Canada’s former chief statistician, who publicly quit his job two weeks ago on principle to the cheers of hundreds of Statistics Canada employees, says Shared Services Canada is doomed to fail.
“There’s a really good chance Shared Services Canada will turn into a money pit,” Mr. Smith told The Hill Times after he resigned publicly as Canada’s chief statistician on Sept. 16.
Mr. Smith stepped down after fighting unsuccessfully to free Statistics Canada from Shared Services’ government IT department, which Mr. Smith said jeopardizes the number-crunching agency’s independence and integrity. As well, he said the model the government created for the government-wide IT management is doomed to fail.
…As a result of his departure, he told The Hill Times that he’s been iced-out of the deputy minister community, one he said he had never really been “in,” and, so far, said his claims have been dismissed by the government.
Mr. Smith said he thinks it’s a wrong-headed move to transfer Statistics Canada’s informatics infrastructure to Shared Services, but believes it’s the senior ranks of the bureaucracy that is pushing “extremely strongly,” in favour of the Shared Services model.
“This idea came out of the bureaucracy, the most senior bureaucracy is very committed to it, they don’t want to walk away from it. [The] Privy Council Office, Treasury Board Secretariat, and more people in the most senior ranks are strongly committed to this,” said Mr. Smith, adding that they were the ones to sell it to the current government as worth continuing.
“I think the government wants to believe it,” he said.
The $2-billion department, Shared Services, was created in 2011 by the previous Conservative government to consolidate and modernize the Government of Canada’s IT networks and personnel by 2020, a deadline it’s now uncertain about meeting, given extensive delays and potential greater costs than initially thought. Its three key tasks are to amalgamate all government email systems, merge data centres, and consolidate IT networks.
….Mr. Smith said, in principle, the job of the national statistics office is centered around information and technology, and “everything we do, from drawing samples, to collecting via the internet, to processing survey data and disseminating survey data, it absolutely requires informatics to run efficiently, and well and properly. … When the government created Shared Services Canada it took our away our authority to acquire informatics infrastructure, hardware, the servers, and the file servers we needed to do our job, and they gave that authority to SSC.”
Mr. Smith said even though he had the budget to purchase the informatics systems he wanted, the decision-making power had been taken away from him.
“Therefore they can stop me from disseminating data, from producing data, simply by withholding or failing to provide the informatics infrastructure—the computing power—to do it. And it doesn’t really matter, at the end of the day, if they do it out of malicious intent or whether they do it out of incompetence; the result is the same,” said Mr. Smith.
He said there was an “unacceptable level of risk” in its data centre infrastructure, which the two departments disagreed on where the actual drives would be located and who would have access. He said there was an inability for Shared Services to deliver the additional capacity required to move ahead with Statistics Canada’s plans to enhance its website to be more user-friendly. And he said there was, at the time he left, a “lineup” of policy departments at Statistics Canada’s door asking for new data as a result of the Liberal government’s emphasis in evidence-based decision-making.
“More money got spent, the results aren’t there, and this is simply because the decisions are outside the control of Statistics Canada now,” said Mr. Smith.
He added that although this was the state of affairs when he resigned, he’s optimistic that because of his outspoken critiques, “every effort will be made to make sure my predictions don’t come true.”
In response to the allegations last week, senior officials from Shared Services and the Treasury Board Secretariat held a technical briefing where Shared Services Canada chief Ron Parker dismissed Mr. Smith’s concerns.
Mr. Parker said that he and Mr. Smith last met at an April meeting and there were “no technical or operational issues” raised. Mr. Smith said this is utterly false.
“I was appalled … for him to contend that there was no issues is absolutely absurd,” Mr. Smith said, adding that he recalls at that meeting raising a “litany of concerns.”
Mr. Smith said he thinks the government shouldn’t go further down the enterprise-wide IT path until a business plan and accountability model have been established between Shared Services and all partner departments. He said the government should be skeptical about its ability to deliver on such a massive transformation, pointing to the Phoenix pay system debacle that’s disrupted or affected the pay for 82,000 public servants. The Phoenix pay system has cost the government more than $50-million to fix, and the $398-million Email Transformation Initiative to move all government email addresses to one firstname.lastname@example.org system is on hold and 18 months past when it was supposed to be fully implemented.
The complaints from Statistics Canada are not the first from a department who is unsatisfied with Shared Services work. A number of departments are unhappy about the service they’ve received and some other departments that deal with sensitive data have explored ways to opt out of the system. So far, Mr. Parker says the plans do not include any departments opting out of the agreement.
Despite this, Mr. Parker declared the benefits of the enterprise approach remain clear, and “the partners are part of that model and therefore there’s nothing, nothing in the plan that envisions opting-out.”
….The decision to resign came after months of trying to bring attention to his concerns, said Mr. Smith, who has been raising issues since before the current government was elected and after, in meetings with the minister responsible for Statistics Canada, Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains (Mississauga-Malton, Ont.), and Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick.
He thought the government’s promise to enhance his agency’s independence would bring sea change to fix his problems with Shared Services. When it didn’t and the issues with Shared Services Canada began to dominate conversations with employees who were saying it affected their ability to do their job, he decided he needed to make it clear he was prepared to resign. After that didn’t move the needle, he submitted his resignation letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) on Aug. 3, enough time he thought for them to implement an independent appointment process for his successor. That didn’t happen and instead the government appointed Anil Arora, who was working as an assistant deputy minister at Health Canada.
“When I penned that letter I thought that the odds were overwhelmingly against it having any impact other than me winding up resigned, and my interpretation of the situation was correct,” said Mr. Smith, who didn’t hear anything from anyone in government from the point of submitting his resignation until Sept. 15, when letters came from both Mr. Wernick and Mr. Trudeau, accepting his resignation.
After the way government has handled his resignation, he thinks Canadians should be skeptical about their commitments to Statistics Canada.
While he doesn’t see himself as a whistleblower, since resigning he said he’s received a lot of encouragement from employees at the agency, who have sent him emails supporting his move and thanking him for standing up. He’s received support from the national statistics council, from provincial and territorial counterparts, and international support.
“Everybody sees the issue, and they’re all living the consequences,” Mr. Smith said.