David Hutton is senior fellow at the Centre for Free Expression, Ryerson University
Federal Auditor-General Michael Ferguson’s scathing report on the Phoenix pay project reveals that, far from being an accident, this disaster was manufactured: The project was set up for failure from the start.
This process began in 2012 with a big lie – that the project could be completed successfully with about half the budget that the contractor estimated to be necessary. This magic was to be achieved by removing 100 functions from the product (including many that proved later to be vital), slashing the development staff, reducing the testing and compressing the schedule. IT professionals have a saying for this approach: “If the product doesn’t have to work, we can meet any budget and any schedule.”
Once told, this big lie had to be sustained, and the executives in charge of Phoenix boldly and successfully kept this up for years – until the truth couldn’t be hidden any more. They achieved this by seizing control of all the supposedly mandatory oversight mechanisms, such as independent reviews and audits, and keeping their superiors in the dark. Mr. Ferguson’s report states categorically that there was no oversight – zero.
In 2015, shortly before the fateful decision to launch the rollouts, the Phoenix executives received an independent report commissioned by the Treasury Board, which raised a number of serious concerns, including incomplete testing and uncorrected errors, the likelihood of high call volumes, the short timelines and lack of contingency plans.
This report was not even shown to the minister responsible. So the massive rollout went ahead – with only partial function, incomplete test results, no fallback and no contingency plan. The result was entirely predictable.
Although Phoenix executives managed to hobble the normal oversight mechanisms, there was one more mechanism outside of their control that could have prevented this disaster, even though everything else had failed – the federal whistle-blowing system.
In other countries, this type of system has proven highly effective at exposing even massive frauds that powerful vested interests were desperate to conceal.
But the Phoenix executives didn’t have to hobble the whistle-blowing system – the government had already done this for them.
Created in 2007, the system is supposed to work as follows: Honest employees who see evidence of misconduct go to the Integrity Commissioner (who is an officer of Parliament, like the Auditor-General), confident that they will be protected from reprisals; the Integrity Commissioner conducts an independent investigation into these allegations, with all the considerable powers of the Inquiries Act at his disposal; if wrongdoing is found, the Commissioner reports his findings – which are public – directly to Parliament. One can only imagine what such a report would have done to the big lie, and how quickly the axe would have fallen on this troubled project and its perpetrators.
Unfortunately, this could not happen because our federal whistle-blower-protection system simply doesn’t work – and everybody in Ottawa knows it. We have a deeply flawed law, unchanged for 11 years, and a succession of integrity commissioners who, far from being protectors, have proven to be a whistle-blower’s worst nightmare since they rarely investigate anything. And no whistle-blower has ever prevailed at the tribunal that is supposed to compensate them for reprisals they have suffered.
In 2017, the government asked a parliamentary committee to review this system. Shocked at the dysfunction they found, the members unanimously recommended sweeping changes. But government’s response was to give the committee the brush-off – none of the recommendations were implemented.
In general, there’s no lack of honest public servants willing to come forward and expose fiascos such as we just experienced with Phoenix. But under the current system, they would never have a chance.
Since the government seems determined not to help whistle-blowers – even after this debacle – Ryerson’s Centre for Free Expression is doing what civil society has done in other countries: We are going help them ourselves. We are setting up a free confidential advice centre that they can go to for help, which we expect to be staffed and operational by the fall.
We have also decided to conduct our own investigation of the Phoenix project – to find out what happened to those honest employees who tried to blow the whistle, and to learn how others were deterred from speaking out at all.