Ottawa tech consortium pitching alternative to Phoenix

When federal government officials visit the innovation hub at Ottawa's Bayview Yards on Tuesday, a consortium of local companies plans to pitch an alternate solution to the failed Phoenix payroll system.

Ottawa entrepreneurs plan to show proposal to federal government officials Tuesday

Cody Spicer, Jason Reinert and Guy de Montigny, left to right, are members of Civic Innovation Consortium. They'll pitch their alternative to Phoenix at a pop-up event at Bayview Yards Tuesday. (CBC)

When federal government officials visit the innovation hub at Bayview Yards in Ottawa Tuesday, a consortium of local companies plans to pitch an alternative solution to the failed Phoenix payroll system.

Civic Innovation Consortium is a collection of established companies and startups that have benefited from federal funds, including the Build Canada Innovation Program.

Consortium member Guy de Montigny, CEO of Solution Xplus, said he plans to "pull the ears of the decision makers" during the visit.

The group's expertise includes artificial intelligence, integrative human resources programs and data analytics, all included in the pitch.

"I expect them to give us a phone call after the presentation," de Montigny said.

Guy de Montigny is CEO of Solution Xplus and is part of Civic Innovation Consortium in Ottawa. (Julie Ireton, CBC)

Scrap Phoenix, innovators say

IBM Canada defined, developed, implemented and is now trying to fix the government's Phoenix payroll system that started to roll out in the winter of 2016.

Sorry to say, but IBM is making their money by building software that doesn't work, so they keep on supplying consultants over and over. That's a reality.- Guy de Montigny, Civic Innovation Consortium

Since then, more than 156,000 public servants have been improperly paid, the auditor general continues to investigate and the federal government has failed to give any indication that it has a clear solution for fixing Phoenix.

IBM was the only bidder on the contract to create the pay program that cost more than $310 million to build, but is on track to cost much more than that to fix.

Smaller tech firms like the ones that are part of the Civic Innovation Consortium deserve a chance to come up with a better solution, de Montigny said.

"That's one of the hurdles we have working with the federal government, they prefer to sit down with the VP of IBM," said de Montigny. "Sorry to say, but IBM is making their money by building software that doesn't work, so they keep on supplying consultants over and over. That's a reality."

In a statement to CBC News, IBM said "it was hired to install and customize third-party commercial payroll software the government had selected" and it delivered its scope of work.

The smaller, more agile Canadian firms he's working with are "solution companies," he said, and their formulas would require scrapping the failed Phoenix system.

Jason Reinert is a former public servant and the co-founder and CEO of tech startup Pillr. (Julie Ireton, CBC)

'Legacy systems can be dangerous'

Jason Reinert, a former public servant and co-founder and CEO of data management startup Pillr, is also part of the group of companies hoping to replace Phoenix.

Sometimes starting from scratch is not a bad idea. Sometimes reinventing the wheel actually is needed.- Jason Reinert, CEO of Pillr

"Legacy systems can be dangerous, I think. The idea is that you're going to save time and money by maintaining the old systems has shown to not be true all the time, and sometimes starting from scratch is not a bad idea. Sometimes reinventing the wheel actually is needed," said Reinert.

On Tuesday afternoon the department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED) will hold the pop-up session at Bayview Yards, called "Applying Disruptive Tech to Modernize the Public Service."

An advisory for the event urges media to "come and see what Ottawa's innovation ecosystem is doing to help modernize our public service and enact ISED's Innovation and Skills Plan."

The advisory doesn't mention the Phoenix fiasco by name, but that's exactly what the consortium wants the chance to talk about.

Reinert said it can be hard capturing the attention of the government when you're an emerging firm, so he's glad they'll have an audience.

"We're not sitting here and waiting, we're going to push the edge. Whether it works out with the government or not, our solutions are global, are universal," Reinert said.

Alex Benay is Canada's chief information officer. (CBC)

The bigger they are...

Alex Benay, Canada's chief information officer, has said when it comes to harnessing new technology, the government has to do things differently, and that means not always turning to the same suppliers.

"We have kind of created an environment for ourselves where we like big projects," Benay said in a recent interview with CBC. "You used to hear a lot of technology conversations [like], 'Well, that company is too small to work with us because they don't have the scale.' But the big things fail big. So maybe there's a better way of doing things."

Reinert said both he and the group are inspired by what they've heard from Benay.

"We're going to push it to the farthest edge it can go, and that's all that we can do," said Reinert. "We have a lot of solutions already ready."

De Montigny said their ideas have been proven and better yet they are made in Canada.

"They're going to provide you with a solution, not with two, three, four buses filled with consultants that are just waiting to charge time and time and time again," said de Montigny.

About the Author

Julie Ireton

Senior Reporter

Julie Ireton is with CBC Ottawa. She’s a critical thinker who has produced hundreds of original pieces of impact journalism. You can reach her at julie.ireton@cbc.ca