Skip to main content

Canada’s top public servant says Parliament needs to consider legislative changes that would give the government more power to fire public servants for poor performance amid a debate over who to blame for the Phoenix pay system failure that botched the pay of tens of thousands of civil servants.

Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick said it is “extremely difficult” to fire someone in the public service below the deputy-minister level for poor performance, as they are protected by the Public Service Employment Act. He made the comments on Wednesday night during testimony to the Senate finance committee, where he faced questions about the Phoenix pay system failure, which has gripped the public service for more than two years.

“I think parliamentarians in both chambers might want to take a look at that and see if that’s creating the right incentives and disincentives for a high-performing organization. That’s a big project. It would be very messy and controversial,” Mr. Wernick said.

Opinion: Ottawa pay mess shows how hard it is to fire anyone in this town

Related: Phoenix pay system an ‘incomprehensible failure,’ Auditor-General says

Senior bureaucrats in charge of Phoenix pay system weren’t fired

Under the Public Service Employment Act, Mr. Wernick said, public servants can be terminated only with “legal test of cause,” which is a “long, arduous, grueling” process. He said he would leave it to parliamentarians to propose changes to the act, but noted the importance of putting safeguards in place.

“In cases of serious misconduct, or serious poor performance or mismanagement, it should be possible to terminate people, but I don’t want that to become an instrument for harassment and bullying,” Mr. Wernick told reporters after the meeting.

Mr. Wernick said the termination issue has been a concern of his for years, denying that the Phoenix pay scandal put the matter on his radar.

In a scathing report last month, Auditor-General Michael Ferguson blamed three “executives” – senior public servants at Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC), which is responsible for Phoenix − for the failure. He said they did not tell the deputy minister at the time about the known problems with Phoenix, leading the department to launch it despite clear warnings it was not ready.

The launch of the Phoenix pay system and data collection by Indigenous Services Canada are being criticized in the auditor general’s latest report. Michael Ferguson urged Ottawa to reflect on what he called “incomprehensible failures.”

The Canadian Press

It was recently revealed that three Phoenix “executives” were not fired for mismanagement of the pay system.

Speaking to the House of Commons public accounts committee last week, PSPC deputy minister Marie Lemay said two of the three executives were shuffled out of their senior posts in pay administration and did not receive performance bonuses. But two of the executives still work for the department, while the third retired, she said.

Mr. Wernick’s comments on Wednesday are the latest in a back-and-forth between him and the Auditor-General, whose report called the Phoenix pay system an “incomprehensible failure” indicative of “pervasive cultural problems.” Last week, the PCO clerk called Mr. Ferguson’s chapter on the federal government’s cultural issues an “opinion piece” containing “sweeping generalizations.” He took that criticism further on Wednesday, suggesting Mr. Ferguson went beyond his mandate of making sure the government’s financial books are clean.

“The opinion pieces stray into just general advice, like a management consultant or a governance expert, and I just don’t think the office of the Auditor-General is the right place to do that,” Mr. Wernick said.

Mr. Ferguson has not backed down from his assertions, saying on Tuesday that his report has sparked a much-needed conversation about the public service.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), the country’s largest civil-service union, wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last week requesting a public inquiry into Phoenix. The union says it has not heard from the Prime Minister’s Office yet.