Politics

StatsCan says government's IT agency providing 'slower, lower quality services'

Setbacks and shortcomings at the federal government's tech support agency could delay Statistics Canada's release of "mission critical" information required by the Bank of Canada, Department of Finance and commercial banks, according to a new report.

Centralization of government tech support services has failed to deliver promised cost savings

Statistics Canada managers say programs and information are at risk due to Shared Services Canada's failure to upgrade equipment and provide more server space. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Setbacks and shortcomings at the federal government's tech support agency could delay Statistics Canada's release of "mission critical" information required by the Bank of Canada, Department of Finance and commercial banks, according to a report.

The document, submitted to Canada's chief statistician Wayne Smith, is one among more than a dozen reports, drafted at Smith's request from all of his directors general. Smith asked for the reports in an effort to fully understand the impact of Shared Services Canada (SSC) on his department.

The memos, obtained by CBC News under access to information laws, detail how yet another federal ministry is embroiled in a dispute with SSC over services standards, red tape, billing and the capacity of IT infrastructure to keep up with departmental demands.

SSC was created by the previous government to centralize and standardize information technology services in a bid to save money. 

At the end of February, in the run-up to the 2016 Census, Smith shared the results of this report with Canada's top civil servant, Privy Council clerk Michael Wernick. The correspondence is entirely redacted except for the subject line, which reads Heightened Program Risks at Statistics Canada.

"Numerous challenges in terms of reliability, timeliness, effectiveness and affordability are being experienced, impacting delivery of programs, projects and plans across all program areas," wrote Lise Duquet, director general of the StatsCan informatics branch.

She said the savings expected from consolidating services under SSC have not materialized, pointing to how ongoing support from the IT Help Desk is now more costly than when StatsCan operated the email service.

Lack of accountability

Despite "harvesting" $38 million from Statistics Canada with the promise to upgrade IT infrastructure, Duquet said StatsCan was told it would have to cover the cost of migrating all information to new data centres — something she said the agency cannot afford without putting its programs at risk.

Governance at SSC has been identified as a problem by other departments. Duquet echoed those frustrations, "Governance is very complex and there is a lack of accountability to deliver on expected outcomes that are critical to programs."

Another recurring theme that surfaced in the reports is that SSC can't or won't meet StatsCan's IT requirements because it refuses to upgrade computer infrastructure. 

Daniela Rivandra, director general of the industry statistics branch at the agency, warned of the risk of a bottleneck of processing capacity this year. "This will translate into many programs having to delay releases and not meeting legislative requirements for providing the data," she said.

"Having to delay their release would be unprecedented and will impact the ability of key users (e.g. Bank of Canada, Department of Finance, commercial banks, etc.) of making timely decisions, translating into considerable embarrassment to the government of Canada." 

Due to the poor level of service provided by SSC, the corporate services support division decided to self-fund a unit of 3 persons to provide support to our employees and to ensure that some SSC initiatives get done.- Yves Béland, director general StatsCan operations branch

The directors general's reports also reveal deep concerns about  branches running out of server space. Craig Kunz said the operating system on which the Consumer Price Index depends, is at an elevated risk of failure, yet SSC has frozen procurement with no apparent contingency plans. 

'Slower and lower quality service'

Telecommunications is another persistent irritant.

"Our relationship and experience with SSC with regards to telecommunications have been quite difficult to say the least," reported Yves Béland, director general of the operations branch. "Due to the poor level of service provided by SSC, the corporate services support division decided to self-fund a unit of three persons to provide support to our employees and to ensure that some SSC initiatives get done."

Assistant chief statistician Connie Graziadei said service is slower and lower quality, especially on the rollout of cellphones to census employees working in the field.

She described how SSC provided cellphones with the wrong area codes or "incorrect cellphone providers were sometimes assigned to a phone, making it unusable in the geography where the phone was intended to be in operation."

In one case, an employee had an unusable phone for more than two months. A StatsCan manager sent the woman a spare phone on the Bell network, instead of Rogers. While the employee was thrilled to finally be able to do her job, a long string of emails shows SSC was more concerned about StatsCan overstepping its authority.

"You are not able to simply "re-assign" devices when there is an issue. We have procedures in place to deal with issues like Dana was having," wrote Todd Mair of SSC on Feb. 2, 2016.

David Kudlovich of StatsCan fired back.

"Two months without a phone [is] far too long when this is the sole device they receive from SSC. Two weeks is actually far too long. There are occupational health and safety concerns when an employee doesn't have a means of communication and the employee cannot do their job they're hired to do," he said.

Yet the documents show the problems continued for several more months.

Not paying bills on time

SSC also had trouble paying its bills on time, something the RCMP and Department of National Defence have also complained about. Service was cut to several StatsCan aboriginal liaison officers as well as an important set of landlines in the Halifax call centre.

The documents also detail bickering over billing. StatsCan managers reported continually being presented with charges without justification, such as when SSC refused to cover $136,743 worth of telephone headsets.

In an email to CBC News, a spokesperson for shared services said the agency is committed to increasing efficiency, response times and resolving critical system failures.

"SSC is working to improve its relationship with Statistics Canada through regular communications and bilateral service reviews," said the spokesperson.
 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alison Crawford is a senior reporter in CBC's parliamentary bureau, covering justice, public safety, the Supreme Court and Liberal Party of Canada.

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