New mandate letter makes fixing Phoenix pay system minister's No. 1 priority

Fixing the troubled Phoenix pay system is the No. 1 priority for Public Services and Procurement Minister Carla Qualtrough, according to an updated mandate letter from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that seems to acknowledge the breadth of technology and procurement problems facing the department.

Updated mandate also directs public services minister to sort out government's IT issues

Minister of Public Services and Procurement Carla Qualtrough's mandate letter makes fixing the Phoenix pay system her top priority. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

An updated mandate letter from the prime minister puts fixing the pay of public servants at the top of the priority list for Minister of Public Services and Procurement Carla Qualtrough.

"Ensure that public servants are paid accurately and promptly for the highly valued work they do on behalf of Canadians," says the first bullet point in the new ministerial mandate letter released by the Prime Minister's Office on Wednesday. "You will help ensure the pay system is stabilized and able to perform within service standards."

Qualtrough was sworn in as the new minister in August, taking over from Judy Foote, who has retired. Qualtrough's mandate letter is one of six new letters released today, following the late summer cabinet shuffle.

In Foote's 2015 mandate letter, public service pay wasn't mentioned, as the Phoenix pay system wasn't launched until February 2016. Since then, the government has had difficulty paying tens of thousands of public servants properly. Those affected have either been paid too little, too much or not at all.

Another significant change is that Qualtrough's ministry is no longer tasked with helping to create a "single online window" for all government services. Several of the federal government's large information technology problems have been beset by problems. 

The move to unite all government websites under one domain, for example, which began under the previous Conservative government, has been plagued with problems. The Liberal government finally pulled the plug on a large part of the failing initiative last July.

Shared Services Canada

The new mandate letter is instead directing the minister to solve the many internal government IT issues that originate with Shared Services Canada.

Shared Services is a federal department created in 2011 to take over the delivery of email, data centres and network services for 43 government departments and agencies. Since its inception, those departments and agencies have complained of shoddy service and warned that its failures are a national security risk.

Qualtrough is being asked to improve the "delivery of information technology" within the government, including the renewal of Shared Services.

"So that it is properly resourced and aligned to deliver common IT infrastructure that is reliable and secure, while at the same time providing departments what they need in order to deliver services that are timely, citizen-centred, and easy to use," the mandate letter states.

Modernizing procurement

In a tacit acknowledgement that many IT problems started with outdated procurement practices, the minister's existing task of modernizing procurement has been substantially beefed up.

It includes a new aim of increasing the diversity of bidders on government contracts by putting an emphasis on "businesses owned or led by Canadians from under-represented groups, such as women, Indigenous Peoples, persons with disabilities, and visible minorities."

Other procurement goals include being better at holding contractors accountable, measuring government performance on the competitiveness, cost and timeliness of procurements, and ensuring prompt payment of contractors.

The minister is also expected to bring forward "a new vision" for Canada Post. The Liberal government has promised a decision on the Crown corporation and its home delivery services by the end of 2017.

No mandate on fighter jets

The new mandate doesn't mention the replacement of the air force's aging CF-18 fighters, which was a major promise of the Liberals during the last election and a source of political pain in recent months.

The minister is instructed to work with the defence, innovation and fisheries ministers to "ensure the women and men of the Canadian Armed Forces and the Canadian Coast Guard get the equipment they need on time and on budget."

The Liberal government's recent defence policy laid out plans to buy 88 advanced jet fighters, but when the competition will begin has not been revealed.

In releasing the policy, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said the replacement program would kick off almost immediately. It has yet to be announced.

5 other mandate letters

New mandate letters for the ministers of veteran's affairs, health, Crown-Indigenous affairs, Indigenous services, and sports and persons with disabilities were also released today.

Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor has been tasked with taking on Canada's opioid crisis. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Two years ago, there was no mention of the opioid crisis in the health minister's mandate letter. Now Canada's response in dealing with it is a major part of the portfolio.

Due to the splitting of the Indigenous ministry into two new departments, the health minister will no longer oversee Indigenous health services.

The minister of sport and persons with disabilities has several new priorities, including making public transit more accessible and investing in Indigenous sport as "an important means to strengthen Indigenous identity and cultural pride."

With files from Murray Brewster