Lessons from Phoenix: Does public service culture need to be fixed?

The auditor general blamed Phoenix's failure in part on an "obedient" public service culture, but some say the problems amid Ottawa's bureaucrats predate the troubled payroll system.

Auditor general's report urges government to fix the culture of public service

Public servants protest over problems with the Phoenix pay system in Ottawa on Oct. 12, 2017. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Federal compensation adviser Maria Mancini remembers when she first heard details about a new, payroll system called Phoenix several years ago and she raised her hand in meetings, expressing concerns.

"We had these really horrible misgivings about this whole idea," recalls Mancini, now retired and living in Ottawa. "We were saying this doesn't sound good. I was told I wasn't being a team player and to this day I still shake my head and say, what does that even mean?"

Mancini knows a lot about how federal government employees get paid considering she worked with the former, 40-year-old system for most of its lifespan.

Along with hundreds of her colleagues who were pushed out, laid off or retired, Mancini left in 2014 as the promise of a new, more technologically advanced, more efficient system was being developed.

This week, Auditor General Michael Ferguson called the Phoenix pay system an "incomprehensible failure," blaming in part an "obedient" public service culture.

Auditor General Michael Ferguson called the Phoenix pay system an 'incomprehensible failure,' blaming in part an 'obedient' public service culture. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Speaking truth to power

But clearly, Ferguson wasn't the first person to raise concerns about the public service culture during the development of the Phoenix project.

Last fall, the Goss Gilroy report found that, while there were people inside the government who knew the project had serious problems, bureaucrats feared to speak truth to power.

It appears the warnings about Phoenix didn't make it up to the highest levels of bureaucracy or to the politicians in charge.

"I don't have a set of instructions to fix a broken government culture," said Ferguson. "The culture problem is real and it urgently needs to be fixed."

Sharing blame

The cultural problems inside the public service didn't just happen during the Phoenix fiasco according to Donald Savoie, professor of public administration at the University of Moncton.

Savoie says, for some bureaucrats, being good at camouflaging problems and figuring out how to manage the blame game is the best way to advance.

"The whole culture of obedience is we try to protect politicians, we try to protect ministers. I think we have to redefine the relationship between public servants who are out in the field managing programs; they should be given far more leeway. We should let them manage in a way to camouflage them from the political pressure, from the blame game."

Conservative MP and former president of the Treasury Board Tony Clement says elements of Ottawa's bureaucracy are 'not truly accountable and not truly transparent.' (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

When it comes to Phoenix, the auditor general said there is plenty of blame to go around, pointing to both the current and former governments' shared responsibility for the failure.

The former Treasury Board president, Conservative MP Tony Clement, wasn't afraid to weigh in on what he thinks about the workplace culture he used to oversee.

"We have a culture in Ottawa, where elements of the bureaucracy are not truly accountable and not truly transparent," he said.

"The bureaucracy was the tail that was wagging the dog, that is the responsibility of the Liberals."

Former parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page says launching Phoenix without proper testing and backup was 'incredibly risky.' (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

In turn, the current president of the Treasury Board, Scott Brison, blamed the Conservatives for creating a culture of fear and intimidation that reduced the ability of public servants to be guided by evidence rather than ideology.

"We're driving a cultural shift away from risk aversion, towards experimentation and innovation," said Brison in a news conference on Tuesday.

Since the auditor general's report came out, many have pointed to the bureaucracy's penchant for being risk averse, but former parliamentary budget officer and current professor at the University of Ottawa, Kevin Page, says launching Phoenix without proper testing and backup was "incredibly risky."

"It depends on how we look at the word 'risk,'" said Page. "I think this is really a failure of leadership at central agencies and project administrators… there's no way any oversight was done. When you read the report, nobody was really doing their job."

Cultural shift

As someone who served the public for decades from her lower perch in compensation, Mancini has ideas on how the culture should be fixed.

"I think they should start listening to the people who are invested in doing the work," said Mancini. "There's a big disconnect between people who do the work and the people who make the decisions."

About 1,000 compensation advisers in government departments across the country lost their positions as the government created the centralized pay centre in Miramichi, N.B., and prepared to bring in the new Phoenix system. Mancini recalls the attitudes of government executives at the time.

"The management bought into this and you were supposed to buy into it. Nobody listened to anything," said Mancini. "A lot of us were middle-aged women so, it's like, who was going to listen to us?"

For Mancini, Ferguson's report was validation; "confirmation of things that we had felt for a long time."

"It wasn't just a bunch of powerless compensation advisers that nobody listened to."