four years to bring it up to scratch, MacKinnon said, and to train employees. The “common thread” in the auditor general’s reports, he added, is the “underfunding of the very foundations of government, badly executed IT planning, poor infrastructure.”
Rebuilding the reliability of “these basic things that Canadians look to government to provide” will likely take years, MacKinnon acknowledged.
“I understand citizens to be quite horrified when they hear details like they heard from the auditor general this week,” he said.
“We think at the end of this four-year process of investment in people, in tools, in training, that they will see a vastly improved service.”
– Watch the full interview with parliamentary secretary Steve MacKinnon above.