Ontario puts moratorium on suspending racialized public servants

Strong step:

The province has put a moratorium on suspending racialized public servants while it reviews how it processes complaints on racial discrimination.

The announcement came a day after more than 20 Black employees, mostly women, brought their concerns directly to Michael Coteau, Ontario’s minister of children and youth services, who is also in charge of the province’s anti-racism initiatives.

At a meeting Jan. 18, past and present public servants said they suffered racial harassment and faced reprisal when making complaints.

Coteau heard stories from Black employees who said their roles were steadily diminished despite years of positive reviews. Others had trained new staff, only to see those new employees be given higher, more lucrative positions. Some said their complaints about racial discrimination were mishandled. A majority of the participants said they had been suspended, demoted or fired while the staffers they had complained about faced no repercussions.

“When I started at the ministry, I was confused for the hired help,” Hentrose Nelson, who has worked in the public service since 2004, told Coteau. Nelson was one of the organizers of the meeting and she spoke about her experience with the complaints and suspension process.

Nelson is also a plaintiff in a lawsuit against provincial Citizenship and Immigration Minister Laura Albanese, alleging systemic racism in the department.

None of the accusations has been tested in court.

Boafoa Kwamena, a spokesperson for the Ontario Public Service — which encompasses over 60,000 employees in the province’s ministries, agencies and Crown corporations — would not comment on specific complaints. She also declined to answer Metro’s questions about what prompted the moratorium or how long it will last, saying in an email this week only that it is in place pending the review of existing policies and procedures.

Where there is a clear case of wrongdoing such as theft or violence against another staff member, the moratorium does not apply as those cases are reviewed by the province’s Public Service Commission.

“Creating a safe, inclusive and respectful environment for everyone in the OPS is a top priority,” Kwamena wrote in an email.

She added that officials are working with the Black OPS Network, an internal employee network, on a three-point plan. It includes an independent third-party review of complex cases; an independent review of the Workplace Discrimination and Harassment Prevention policy with an anti-racism methodology; and developing an anti-racism policy. Attendees of the January meeting also called for these actions.

The review of the complaints process is intended to start by this March. A private sector lawyer will manage the review of complex cases. The OPS has declined to name the lawyer until a contract has been finalized.

“This is really something that we wanted to do for other Black women,” explained Jean-Marie Dixon, who has worked as a lawyer in the civil service.

Dixon says the action employees are taking now is for future generations. She wants to see people who have engaged in racism and discrimination fired as well as more funding and support for Black women going through a grievance, complaint or lawsuit.

Nelson welcomes the news of the moratorium and echoes the hope for more change to come.

“It’s not about our struggle only,” she said in an interview following the announcement. “It’s a systemic beast which we are trying to fight. It’s a huge win.”

via Ontario puts moratorium on suspending racialized public servants | Toronto Star



ICYMI – Bagnall: Could cloud services signal the end of ‘big zombie IT projects’ in government?

Still will face the same management challenges as conventional IT and the particular difficulties governments have in fixing and sticking to specifications. But certainly worth exploring:

As federal government announcements go, this one could have been a real snooze-fest.

Treasury Board President Scott Brison and Carla Qualtrough on Wednesday jointly unveiled a new information technology policy that had been in force for months, involving a once-obscure branch of technology called cloud services.

But their short show-and-tell, delivered on Facebook Live, hinted at something more profound taking place.

Brison in particular has accepted the idea that big government has to change the way it builds and manages its IT infrastructure — and that cloud services, which allow departments to lease computer capacity a bit at a time from private sector firms such as Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure — offer the way to do it.

“We can’t be a Blockbuster government when we’re serving a Netflix citizenry,” he said in comparing a defunct video rental business with a video-streaming company.

Brison appeared to be taking aim in part at Shared Services Canada, the government’s central computer services agency, which reports to Qualtrough. Since its formation in 2011, Shared Services has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in new data centres to house information and software that underpins programs ranging from the Canada Pension Plan to Statistics Canada’s census.

While the data centres are fresh and modern, Shared Services hasn’t impressed many federal departments because it’s been slow and inflexible in setting up new online services and ordering the new hardware.

Over the past year, smaller departments have forced the issue by quietly running their own pilot projects using Azure and other cloud providers. Private contractors now have dozens of cloud-based IT procurements in the works, such as applications designed to make scientific or business data available to the public.

Brison, whose department sets the overall policy for government IT, has reportedly been impressed with what cloud technology can do. On Wednesday he enumerated key benefits, such as how departments using cloud services can experiment with software applications a bit at a time, learning from the inevitable mistakes along the way.

“It’s better to learn the lessons early,” he said in an apparent reference to IT disasters such as the botched rollout of the Phoenix Pay system, “than to have big zombie IT projects rumbling on, trapped under the tyranny of sunk costs.”

How would Phoenix have developed in a cloud-based world? We could actually have an opportunity to find out if Qualtrough opts to restart the entire project. Nothing on that prospect Wednesday, though.

Of course, it’s very early days in the cloud services revolution. Qualtrough, who also seemed very much on board, noted her department had negotiated 22 contracts to date with companies that are selling cloud services to seven government departments and agencies, including Correctional Service Canada.

However, the value of these contracts — which are brokered by Shared Services in exchange for a fee — barely tops $2 million. This is a tiny fraction of Shared Services’ annual budget of more than $1.5 billion.

And there’s the other matter of security. Most of the government’s data is secret (a Protected B or higher classification), and Shared Services still has a monopoly over storing this information. Wednesday’s announcement was for unclassified stuff such as government websites that are to be viewed by the public.

Private contractors are suspicious that Shared Services is relying on security designations to retain its share of the government’s IT business.

It’s not clear how long its monopoly will last. Qualtrough noted the government is mulling further changes that would allow departments “in the future” to store even secret data in the cloud — one of the reasons tech giants such as Google and Amazon have been adding data centres in Canada.

This much is clear: providers of cloud services have secured their foothold in government. If they deliver as promised, this could be the beginning of the end of monster IT failures. There’ll be many small ones, to be sure. But the egregious example of Phoenix Pay has taught us that’s a much better way to run.

via Bagnall: Could cloud services signal the end of ‘big zombie IT projects’ in government? | Ottawa Citizen

Moderation, the “elusive virtue”

Nice reflections on moderation and compromise by Kenneth Dewar:

…Canadians have taken some satisfaction from having avoided the worst aspects of this movement, at least so far. Moderation sometimes seems to be built into our national character, expressed in the understated celebration of the 150th anniversary of Confederation and the belief among some that it would be better not to celebrate it at all. It has often seemed that Canada’s history is downright dull compared with the drama of, say, American, French and Russian history, and recurring efforts are made to enliven it.

But it may well be that dullness is what makes Canadian history interesting, even if it sometimes masks varieties of populism, radicalism and revolt. Craiutu quotes Adam Michnik as saying something to the effect that the strength of democracy is its greyness, echoing Crick and striking an evocative chord in Canada: “Democracy is a continuous articulation of particular interests, a diligent search for compromise among them, a marketplace of emotions, hatreds, and hopes; it is eternal imperfection, a mixture of sinfulness, saintliness, and monkey business.” Compromise and monkey business have been features of Canadian democracy since the time of John A. Macdonald, though in recent years the extremism that Craiutu points to elsewhere has manifested itself as hyper-partisanship in Canada.

In retrospect, the golden age of moderation in Canadian national politics was the quarter-century following the Second World War, even if at the time it might have seemed otherwise, with the Pipeline Debate and the personal animosity between Lester Pearson and John Diefenbaker dividing the country. It was as a result of moderation that the welfare state, and the prosperity arising from it, emerged in full in the 1960s and early 1970s. The political challenges were significant. For example, some provinces had already introduced health insurance in one form or another, offering competing models ─ notably the Saskatchewan model introduced by the CCF government of Tommy Douglas, and the Alberta model favoured by Ernest Manning’s Social Credit government. In Ottawa, Diefenbaker appointed a royal commission, the traditional instrument of compromise and conciliation, which smoothed the subsequent passage of universal public health insurance by the Pearson Liberals.

The fact that some regard this as a triumph of social democracy and others as the implementation of managed capitalism is an indication of the differences that had to be negotiated by Pearson’s ministers and officials. Walter Gordon, Judy LaMarsh, Allan MacEachen and Tom Kent (behind the scenes) faced criticism from opposition parties and interests within their own party, as well as federal-provincial jurisdictional obstacles. They succeeded in introducing a national contributory pension plan (CPP), Medicare and a national social assistance program (Canada Assistance Plan), but not without hard work, political skill and courage, illustrating the truth stated by Isaiah Berlin and quoted by Craiutu: “The middle ground is a notoriously exposed, dangerous, and ungrateful position.” It didn’t hurt that during this time the country was basking in the glow of Centennial Year celebrations and Expo 67.

Berlin was also fond of quoting the philosopher Immanuel Kant, on human nature: “Out of timber so crooked as that from which man is made nothing entirely straight can built.” The idea of the crooked timber of humanity provided a foundation for Berlin’s moderation. Perfect solutions were beyond human ingenuity, as likely to lead to suffering as to failure. This offers little comfort to anyone seeking simple remedies, or to those who think they are in the absolute right and their opponents in the absolute wrong. It is a salutary thought, however, as one contemplates the domestic politics and international relations of the present day, and it highlights the need for a good dose of moderation in the coming year – the “elusive virtue” so shrewdly noted by Craiutu.

via Moderation, the “elusive virtue”

No sign of bias against government job-seekers with ethnic-sounding names, pilot project finds

Given the overall employment equity numbers, and how representation at both the all employee and executive levels has continued to increase, not overly surprising but nevertheless helpful to have tested for bias:

Hiding ethnic-sounding names from resumes has no real bearing on who’s picked from the pile of applications for jobs in the federal public service, according to a pilot project on blind hiring.

A report released Tuesday by the Public Service Commission shows visible minorities were short-listed at roughly the same rate through a name-blind recruitment process (46 per cent) as through a traditional process (47 per cent).

“For visible minorities, results indicated no significant effect on the screening decisions of applications,” the report concludes.

The federal government launched the name-blind hiring pilot project last April to reduce bias in recruitment based on the names and ethnic origins of potential candidates.

In a blog post today, Treasury Board president Scott Brison said the pilot project aimed to see if unconscious bias was undermining hiring processes and the government’s efforts to build a more diverse public service.

He called the pilot “ground-breaking” and says it’s in line with the government’s focus on innovation and experimentation.

“The project did not uncover bias, but the findings do contribute to a growing body of knowledge,” he wrote.

“They provide us with insights to further explore in our steadfast support of diversity and inclusion in the public service; two critical characteristics of an energized, innovative and effective workforce, able to meet the demands of our ever-changing world.”

17 departments participated

The pilot project included 17 departments and 27 external hiring processes between April and October 2017. It had a sample of 2,226 applicants, including 685 members of visible minorities (just under 31 per cent.)

Jobs were in the scientific and professional, administrative and foreign service, technical and administrative support, and operational fields.

Applications in the blind process had the name, citizenship, country of origin, mailing address, spoken languages, references to religion, and names of educational institutions removed. The objective was to determine if applicants with ethnic-sounding names were disadvantaged in the screening process.

While the findings did not reveal any bias, the report notes that reviewers were aware they were participating in the blind recruitment project, and that “this awareness could have potentially affected their assessment.”

Because the number of candidates who self-declared as Indigenous (73, or three per cent), or disabled (102, or five per cent,) was small, the analysis was limited to visible minorities.

Among the participating departments were National Defence; Natural Resources; Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship; Global Affairs, the RCMP and Statistics Canada.

Similar studies

The report notes other studies on blind hiring have had mixed results.

A 2011 study in the Australian Public Service found that de-identifying applications at the short-listing stage did not appear to help promote diversity.

“In fact, when all candidate’s information was made available, reviewers discriminated in favour of female and visible minority candidates,” the report reads.

Benefits of name-blind recruitment may be partly dependent on the context of the organization, including whether discrimination is present in the hiring process and whether the organization has policies aimed at improving diversity.

In October 2015, the U.K. Civil Service implemented name-blind recruitment to reduce unconscious bias and boost diversity, but no systematic review of the impact has been carried out yet.

via No sign of bias against government job-seekers with ethnic-sounding names, pilot project finds – Politics – CBC News

Why policy-makers should care about behavioural science: Supriya Syal

As someone who likes ‘nudge’ and related behavioural approaches, liked this article for the examples it cited, both outside and inside Canada:

Classic examples of behavioural interventions for the public sector include measures that help people save more for retirement, consume less electricity, be more likely to pay taxes, sign up for organ donations and get jobs. But the application of behavioural science to policy-making is becoming increasingly diversified around the world. For instance, the Copenhagen Airport in Denmark, in partnership with iNudgeyou (a Denmark-based social purpose company), combatted the problem of people smoking just outside terminal entrances by using stickers that guide them to a designated smoking area a few metres away. Instead of telling people what not to do (no-smoking zones near doors), providing guidance on what behaviour is desirable (smoking zones away from doors) proved more effective. In South Africa, the government of the Western Cape, in partnership with Ideas42 (a US-based nonprofit behavioural design and consulting firm) and the University of Cape Town, used a computer-based “HIV risk game” to educate at-risk youth about HIV. Instead of the typical one-off information brochure, a gamification approach that got youth to make repeated decisions about HIV risk and provided immediate feedback about their choices was a more powerful aid for increasing young people’s understanding of such risks. In Australia, Alfred Health (a hospital), working with Deakin University, Monash University, VicHealth and the Behavioural Insights Team (UK), increased healthier food choices in its cafés by using a traffic-light colour system to classify nutritional value and portion sizes of beverages. Instead of telling people about the health costs of sugary beverages, the team marked drinks as red (most unhealthy), amber or green (most healthy), and “red” drinks were simply removed from the displays and self-service refrigerators and placed under the counters — still available for sale, just less obviously so. The total number of beverages that were sold didn’t change, but the sale of unhealthy sugary beverages went down by 28 to 71 percent in a range of trials.

Meanwhile, in Canada, the Canada Revenue Agency is successfully using behavioural nudges to get people to pay outstanding taxes and to file their taxes online. The Privy Council Office Impact and Innovation Unit (IIU) is using behavioural insights to help Statistics Canada increase its survey response rates, and to help the Department of National Defence recruit more women into the armed forces. The Innovation Lab at Employment and Social Development Canada has used behavioural insights to help people find jobs and has partnered with the IIU to increase uptake of the Canada Learning Bond among low-income families. And the foremost public sector behavioural insights group in Canada, the Ontario Behavioural Insights Unit, has succeeded in increasing organ donation rates and online licence-plate-sticker renewals using behavioural insights.

Despite these initiatives and widespread academic expertise, support and talent, the public sector application of behavioural science in Canada lags behind that of other comparable nations, and the opportunity to create better outcomes for Canadians through behavioural evidence-based policy is immense. Moreover, the bulk of behavioural-insights policy work in Canada amounts to what one might call repair jobs — it is as if we were retrofitting old buildings to make them work in the modern-day context — and behavioural science interventions are used mainly to improve implementation or compliance with a pre-existing policy. Which is important, no doubt, but we could also be building new structures that benefit from modern advancements and would be much better suited to their users’ needs. Indeed, behavioural science provides powerful tools that could help us get it right at the policy design and formation stages. And, in addition to using behavioural science to design better for the public, we could also be using these insights to design better for public servants. But there are few, if any, applications of behavioural science interventions to organizational decision-making within the Canadian government or the bodies that it regulates, so this is a significant area for exploration.

Some of our greatest challenges today are large-scale, complex problems of public policy, public perception and public action: climate change, vaccinations against infectious diseases, diversity and inclusion of historically marginalized groups, humanitarian crises, to name a few. Behavioural science promises empirically validated solutions that are derived from an understanding of the human beings that make up that “public.” And it rests its propositions on evidence in favour of what works to help people themselves make decisions that are better for them, so they can lead better lives. A pretty irresistible call to arms, wouldn’t you say?

via Why policy-makers should care about behavioural science

Ex-StatsCan chiefs make last-ditch appeal to fix ‘egregious flaw’ in stats agency governance bill

Tend to agree with Smith and Fellegi:

A pair of former chief statisticians made a last-ditch plea to Senators last week to fix what one said was an “egregious flaw” that “fundamentally undermines” a government bill’s aim to give Statistics Canada more independence.

In an appearance in front of the Senate’s Social Affairs, Science, and Technology Committee Nov. 30, Wayne Smith and Ivan Fellegi restated the case they made in front of the House of Commons committee that studied Bill C-36: that the changes to the Statistics Act that purport to give the chief statistician more independence, should come with a more-stringent hiring process.

“I’m very conscious of the fact this is the 23rd hour in terms of this legislation,” said Mr. Smith, who served as the chief statistician from 2010 until he resigned in September 2016 in protest over the role Shared Services Canada plays in handling Statistics Canada’s information technology.

Mr. Smith called a lack of specificity in the bill over how the chief statistician is selected the “one egregious flaw in the legislation that fundamentally undermines the achievement of its objective.” The bill would change the chief statistician’s term to a fixed five years served under good behaviour, instead of the current term that lets them stay on as long as the government wants them to.

Both Mr. Smith and Mr. Fellegi—who served as the country’s chief statistician from 1985 to 2008—are calling for the creation of a three-person non-partisan selection committee to create a shortlist of candidates for the governor-in-council appointment (which would ultimately be decided by cabinet), as well as for the bill to clearly define what requirements a chief statistician should have.

“The new proposed bill gives a great deal more authority on professional issues to the chief statistician,” Mr. Fellegi said. “That makes it that much more important that he or she should be properly qualified. And an appropriately composed search committee should have that task.”

But Liberal Senator Jane Cordy (Nova Scotia), a member of the Social Affairs Committee and the bill’s sponsor in the Senate, told The Hill Times she doesn’t think the bill needs changing.

Sen. Cordy, who said she was first approached about sponsoring the bill in the spring by the government’s representative in the Senate Peter Harder (Ottawa, Ont.), pointed to comments made by Independent Senator Tony Dean (Ontario) during the Nov. 30 committee meeting that selection committees don’t eliminate potential bias.

“I’m a fan of search committees,” Sen. Dean told the former chief statisticians, but added he didn’t think the bill necessarily required changing. Instead, the recommendation could be rolled into an observation for the minister to consider.

There is precedent for choosing the chief statistician by committee, according to Mr. Fellegi, who said the appointment of his predecessor, Martin Wilk, was conducted that way. Mr. Wilk’s appointment came after a period in the late 1970s when Statistics Canada didn’t have the stellar reputation it enjoys today, Mr. Fellegi said, and needed a “transformative” leader.

“We found a transformative chief statistician who wouldn’t have applied because he was vice-president of AT&T, being paid probably five times as much, at least, as the offer from the government of Canada,” Mr. Fellegi said, adding that the search committee “basically appealed to his conscience” to have him return to Canada from the United States to take the job from 1980 to 1985.

Conservative Senator Linda Frum (Ontario), the official opposition critic for the bill in the Senate, said during her second-reading speech on Oct. 5 that the chief statistician should also be subject to approval by both houses of Parliament.

“If this government wants to demonstrate its sincere desire for a more arm’s-length relationship between the agency and the government of the day, it should support such an amendment, that parliamentary approval must be required before appointing a new chief statistician,” Sen. Frum said.

On Dec. 1, Sen. Frum’s office told The Hill Times that following the start of the committee’s study of the legislation, she still saw this as a shortcoming, but that there were no proposed amendments yet formalized.

via Ex-StatsCan chiefs make last-ditch appeal to fix ‘egregious flaw’ in stats agency governance bill – The Hill Times – The Hill Times

Governor in Council Appointments – PCO data

Governor in Council Appointments 2016 Baseline

Following the skimpy information provided in both the mandate checker and PCO’s Departmental Performance Report (DPR), I had asked PCO for more details and they were reasonably quick in getting back to me.
The correspondence below indicates that this is very much a work in progress. Hopefully, future reporting will include an annual table of GiC appointments by the four employment equity groups. Hard to the logic, for a government committed to diversity and inclusion, and one that has improved dramatically the diversity of judicial, ambassadorial and senatorial appointments, not to take this next step of more comprehensive reporting:

PCO response:

“…In February 2016, the Prime Minister announced a new approach to Governor in Council—or GIC—appointments that supports open, transparent, and merit-based selection processes for GIC appointments.
Significant progress has been made in making appointments.  Since March of this year, the number of appointments made under the new approach has increased approximately 300%.  To date, over 19,000 applications have been received and over 400 appointments made following an open, transparent, and merit-based selection process and approximately 740 appointments made through other selection processes.
Of the appointments following an open, transparent, and merit-based selection process, nearly 60% were women.  Most notably, women have been appointed for the first time to a number of leadership positions, including the Chief Science Advisor, the Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Grain Commission, the Chair of Via Rail, and the Chairperson of the Infrastructure Bank.  Over 10% are visible minorities, 10% are Indigenous peoples, and persons with disabilities are well represented.  The total representation of women serving as GIC appointees has increased by over 5% and is now over 40%.”

My reply to PCO:

“I prepared this little summary table for appointments under the new approach:
Indigenous peoples
Obviously, this is approximate but provides a basis for comparison with other EE data.
In terms of the other selection processes, I assume this would include position such as judges, heads of mission and the like and would appreciate confirmation your end. [PCO later advised that it does not include judges.]
Looking at the total number of GiC appointments (1182 in the index as of today, 40 percent women would mean about 473 women or more.
I would hope that in the future PCO would be able to provide annual tables similar to the EE reports for the public service (simplified) that would essentially tell what is a good news story more effectively and consistently. And that future DPRs are more informative.
But nevertheless this information is welcome, represents progress. Thanks for getting back to me.”

Technology will make today’s government obsolete and that’s good

Sunil Johal of the Mowat Centre on the challenges to government with the coming IT/AI/Automation transformation.

With the government’s poor record in recent large scale IT projects (e.g., Shared Services Canada, Phoenix pay system), hard to be optimistic:

A 2016 study by Deloitte and Oxford University found that up to 850,000 jobs in the United Kingdom’s public sector could be lost as a result of automation by 2030, in administrative roles as well as jobs for teachers and police officers.

Merely applying these same projections to the Canadian public sector would mean over 500,000 jobs at risk out of 3.6 million public sector roles. But collective agreements could impede any attempts to pivot away from employees performing routine administrative tasks and towards workers with digital skills.

If the economy at large continues to wring efficiencies out of human labour and substitute technological approaches where possible, it becomes hard to imagine the public sector trundling along as it always has.

Quite simply, the public sector will need to develop a more efficient workforce and adopt more agile structures and strategies in order to maintain relevance in a digital world.

So, what’s the right path forward? While it’s promising to see governments and other public sector organizations move forward with digital service agendas, we can’t expect them to simply overlay digital solutions onto existing processes and reap the real benefits of technology.

Blockchain, AI, virtual government

The public sector, ranging from the core civil service to health care to education, must fundamentally transform how it operates.

Do we need countless contribution agreements, contracts and reimbursements to be physically vetted by clerks in multiple offices when blockchain technology could instantly verify all of those same transactions?

Do policy units need 30 advisers to prepare advice for government ministers, or can much of their work be done automatically with a select few adding high-value insights? Can we employ telepresence to reach students in remote communities with high-quality teachers? Will medical diagnostics be transformed by neural networks that can more accurately detect cancers and other diseases?

Countries like Estonia, widely regarded as the most advanced digital society in the world, demonstrate that it’s possible to rethink government as a digital platform.

Whether and how quickly Canada’s public sector can leverage technological advancements to radically increase the efficiency and effectiveness of programs and services will be perhaps its greatest challenge in the years to come.

Delays and missteps will only continue to put the public service further behind mainstream business and consumer trends, and risk a continued decline in relevance for our public institutions.

via Technology will make today’s government obsolete and that’s good

Sorry has been the hardest word for governments

Good overview by Evan Dyer.

When working on the Canadian Historical Recognition Program and some of the apologies then under consideration, all these issues came up. The article’s comment that lawyers “hate apologies” (given legal risks) brings back memories of many meetings.

And as noted, Conservative governments have been more open to apologies and recognition programs (Japanese wartime internment, Chinese head tax etc, residential school system):

Canada’s next official apology is already in the works.

The country, through its prime minister, is expected to express contrition for the historic cruelty of turning away the St. Louis, a ship carrying Jewish refugees fleeing Nazism in 1939.

The passengers had already been refused entry by Cuban and U.S. authorities. Rejected and dejected, they would return to a Europe on the brink of war. Many would die in Nazi concentration camps.

A statement of regret, 80 years after the fact, will fit firmly into the Canadian government’s record of official apology.

Until Tuesday’s LGBTQ2 apology — and leaving aside apologies to individuals such as Maher Arar — Canada had atoned for three types of wrongs: those related to the Indian Residential School system, wrongs related to immigration, such as the Chinese head tax or the Komagata Maru incident, and wrongs it perpetrated during the two world wars, such as the internment of Japanese-Canadians and the executions of Canadian soldiers during the First World War.

The St. Louis incident checks two of those three boxes.

Some in the Jewish community have fought for years to make the government acknowledge that its decision was heartless and tainted by anti-Semitism.

Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis attempt to communicate with friends and relatives in Cuba, June 3, 1939. The ship’s passengers were later refused entry to Canada and many died in the Holocaust. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum/National Archives and Records)

Others are less keen. Sally Zerker, whose Polish-Jewish family members on the St. Louis were turned away, wrote in Canadian Jewish News that an apology now would be “nothing but a shallow, empty, meaningless act.”

“It will not bring back my relatives, or offer me any solace. Instead, it will whitewash a government that did nothing to help the Jews who were fleeing the Nazis and ignored the type of anti-Semitism that was endemic in Canada until the 1970s.”

But Zerker’s reaction is not typical. Though panned by some critics as “virtue-signalling” and gesture politics, apologies often mean a lot to the people to whom they’re directed.

Apologies, left and right

It was Conservative Brian Mulroney who broke the ice in 1988, when he apologized for the internment of Japanese-Canadians (Ronald Reagan the same year signed a similar apology to Japanese-Americans who were interned). Stephen Harper followed suit in 2006 with an apology for the head tax that unfairly penalized Chinese immigrants from 1885 to 1923.

Harper also made what is probably Canada’s biggest apology to date for the residential school system. Justin Trudeau’s apology last week extended that apology to residential school survivors in Newfoundland and Labrador who had been excluded.

Then prime minister Stephen Harper shakes hands with Indigenous leaders on June 11, 2008, the day he formally apologized on behalf of the Canadian government for the residential school system. The exclusion of schools in Newfoundland and Labrador led to another apology by Justin Trudeau last week. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Trudeau’s own father was no fan of saying sorry. When Mulroney first proposed an apology for Japanese-Canadians in 1984, Trudeau rebuffed him.

 “I do not think it is the purpose of a government to right the past,” Pierre Trudeau said. “It is our purpose to be just in our time.”

“My father might have a different perspective on it than I do,” Justin Trudeau said Monday, as he prepared to apologize for the persecution of LGBT Canadians.

“He came at it as an academic, as a constitutionalist. I come at it as a teacher, as someone who’s worked a lot in communities.”

Lawyers hate apologies

Trudeau could also have said his father came at it as a lawyer, which he was.

Lawyers routinely tell their clients that apologies can be construed as admissions of guilt or liability — and can carry a price tag.

Concerns about reparations long delayed an official U.S. government apology for slavery.

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton condemned his country’s record on a visit to Senegal in 1998, but added the caveat: “We cannot push time backward through the door of no return. We have lived our history.”

Ten years would pass before the U.S. Congress would pass a resolution apologizing for more than 200 years of slavery and segregation of African-Americans.

But the Senate’s beautifully worded apology to African-Americans ends with this rather jarring clause: “Disclaimer: Nothing in this resolution  a) authorizes or supports any claim against the United States; or b) serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States.”

Limited liability

Slavery began in United States during colonial times, but it persisted long after the U.S. Declaration of Independence, as the Congressional apology acknowledged.

Should Canada’s responsibility for historic wrongs extend to pre-Confederation times?

Stephen Harper thought not, which is why he excluded Newfoundland and Labrador from his residential school apology in 2008. Trudeau has decided that the province’s pre-Confederation history (N.L. joined in 1949) was Canada’s history. And it’s a history with its own set of wrongs.

Relations between Newfoundland’s original inhabitants, the Beothuks, and its settlers were so bad that encounters between the two usually left one side dead. The last confirmed member of the Beothuk people died in 1829.

And the same British Crown that pacified Quebec by extending legal tolerance and equality to its Catholic majority showed a much harsher face in its Newfoundland colony. There, it imposed the same code of discrimination and persecution it operated in Ireland: the Penal Laws.

The policies enacted in a forlorn bid to prevent Irish people from settling Newfoundland included banning the Roman Catholic religion, hunting priests and nuns, burning homes and outbuildings and refusing the right of burial.

Official government correspondence of the era typically refers to the island’s Irish people as “idle, disorderly, useless men and women” and “disaffected, disloyal, disorderly, enured to drunkenness, debauchery, vices and felonies of all kinds.”

Irish people lived under absurd restrictions — for example, no two “Papist” men could spend the winter under the same roof unless they were servants of a Protestant master — and any infraction was an excuse for exile.

Sins of the Crown

Acadian family members place flowers at the base of a monument honouring the memory of Acadians who were deported 250 years ago, on the waterfront in Halifax in 2005. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

At least one of Canada’s pre-Confederation wrongs has already been addressed in a formal apology — from the Queen.

The expulsion of the Acadians in 1755 from what is now the Maritimes and Quebec was a historic transgression whose consequences are still felt by the exiles’ descendants (some of whom live in Louisiana rather than Nova Scotia, for one thing).

Queen Elizabeth apologized to the Acadians in 2003, signing a royal “Proclamation Designating 28 July of Every Year as A Day of Commemoration of the Great Upheaval.”

But she was careful to add a rider:

“Our present proclamation does not, under any circumstances, constitute a recognition of legal or financial responsibility by the Crown.”

Phoenix Pay: Government got conflicting advice before launching ill-fated system

Don’t think I would recommend S.i. Systems given their candy coating compared to Gartner.

But Bagnall’s conclusion is right: really hard to put on the brakes on a major initiative at a late stage, given bureaucratic inertia and that people are vested in it going forward:

In the wake of last week’s damning report by auditor general Michael Ferguson — who concluded the pay system is at risk of chewing up $540 million more than its budgeted $310 million by 2019, with no end in sight — it’s worth re-examining some of the independent advice government agencies were getting in early 2016.

Treasury Board, along with Phoenix-sponsor Public Services and Procurement Canada, commissioned at least two reviews that were delivered just days before the February 2016 launch of the new pay system.

One review, by Gartner Inc., offered a number of important warnings, but the second report, by S.i. Systems, was surprisingly upbeat about the Phoenix project’s chances for success.

“The (Phoenix) initiative is very likely to achieve its goals and desired outcomes within the first year or two of full operations,” S.i. Systems noted in its draft final report dated Jan. 18, 2016. “All in-scope work has been completed, a (software) code freeze has been imposed on Phoenix and the Miramichi pay centre is fully operational.”

Ferguson last week gave short shrift to such sentiment, pointing out that roughly one in two federal government employees was experiencing a significant pay issue as of last June — fully 16 months after the launch of Phoenix.

S.i. Systems couched some of its conclusions with caveats, noting that the system was not yet fully automated, with the result some pay transactions were being dealt with manually. However, the consultants viewed this as a “temporary” issue during the transition from dozens of older pay systems to the consolidated Phoenix system.

S.i. Systems nevertheless was clear that Public Services and Procurement Canada — the department in charge of the project — should move ahead with Phoenix. Such a move “will be challenging,” the S.i. Systems report noted, “but it is likely that the problems and difficulties will be manageable.”

The consultants concluded “The (Phoenix) project team is to be commended for bringing this complex initiative to its current stage.”

The Gartner report, dated Feb. 11, 2016, offered a much different view. Not only did Gartner identify a dozen significant risks facing the impending rollout of Phoenix, it offered strategies for minimizing them. Many of the risks proved all too real, while the tips for reducing them were ignored.

Consider this item, offered in a discussion of potential problems associated with testing the new pay system: “End to end testing has not been performed by any department that Gartner has interviewed,” Gartner noted, “Best practice would dictate multiple end-to-end cycles be tested prior to go-live (in February 2016).”

The Gartner document added that its consultants were never provided with “a clearly documented testing strategy and plan.”

Gartner was hired on Dec. 21, 2015, leaving it just enough time to interview eight federal departments. Nevertheless, the sample included some of the largest ones (Health Canada, Employment and Social Development Canada and Public Services).

Other key risks identified by Gartner included training, support and transition.

For instance, Gartner notes that federal departments hadn’t yet implemented their training programs. This meant that if any gaps in training emerged it would be impossible to address these through revised or remedial courses before Phoenix went live. Gartner concluded the training shortfall could result in “unanticipated consequences such as an incorrect pay calculation.”

Gartner also brought attention to what has proved one of Phoenix’s most intractable problems — technical support for government employees using the system, a problem exacerbated by the reduction in the number of pay administrators starting in 2014.

Gartner correctly predicted there would be a very large number of queries facing pay administrators at the central location in Miramichi, N.B. — not least because employees across government had little opportunity beforehand to become familiar with Phoenix’s many quirks.

The consultants offered a number of suggestions for reducing the risks of the Phoenix rollout, including trying a more piecemeal approach. Divide the two main waves of employees into multiple waves, for instance, and start with the least difficult departments — those with relatively few seasonal employees, shift workers and other complicating features when it comes to pay.

Critically, Gartner also suggested running Phoenix in tandem with the older pay system as a contingency in case the new system didn’t perform as advertised.

These and other recommendations were ignored, with the result now all too plain to see. Nearly 350,000 pay transactions are today choking a system designed to accommodate 80,000.

To be fair, S.i. Systems also took note of the potential risks involved in abandoning the old pay system before making sure Phoenix actually worked. “(We) did not see evidence of a fallback or test strategy to mitigate this potentially risky event,” the S.i. Systems report noted in an Annex.

But the consultants downplayed the risk in its summary assessment that declared the Phoenix project was using an “excellent testing strategy” and that “when problems were encountered, appropriate and timely action was taken.”

But no matter the consultants’ advice, the final call about moving ahead with a project this big belonged to government. After nearly a decade in development, Phoenix suffered the flaw of unstoppable bureaucratic momentum. The directors of the project seemed not inclined to pay much attention to last-minute advice unless it happened to line up with where they were going anyway.

via Phoenix Pay: Government got conflicting advice before launching ill-fated system | Ottawa Citizen