Canada's top bureaucrat answers questions on Phoenix pay fiasco and Shared Services Canada's woes

The CBC's Alison Crawford sat down for an interview with Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick, the highest position in the federal public service, to discuss ongoing troubles with the Phoenix payroll system and the government's centralized IT provider, Shared Services Canada.

Michael Wernick says the federal government 'has no choice but to move forward with Shared Services Canada'

Michael Wernick, Clerk of the Privy Council, says the federal government's centralized IT provider, Shared Services Canada, is "here to stay." (Julie Ireton/CBC)

The CBC's Alison Crawford sat down for an interview with Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick, the highest position in the federal public service, to discuss ongoing troubles with the Phoenix payroll system and the government's centralized IT provider, Shared Services Canada. Below is an edited version of that interview. 

Since you came on board, have you given any specific directions to Shared Services Canada on how to proceed?

No, we have an accountable deputy minister and head of SSC. I  have told the deputy minister community that Shared Services Canada is here to stay, and we need an agency that is a service provider that is listening and open to its clients, and we need clients that are willing to work and engage with the service provider. When those relationships work well then we do very well.

How well do you feel they have been working so far?

It's a work in progress, obviously. Shared Services Canada is barely three and a half years old. It is a massive undertaking to transform IT of the largest organization in the country.

How much are you hearing from heads of departments and agencies about their struggles with Shared Services?

We have no choice but to move forward with Shared Services Canada. The idea that over 300 federal organizations were going to fix and modernize and recapitalize their IT, one at a time, by going to Treasury Board and Finance and building independent systems, is a fantasy scenario. We had to do it together.

It could have been handled better.- Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick

The only way to have adequate cyber protection around the information that departments are the custodians of is to have a strong perimeter defence. And the only way to do that — and this has been said many times by the head of the Communication Security Establishment — is to put departments and agencies behind the firewalls and the defences of Shared Services Canada.

So there are transition issues of migrating from where we have been to where we need to go, but I am quite determined that we have to have shared IT infrastructure in the government of Canada.

Is there any possibility that the way the transformation is happening could be rejigged to ensure there are fewer crises for some departments?

I think that there will be lessons to be learned on all of these transformations. The Government of Canada is the biggest, most complex organization and undertaking in Canada. It's 250,000 employees, it's over 300 different organizations. We do all kinds of things, from ship's captains to forest rangers to accountants to tax, so we have the most complex HR system, the most pay categories, the most lines of business.

This is much harder than running a bank or a telecom company. So transformation from where we were to where we get to is obviously a big project. It could have been handled better. We will learn the lessons from each of these projects but that does not negate the fact that we have got to move forward. We can't run the Government of Canada on 1995 technology.

You say things could have been run better. Is there a way to ensure there are fewer of these incidents that cause departments a lot of grief?

I think that's a hypothetical. We have to move forward for the reasons I set out earlier to have a shared service platform and a shared IT platform across the Government of Canada.

We're also working on information management systems, document management systems, a financial system, human resources system. It is a lot for departments and agencies to absorb and we have no choice but to learn as we go forward.

I don't think it's hypothetical to ask if things could be done differently going forward to ensure there are fewer failures.

Perhaps they can. But there are accountable people running these transformation projects. They have advisory groups and client relationships. There is constant daily feedback from the departments and agencies they work from.

There is no reason for anybody to be without cash.- Michael Wernick

We've already made modifications to a number of these systems. They're not exactly as they were launched. You'll be aware that if you have an app on your iPhone, it's upgraded constantly. Version one becomes version two becomes version 17. So I would expect that, as these other systems roll out, whether it's the HR system or the financial system or Phoenix, we will move from version to version, improving as we go.

With respect to the Phoenix payroll issues, people are at their wits' end, some are quitting their jobs because they haven't been able to make ends meet. What message do you have for those people who don't have enough money to pay their bills?

Every department and agency in the federal government has the ability to issue emergency cheques and advances, and there is no reason for anybody to be without cash. And in many of the cases that have popped up in the media, people have, in fact, been given cash advances against the compensation that they're owed.

The best thing for people to do is to go to the website, file their case online, or call the call centre and make sure that the pay file catches up with them, but there is no reason for anybody to be without cash.

And for those who are getting whacked with huge tax — you know, the tax implications — any reassurance there that this is going to be resolved?

Well that's hypothetical and speculative. We're at the end of July. The tax year ends at the end of December. We are working extremely hard to ensure people get accurate T4s.



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