While thousands of public servants await proper payment for their government jobs, IBM has already made more than $140 million and counting on the Phoenix payroll system it was hired to design and implement.
High-level government managers blame a lack of training for the glitch-riddled system, but some observers wonder how much responsibility IBM should shoulder.
"One of my favourite quotes is good IT is expensive and bad IT is even more expensive," said Alex Beraskow, a management consultant with 30 years experience, both implementing and reviewing huge, multi-million dollar IT projects for the Canadian government.
The company was tasked with creating a new PeopleSoft-based payroll system for the government's more than 100 departments and agencies.
To date, more than 80,000 government workers have experienced months of pay problems: from underpayment to overpayment, to no payment at all.
IBM says issues are with implementation
For its part, IBM Canada has stated: "The vast majority of the issues in this implementation are process and data issues, not technical system issues."
'The software itself was robust. It was not developed on a table napkin.'
- Alex Beraskow, IT consultant
Beraskow said in cases like these, the truth is usually complicated.
"The government of Canada used PeopleSoft for well over 20 years. The software itself was robust. It was not developed on a table napkin," said Beraskow.
"Whether it was programmed correctly, whether users were trained these are all questions for the Auditor General... My typical experience doing large project reviews is that there's multiple points of failure."
Ontario social assistance program also had issues
This isn't the only big government IT failure that IBM has been involved with.
A computer system created by IBM to manage Ontario's social assistance program was delivered three years late, was riddled with errors and was grossly over budget, according to the province's auditor general in 2015.
Beraskow notes these kinds of project will leave a tarnish on the company's reputation.
"No firm wants to be associated with failure like this. The question again comes back to if the implementation or training wasn't part of their terms of reference, what can they do?" he said.
But Tamas Koplyay, a professor of technology management at Université du Québec en Outaouais in Gatineau, said he doesn't think the multinational computer services company is blameless when it comes to Phoenix and he said it's too simple to blame the fiasco on a lack of training.
Koplyay said since the company was tasked with implementing the new program, it should have made sure all the proper systems were in place.
Government lacks in-house know-how, say experts
"IBM should have stood up and said no, what you're asking for is not complete, you need more than that to make this operational," said Koplyay.
But Koplyay also questions the federal government's ability to manage major IT overhauls such as Phoenix without sufficient IT talent, project management expertise and corporate memory.
The elimination of in-house IT professionals and managers within government is an issue that does need to be dealt with, according to Gilles LeVasseur, business and law professor at the University of Ottawa.
"That's what we've lost over the years and we need to rebuild it. You need to have a core group of people who are specialized in doing these transitions," said LeVasseur.
But he also agrees with Koplyay that the contractor, in this case IBM, needs to shoulder some of the responsibility for the failure.
IBM to be paid additional $6M to fix issues
The federal government has said it expects the cost to fix the problem-plagued Phoenix payroll system may rise as high as $50 million this year, with $6 million going to IBM for extra services.
That extra money prompted opposition critics on the House government operations and estimates committee Monday to question why this extra work wasn't part of the original agreement.
LeVasseur said the Phoenix problems are a reminder that contracts with big IT providers need to be properly drafted to anticipate potential glitches.
"You know that they're going to happen so you have to draft the agreement and the obligations accordingly," he said.
"These guys are not accountable under the legal terms of the agreement and they have all these escape clauses that allow them to have a justification or an excuse to not provide the end result we're expecting from them."
Beraskow said there will be many lessons learned out of Phoenix.
"A large part of the take away is making sure that the government, the users, the buyers know exactly what they want, that the procurement processes work and that the process is competitive at all times so that industry can build up their capacity as well to deliver on these projects."