25 September 2023

CANADA: PS head slams Audit report

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The head of Canada’s Public Service has hit back at a scathing report by the Auditor-General that said “pervasive cultural problems” among Government employees had partly caused the Phoenix pay system debacle.

Clerk of the Privy Council, who as Canada’s senior Public Servant is head of the PS, Michael Wernick (pictured) said Auditor-General Michael Ferguson’s report on cultural issues in the Federal Government was an “opinion piece”.

“I believe it contains sweeping generalisations, it’s not supported by the evidence and it doesn’t provide you with any particular guidance on what to do to move forward,” Mr Wernick told a Parliamentary Committee.

He said he also didn’t agree with the assertion that the pay system was an incomprehensible failure.

“I think it’s entirely comprehensible,” Mr Wernick said.

“It was avoidable, it’s repairable and it gives us all kinds of lessons about how to build a better Public Service.”

Mr Wernick’s remarks infuriated one MP, David Christopherson, who said he was shocked by the Clerk’s opposition to the Auditor-General’s report.

“Either we have a Clerk of the Privy Council who has his head buried in the sand and is in complete denial with what the cultural problems are, or we’ve got an Auditor-General that’s off the rails,” Mr Christopherson said.

Mr Wernick said he realised the Public Service was not perfect, noting the need for it to become more nimble and willing to take risks.

However, he took issue with the Auditor-General’s insinuation that the Public Service was broken — something he said was being used as a “political weapon”.

He said the Phoenix pay debacle was a perfect storm of factors, including an incentive structure that put pressure on senior PS staff to deliver the pay system within budget.

In his report last month, Mr Ferguson blamed three senior PS staff at Public Services and Procurement Canada, which is responsible for Phoenix, for the system’s failure.

He said the executives prioritised some aspects of the pay system rollout, such as schedule and budget, over functionality.

Mr Wernick declined to say whether the three were fired as a result of their handling of the pay system.

More generally, he noted that it was extremely difficult to terminate employees below the Deputy Minister level for poor performance, as they were protected by the Public Service Employment Act.

Ottawa, 15 June 2018

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