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Pity CGI Group Inc. The IT outsourcer is ubiquitous. It manages the phone bills, the paycheques and the electronic medical records of millions of North Americans. It secures the networks of countless businesses and governments. And yet contrary to BlackBerry, which the Montreal firm overtook as Canada's biggest tech company, it gets little recognition outside of its home province of Quebec.

That is until it recently received a whole lot of attention – of the unwanted kind. President Barack Obama, once the sandwich-board man for BlackBerry, the mobile phone he couldn't live without, has now given CGI a super-sized American serving of bad publicity for its work on the website.

There is "no excuse," Mr. Obama said, for the technical glitches that have plagued the online marketplace that allows Americans without health insurance to pick and purchase a plan. "Nobody is more frustrated by that than I am," he declared. Especially since the rollout glitches have given new ammo to Republicans who are intent on shooting down what is better known as "Obamacare," the President's signature policy.

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What is a Canadian company caught in the Washington political crossfire to do? While there is no sure way to escape unscathed, CGI compounded its problems with its inept response.

Its American division, CGI Federal, sent its senior vice-president Cheryl Campbell to respond to the barrage of questions from members of the House of Representative committee on energy and commerce. Ms. Campbell let it be known that her husband was a Navy pilot and her father was a small-business owner. But why not send someone with a higher rank or stellar political credentials, such as Dr. James Peake, the former U.S. Army Surgeon-General and Bush cabinet member who heads CGI's global health care practice?

Ms. Campbell stayed cool under pressure. But for the life of her, she couldn't bring herself to apologize, even if CGI is likely not the sole company responsible for the site's malfunctions since it launched on Oct. 1. You could almost hear in the background of her testimony the sappy Chicago song It's Hard For Me to Say I'm Sorry.

Ms. Campbell blamed other suppliers and even the U.S. federal agency in charge of the project instead of owning up to CGI's possible failings. That "anybody-but-us" attitude smacked of arrogance. And yet, saying that five-letter word can go a long way in defusing anger when a company finds itself in a maelstrom of controversy.

In the fall of 2011, BlackBerry founder Mike Lazaridis issued a public apology in a video after a great number of its users lost their mobile service in a global outage that hit Europe, the Middle East, Africa and India. Mr. Lazaridis had no qualms acknowledging that the Waterloo, Ont.-based company had dropped the ball. "I apologize for the service outages this week," Mr. Lazaridis said. "We've let many of you down."

In fact, a wide range of corporations have apologized in recent years to protect their brand, a list that includes British bank Barclays, social network Facebook, American airline JetBlue and video service Netflix.

On the Richter scale of mishaps, the website's bungled launch wasn't a life-threatening disaster. Americans were just aggravated when they were unable to register or when they received error messages that prevented them from acquiring their long-awaited insurance.

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But health is of vital importance to the future of CGI, the fifth-biggest IT services firm in the world behind Accenture, Computer Sciences Corp., Capgemini and Atos. For the company that the astute Serge Godin and long-time partner André Imbeau founded in the small town of Saguenay, Que., in 1976, that is the last frontier.

Demographic pressures and rising costs are forcing states around the world to contemplate dramatic reforms in the way they deliver health services. And those reforms rely on electronic record keeping and on a keen analysis of health care data that is highly confidential.

Health represented 10 per cent of CGI's total revenue of $4.8-billion in its fiscal year 2012, but 14 per cent of its new bookings. And with high double-digit growth, CGI executives only expect this sector to rise.

Given how much this matters to its own financial health, CGI certainly does not want to be remembered as the firm that botched the Obamacare rollout – a fact that its competitors will certainly make a point of reminding prospective governmental clients.

Of course, saying you are sorry is no panacea. But if apologizing tones down the criticism and sweeps some of the controversy away, it is well worth the small hit to CGI's pride.

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About the Author
Chief Quebec correspondent

Sophie Cousineau is The Globe and Mail’s chief Quebec correspondent. She has been working as a journalist for more than 20 years, and was La Presse’s business columnist prior to joining the Globe in 2012. Ms. Cousineau earned a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Illinois and a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science from McGill University. More


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