Phoenix problems evident, but not brought forward due to work culture, auditor general says

Canada's auditor general says federal public servants need to do a better job of flagging problems to their bosses — something which could have helped avoid messes like the Phoenix pay system.

Michael Ferguson released 7 reports today on payroll debacle and other government failures

Auditor General Michael Ferguson holds a press conference following the tabling of his reports in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Tuesday. (Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick)

Canada's auditor general says federal public servants need to do a better job of flagging problems to their bosses — something which could have helped avoid messes like the Phoenix pay system.

'The ability is there, but there's something in the culture,' says Auditor General Michael Ferguson. 6:43

Michael Ferguson called Phoenix and the federal government's Indigenous jobs and education programs "incomprehensible failures" on Tuesday as he released a series of audits.

"Why did no one realize [Phoenix] would fail? Why did no one stop and fundamentally reassess the project?" he said in a statement.

"The only explanation is that there were fundamental failures of project management and project oversight."

The Public Service Alliance of Canada said Tuesday it plans to formally ask for a federal public inquiry into Phoenix.

The audit found that there was no real or independent oversight of the massive project, that Phoenix executives did not understand the importance of the warnings they received that it wasn't ready, and that the executives' decision to implement the system was "unreasonable."

"The civil service believes, for whatever reason, what they need to do is be very focused on delivering the project on time and on budget. The result was they dropped a lot of functions that were important to Phoenix," he said.

"There's something in the culture that makes people believe they can't bring forward those problems. It was very evident this system was not going to work … those messages were not brought forward."

President of the Treasury Board Scott Brison told reporters Tuesday afternoon that culture change is underway.

"In the public service for a long time there have been issues about risk aversion, as an example," he said.

"The Conservatives actually piled onto that with a culture of fear and intimidation over a period of 10 years that reduced the ability and desire of public servants to speak truth to power and be guided by evidence, as opposed to ideology."

Conservative MP Tony Clement said the responsibility for the decision to launch Phoenix in the spring of 2016 ultimately rests with the Liberals.

Indigenous education, jobs criticism

Ferguson also slammed federal government efforts to foster better conditions for Indigenous people in Canada, pointing to two audits in the spring report that are just the latest in a long series shedding light on the poor outcomes of Indigenous programs.

Indigenous Services isn't adequately measuring or reporting on progress in reducing socio-economic gaps on First Nations reserves, and isn't using the little data it has to improve education on reserves, Ferguson said.

The government is still unable to say how federal funding for on-reserve education compares with other education systems across Canada and it continues to overstate on-reserve graduation rates. 

The overall result is that the socio-economic gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities continue to widen.

Employment and Social Development Canada also cannot demonstrate that two of its programs to help Indigenous people get jobs and keep jobs is actually increasing the number of jobs Indigenous people get, Ferguson said, or helping them stay employed.

"I've seen many different steps, many different announcements. I've seen government say many different things, change policies and change approaches … What we actually need to see are actual changes in results," Ferguson said.

Patty Hajdu, minister of employment, workforce development and labour, said First Nations leaders told the government they wanted more control over the programs and what was tracked, which the government has committed to do.

"Under the previous program the kinds of things that were being tracked were not necessarily good indicators of whether people were having positive employment outcomes or even whether or not the training resulted in better paying employment ," she said. 

Military justice, torture

In the other audits, the auditor general also found:​

  • The Canadian Armed Forces is not administering the military justice system effectively so that delays in getting to trial mean cases are being thrown out.
  • Global Affairs Canada's consular services are too slow to sound the alarm bell back in Ottawa when a Canadian citizen is being tortured or mistreated in foreign custody. Generally, they have a hit or miss record when it comes to responding when Canadians have been arrested or detained abroad.
  • Infrastructure Canada's slow decision-making and poor management of the replacement of Montreal's Champlain Bridge resulted in $500 million in avoidable expenditures.
  • The government's system of disposing of government surplus goods and equipment does not always result in maximum benefits, in that surplus assets are often sold for less than two thirds of the estimated value.

With files from Karina Roman