As a public servant, and similar to every other industry, there is a lot of speculation about what post-Covid workplaces will look like. Many of our operations can be done well-enough from home, and the challenges we have now are mostly about IT infrastructure, home office solutions, and privacy. Much of our work is digital and email-enabled, so it’s not a giant leap to work from home. We just traditionally haven’t done that transition for all the usual pressures related to remote workers and supervision/monitoring, and some unique pressures related to privacy, taxpayer dollars, and supporting Ministers in person.
Paul Taylor over at Governing.com wrote an article about five changes he sees coming to the public service post-Covid. Here’s an excerpt:
Your Cubicle. Our Conference Room. Where Did They Go? Your space may get bigger as facilities staff reconfigure space to conform with the 6-foot separation requirements. Coupled with limits on group size, that is likely to grow cubicle row into what were once conference rooms. … Beyond the Point of No Return. Social distancing is bound to spread employees across more square footage than agencies have to reconfigure to handle everybody at work. What’s more, as governments confront the need for budget cuts in the tens and hundreds of millions, the public-sector layoffs announced to date are likely to rise exponentially as the tax base shrinks. … The Grey Beard Dilemma. The Centers for Disease Control and other public health officials have cautioned since the beginning of the crisis that “Older adults and people who have severe underlying medical conditions like heart or lung disease or diabetes seem to be at higher risk for developing more serious complications from COVID-19 illness.” That may provide some employees an excuse to leave public service early — or be the catalyst for difficult conversations with their managers about a mutually agreeable plan of when and how to transition.
He has two other points about masks and gloves + surveillance and testing, and I think it is way too premature to be estimating what those measures look like. One estimate of putting 100 people per floor into a 20 floor office building (with only 2 people per elevator to maintain distancing and assuming normal start times and the usual number of elevators per building) had it taking almost 3-4h to get everyone just to their desks. Exits would take the same although maybe a bit faster if some people take the elevator.
However, I agree that there will be a lot of discussions about rejigging floor spaces and decreasing common areas. I also think there will be much greater emphasis on giving people camera-enabled computes with full band-width capabilities (the Canadian federal government has had lots of laptops and tablets with cameras, but very little infrastructure to support video-calls from your desktop), and if you are meeting through computers, why not continue to work from home?
I’m less sold on the ruminations about layoffs in mass modes — there will be debts to pay off, guaranteed, but there will also be huge government programs to implement. It’s way too soon to make those estimates.
But as an ageing worker with diabetes, I fully agree about the complications going back to the office. I have zero interest in risking my life just to work in a cubicle. If I can do my work from home, I’m happy to do so. And if they offered some sort of buyout/medical early retirement option? I suspect I would be crunching the numbers to see if I could make it work.
Great article, even if I don’t fully agree with all his points.
I work in a government office complex, and for the most part, our offices tend to look like they were designed and approved by accountants. Actuarial accountants. And auditors. We don’t have 50 shades of gray, we tend to have three. Light gray, dark gray, and something in between that is probably “light gray that got dirty and will never get cleaned”. Don’t get me started on the carpets. But before I talk about Workplace 2.0, let me talk for a moment about my last 20+ years of office accommodations.
From 1993 to 1997, I was with Foreign Affairs. Generally, everyone had a closed office, boring off-white metal-like walls, brown doors, small window next to the door (usually, but not always), desk plus computer table, chair, guest chair, bookshelf and filing cabinet. With enough room that you could often have two people squeeze in front of the desk as guests, and have a quick meeting. Meeting rooms tended to be few and far between, a boardroom generally per floor of about 100+ people, but Directors had slightly larger offices with small tables for 4, DGs had tables for about 6, and ADMs had room for about 8 as part of their actual office, so between your own offices and meetings with executives, you rarely ran out of meeting space. At the time, there were almost NO people with cubicles except for admin staff who tended to be in open areas near the Director’s offices, and they had full L shaped cubicles with a “receiving” shelf in front of their desk.
From 1997 to 2005, I was at CIDA. We mostly had high cubicle walls, shades of beige as I recall, but footprints with room for a desk, a computer table, a guest chair or two, a bookshelf, and a filing cabinet. In about 2003, they experimented with a new design, an early version of what they were calling Workplace 2.0. It promised collaborative spaces (although they didn’t call them that, they said they had more meeting areas), lower walls (yay, extra light), new kitchens, eating areas, etc. They engaged people across the floor to help with the design, very participatory, and then in the middle of the implementation, they cut the kitchens, collaborative spaces and improved layout, and basically just put a bunch of people in “clustered” cubicle areas where four people would occupy what was probably originally about three cubicles before, and would have improved “common” space in between to save a bit of footprint. But there were still high walls between you and the next pod, and as is quite common in government accommodations, they changed part of the floor and then stopped because they had been using end of year money to pay for it and ran out of money.
Departments don’t control their own accommodations
Plus another factor that frequently causes no end of challenge. I’ll digress momentarily to talk about it. Individual departments are not, generally, in charge of their workspace. Public Works is. Or, rather, now called Public Services and Procurement Canada. And it looks like the worst form of bureaucracy, outside of the creation of the NCC. You might have a small team in your branch dealing with accommodation needs, and they will feed their info to a building committee for your department. Neither group has any power. One departmental rep will sit on an interdepartmental committee who will decide who gets money to do stuff each year and when. Bearing in mind that they are the ones paying for it — PSPC. Not the actual department with the employees, PSPC. Even if the department sets aside money to renovate a floor, PSPC will likely take the money and ignore what the department wants to do with it. Sure, they talk about collaboration, but in the end, most of the big decisions are outside the individual department’s hands.
Why? Partly equity. They don’t want a Department with a warm fuzzy Deputy Minister to go out and buy all nice furniture for their employees because immediately you create the same expectations across government, and when you’re talking 250K employees, a desk suite that costs $500 vs. a desk suite that costs $750 starts to add up into real dollars really fast. Which is why we have central procurement for all government assets. Just like every other large government and most large companies. Even small companies I suppose too.
But I digress. What I’m pointing out is that the people who make decisions on office layouts and configurations are NOT the department that actually uses it, it’s decided elsewhere. Okay, back to my experience.
The outside says nothing about the inside
From 2005 to 2006, I worked for SDC in Vanier. A very block-like building, a little worn looking, and you might expect old-style furniture. Not so. The towers were laid out on general hollow square designs with the elevators in the middle. Add to that, most floors of about 75 people tended to have at least one medium-sized boardroom and one small boardroom, plus a kitchen area. The offices themselves were high-walled cubicles with the full modular furniture attached, L-shaped for your desk and computer table merged into one. Very “modern” looking, functional. Insurance company-like. But clean and bright. It was actually quite pleasant, and with limited numbers of people from the centre core out to the windows, you were usually no more than two cubicles or so from natural light. Not very efficient, but not bad. And this was now the point where I was officially a full-fledged manager, so my needs shifted from analyst duties (workspace, cabinets) to managerial duties (guest chairs, whiteboards).
In 2006, I moved back to the mothership, and for 2006-2007, I was in a central part of a very large floor. I could see some light from an atrium a few cubicles away, but real light was quite far away past lots of closed offices. I had the standard footprint, what we tend to think of in government as Workplace 1.0, but that is only among people who don’t remember back to the days when people tended to have a lot of closed offices (like Foreign Affairs). Back when people often smoked IN THEIR OFFICE, the hallways, and even meetings (shudder). Kind of like some of the UN buildings in NYC up until about 2000. The cubicle was standard footprint like at CIDA … you had room for a combination computer/desk (L-shaped and mounted on the cubicle walls), high walls (5′ usually, often more), the bookshelf was optional, at least one guest chair, and a filing cabinet plus a pedestal for office supplies, etc. But I was on a floor with a lot of meeting rooms. Plus you could meet in your cubicles. It worked, and while cubicle land is never “fun”, it wasn’t bad.
In 2007, I moved to a new job in the same building and I had basically the same footprint for the cubicles until 2013. The floor didn’t have as many board rooms though and you could end up frequently squatting in a director’s office or DG’s office who was away, just to avoid dealing with the boardroom booking service (a blight on our experience, I’ll come back to later). In 2013, we were moved to a new floor plan, and I ended up with a window office which is to say a cubicle next to a hallway along the windows, and we removed the walls on that side to give me a semi-open-concept (except for the standard other three walls). It seemed almost like heaven. I had a small table right against the window with two chairs. Plus a guest chair in my office and a large whiteboard. I’m sure we were occasionally noisier than we should have been, but with high walls, you frequently have the illusion of privacy at least.
The game is afoot…or is it?
However, in 2016, they announced “the big redesign”. The powers-that-be had listened somewhat to the constant complaints of dingy carpets, drab walls, horrible layouts, and were going to do something for our floor…complete Workplace 2.0 redesign. I was horrified.
We were mostly analysts, and within that, a strongly introverted bunch. Open concepts? We needed quiet, studious areas to think deep thoughts, conduct focused analysis, lay out our papers on our desk and bury ourselves in our work. We weren’t SOCIAL, why the hell would we want open concept? It seemed like the worst idea on the planet. And like a friend of mine who is facing it now, the immediate thoughts of various strategies go through your head:
A. Resistance — Have the unions agreed? Someone thought department X fought it and they backed off. Someone heard everyone over at department Y got sick, and were now putting things back. Others heard blah blah blah;
B. Coping — Maybe we can move to other departments who haven’t been 2.0-ed yet. Maybe we’ll get noise-cancelling headphones. Maybe we’ll try it for a while and see how it goes. Where will we store stuff? How will we survive? How can we work from home every day instead?
My reaction was a bit more antagonistic a bit earlier, something I didn’t mention. Back in about 2010 or 11, I went to an HR conference put on by the Conference Board, and they had the ADM of buildings from Public Works there to talk about a bunch of things, and one of them was 2.0. Of course, he said the positive things about open concept, collaboration, blah blah blah, but I was curious about the push-back so I asked a question, and he cited some stats in his answer about how much time people spend in their cubicles vs. calculations of how much time they spend in meetings. It seemed a bit off to me. So I did the calculations myself, and they didn’t add up.
Basically what he had were stats on how much time an EC or a PM would spend in their cubicle vs. in “meetings” in their day. And depending on types and levels, they had ranges from 40% in cubicle to 60% in cubicle, or thereabouts. I don’t know if I would buy the “only 60%” but I get that it is an average…there are some ECs who are VERY active for lots of meetings daily, and others that are more researchers who might be in a lot less meetings during the analysis phase (some I know have gone weeks just in their cubicle). But I went with his most generous estimate, only 40% of the time in the cubicle. So 60% of the time in meetings.
That means, say for a group of 100 analysts on a given floor, on average, 4.5 hours per day of a 7.5 hour work day would be in meetings and 3 hours would be in the cubicle. Which means, separately, 450 hours worth of meetings per day. Now, assuming that they are all evenly spread out across the work-day and not clumped at the 10:00 and 2:00 marks, that means at any given hour of the day, 60 analysts would be meeting each hour (same stat as calculating 60% of the overall analysts). Now, how are they meeting? Those ECs might have a meeting with only 1 other person (their boss), or 2 coworkers, or say attend a meeting with ten others. But let’s say on average, they’re meeting in groups of 4 overall. That means 15 meeting rooms for four people would be running on that floor all day. Fully occupied. Just to meet their estimate of how much time they would be in meetings, at the most GENEROUS time out of the cubicle they might come to hate. Plus they’ll need some spaces to go and perhaps work quietly, a couple of small quiet rooms, say perhaps 5 per floor? What about telephone rooms when they’re “meeting” with people virtually? Another 5-10 of those?
At the time, I estimated our current floor with his numbers would need somewhere in the neighbourhood of 40-50 meeting rooms. How many did we have? Eight. The numbers didn’t and couldn’t work. I button-holed him after the panel and said, “Wait, the numbers don’t work.” He referred me to his director at Public Works, I followed up several times with them to get an answer, and was met with a resounding silence. They had to know the numbers didn’t work, maybe they just hoped that no one would bother to check their math.
So when they announced our floor was going to 2.0, I cringed, but I laughed too. Because in my experience, the only thing certain about accommodations plans in the Government of Canada is that they don’t survive engagement with the enemy, namely anyone in charge of actually doing anything. Oh, look, great plan…but we’re running low on money as someone clogged a toilet over at Eddy Street. And somebody tried to microwave a heating pad that wasn’t apparently microwave friendly after all over at that building. Oh, and machinery changes reorganized a whole whack of people over there. Let’s repurpose the budget over here, and we’ll get to that later. Which is what happened at Foreign Affairs. CIDA. SDC. And even in HRSDC, earlier.
About a year after the rumblings, they said, “Okay, we’re going to move you into swing space and then move you back.” Which I also knows almost NEVER happens. Once you’re in swing space, the tradition is to leave you there and move someone else into the space you left. Why? Because it’s cheaper. Thing of it this way…You’re in space A, someone else is in space B, they have swing space C, and they want to renovate both A and B.
They announce that they will move A to C, renovate A, and then move C back to A. Then they’ll move B to C, renovate B, and move C back to B. Four moves.
However, if they move A to C, renovate A, move B to A, renovate B, and then move C to A, it’s only three moves. Much cheaper. Namely 25% cheaper (at least for the “move” part of the costs).
Let’s throw an extra domino in. A1 to C, C to A1; A2 to C, C to A2; B to C, C to B…six moves. Or A1 to C, A2 to A1, B to A2, C to B, four moves, and you are 33% cheaper.
It has happened three times in my career, although never to me. They moved someone out, but instead of moving them back in right after the renovation, they moved someone else in, and then renovated their old space before they moved the originals back. Cheaper. But presented as “Hey, we just realized this is less disruptive” when that was the real plan, not the announced plan, all along. And the people in swing space just hang out where they are with vague promises it will “only be six months”. Two years later, it will only be “another couple of months”.
So when they decided to move us to temporary swing space, I figured when it was all redone, and the “perks” trimmed, it would look like a call centre when finished, no collaborative spaces, crappy setup, lots of unhappy people, bad morale, mass exits, and at least one extra domino in the mix.
I was almost completely right in the short-term
Before I get back to that outcome, I will talk about the temporary swing space. We were moved to a floor that was, I don’t know, 2.0 lite. It had the small footprint and low walls, and no collaborative spaces on the floor. No extra kitchens, nice setups, it was crap. I was “protected” personally by the fact that there was one of the cubicles that had an old 1.0 footprint with room for guest chairs and a whiteboard, so I could keep doing my managerial duties. Noting too that I had no director, I was reporting directly to a DG, so I was doing unit management and had to have HR meetings in my cubicle regularly. Not ideal for confidentiality, but that’s the rub.
In advance of heading to this potential hell-hole, I bought my team all noise-cancelling headphones and anti-glare screens. It helped, but it wasn’t great. As one pointed out, after several years of working and promotions, they were now relegated to a space smaller than they had as co-op students. With no work space on their desk, basic desk setups, and extremely small filing cabinet, storage areas. Plus low walls. Next to a group of people using old-fashioned paper adding machines several times a day. With the appropriate noise. It was a gong show in some ways. Now, to be clear, none of them were whining or complaining about it. There was no sense of “I’m entitled to more”, it was just “well, this isn’t very good work space, kind of noisy”. And yes, as expected, you do see upticks in sick leave and requests to work at home from time to time. More tension in the workplace too.
Another division who ended up on the same floor had a unique solution implemented by the Director. She got rid of the “desk” in her office, reduced herself to a small computer table in the corner, and put a table in the centre. Instant meeting space for her team. With complete and open willingness to have them use it for meetings while she was working on her computer or she would go to their cubicle while they were using it. Seriously. To give them a meeting / collaborative space. My immediate reaction was, “I would NEVER kick my boss out of her office like that”, but it worked for them. Quite impressive adaptation, but not one that should have to be made to compensate for bad office accommodations.
For other reasons, I exited the branch for most of a year and went to work in another branch with the old 1.0 footprint (nice window, small table near me to have meetings, but no space for my whiteboard, sigh). Anyway, someone senior asked me about the setup plans for the new floor, and I was not optimistic. I even broke down and gave my completely blunt assessment. “DMs couldn’t solve the space problem in the building, so it was delegated down to ADMs to cope, who delegated down to DGs to cope, and Directors. And in the end, the solution is that individual workers will end up with pill-box sized offices to solve the space problems the DM couldn’t solve in the first place.”
I was completely wrong in the long-term
When the new floor was “revealed”, I have to say, I was impressed. The floor holds almost 500 people (actually only 469 by fire code, a separate issue). Here are the highlights:
Two large fully-equipped boardrooms that hold 20+ people easily with options for video conferencing, projections, logins, etc. (previously only one medium-sized boardroom, not very well-equipped), AND which are only close walled on two sides for monitors and white boards while the other two are all windows with some frosted glass and sliding doors;
Another five smaller boardrooms or so, suitable for up to 10 in most cases, plus another couple of smaller ones for up to 6 comfortably and 8 with some borrowing of extra chairs), also with bright windows and sliding doors;
Healthy overhead lighting (not the bright glares of older fluorescents), and with lower walls for all, clear and bright natural light from all the windows, visible from every spot on the floor (except perhaps the elevator area);
Walls near the elevators to muffle the elevator sounds, creating almost a hollow square around the elevator areas with hallways as buffer zones;
Clean and bright cubicles with every cubicle having fully adjustable stand-up / sit-down desks, which even if you don’t use to stand at, is great for just simply adjusting for your own ergonomic height needs;
Director offices are about the size of the old cubicle 1.0 footprints, with three solid walls and a glass wall with a sliding door, which might initially make you think like a fish bowl, but the glass is frosted from modesty panel height at the bottom to above head height when sitting, but with small clear horizontal lines so you can “peer” through but not look through just passing by, and enough room in them for a small meeting table or a desk, up to them how they want to set it up (I flag this in particular as it is not just worker-bees taking the space hit);
DG offices that usually have enough room in them for a small meeting table too but are about the size of old director office footprints;
ADM offices that are big and spacious if they want the desk space and some guest chairs, but because they have small nearby boardrooms, no room for tables;
WiFi throughout the floor, and particularly so for all the meeting rooms;
Multiple telephone rooms (or mini meeting rooms for two people) around the floor; and,
Special high-tech white noise dampeners in the ceilings to keep the noise levels down on the floor — it is pretty quiet considering you have 100 people working near you in a call-centre-like layout.
The two big “extras” that have been added are two collaborative spaces. A little less formal than you would normally see in an office, it looks a lot like open spaces in more modern libraries or schools.
In the big space, there are five little “commuter” pods. I don’t know what you actually call them, but they look like commuter seats on trains where there is a high-backed two-seater bench facing another high-backed two-seater bench, with a coffee table in between the two benches.
In the centre of the space, there are a random collection of movable arm chairs with swing arms that you used to see on those old-style desks in one-room school houses. Except not at all uncomfortable. I just have to stop playing with the swing arm and the desk top as it totally rotates any direction you want it to and it’s not for the hyperactive mind.
Over farther, along the wall, there is a big-ass kitchen. Microwaves, fridges, toasters, coffee makers, etc. Nothing super luxurious but highly functional. Upgraded water fountains that take your reusable water bottles, or there are the water coolers around. Proper recycling receptacles for just about everything in the office (and we have more options in the lobby for batteries and things). And the kitchen has a bunch of tables. I don’t know, maybe 8 or so, ranging in size for seating space from 4 people to 10 people.
Pardon my language, but it is pretty fucking awesome. It is actually fun to be in that space. It is upbeat. It is positive energy. There’s a buzz. I went by the other day at lunch and it was FULL. People were laughing, eating together, talking. It was dynamic energy. Impressive for a floor full of mostly analysts.
There is a second area on the other side of the floor, as well as a smaller kitchen, but the collaborative space has more of the two-seater high back areas, a couple of large TVs, a bit more open but with walls along the side to contain the noises. Perfect for more collaborative brainstorming in a larger group, or, perhaps, a small festive occasion.
I haven’t used the spaces much, but anytime I have, there have been NO problems finding space to chat. Not once.
It can’t be perfect, though, right?
I have only heard four complaints, only two of which apply to accommodations directly.
First, everyone notices immediately that there is NO PLACE to put anything in your cubicle. You have a small locker, with room for a short-length coat (the whole locker is only 4-5′ tall, do the math), two small letter-sized width drawers for files, and a half-height area on top for a few personal storage things on shelves. Desk space is at a premium too, particularly if you have dual monitors or like to display photos. There is no easy option for a whiteboard (the cubicle walls are actually thicker than average so even getting an over-the-edge bracket is challenging to find, even on Amazon), and they aren’t “2.0 compliant” anyway. Neither are pedestal drawers under the desks although that is more about the up/down desks functioning properly anyway as well as how rigid your branch accommodations person is when someone in the official “workplace 2.0 goon squad” rats you out to them to say you have an authorized whiteboard or something. There is still an 1984-element to it.
Second, more of a concern than a complaint, nobody knows what happens in this environment when flu season hits. The air has much better circulation than in old, but it is still a very open office. Officially, the stats say it is better than traditional office environments, but I’ll be curious to see the stats of sick leave usage come January / February / March.
Third, my wife summed it up better than I could, having less space is initially frustrating but it is mostly about adjusting your mindset to be able to work in a more paperless format. Which is great, but ONLY if you are also given the tools that go with decreased paper. Such as strong central filing and records management of whatever paper and e-records that people need to access. There are lots of filing cabinets on the floor for secret stuff, but there weren’t any new tools delivered for better tracking and management of it all. Our department has IM practices that resemble toddlers in the 1950s, but that’s a separate challenge. The mindset can change, but you still need the tools to support you. An additional tool that hasn’t been rolled out yet though to everyone is the portable tablet or laptop to replace the desktop so everyone can take advantage of the wi-fi around the floor. The building will get there over the next five years, a one-device model they hope, including potentially elimination of both desk phones and blackberries (i.e. go to mobiles), and they are leading experiments in iPhone trials, Samsung, etc. My wife’s team was an early pilot for having laptops [correction: NOT tablets as I indicated, tablets tend to be only for directors] so their whole team has them, nobody in my team other than the Director has it. And finally, remote access for home should be almost a default with a lot more flex around working remotely, while recognizing it should still be the exception not the norm (you’re being paid to work at the office, not simply to work wherever is convenient for you, and we are far from any such model, particularly until people see that it isn’t being abused).
Fourth, and this is closely linked to the last, you need one very simple effective tool to take advantage of all this extra meeting room space. A way to book the space easily. You would think that was easy. I know you think that because everyone with a brain thinks that. Except for some strange corporate-history-laden-tale-of-woe, our department has the worst tool imaginable. Wait, no I can prove it. Ask yourself, what is the most important feature to have when you are looking to book a boardroom in a list of available boardrooms? Think about it for a second while we all imagine the Jeopardy theme. Yes, you are correct. A search function to show you which rooms are available at a given time. So you can, you know, FIND ONE AND SELECT IT. What has our boardroom booking tool not had for the last five years? A search function. I kid you not. We still have a crappy system in place, so people are using the open spaces more often than not, even if a room would be better, just because you can wander over faster to see if the space is available (you can’t “book” them), rather than using a crappy tool to look for a room. And yes, go ahead, list the obvious things to say about using Outlook, others have had it in their buildings since 1995, yep, we know. Trust us, WE KNOW! And yet, while there is progress in the last six months on the file after five years of inertia, we’re not quite round the bend yet.
Where does that leave me?
Even with the small challenges above, I like it. If I had the choice, if I was asked by the DM what I thought they should do, I would say “Convert the whole building as fast as possible.” To the REAL 2.0, not faux 2.0. Because with the extra collaborative spaces, meeting rooms, noise cancelling, light improvements, and general all around positive energy created by the ambiance, morale is way up, at least informally. I’m curious to see if it plays out in employee satisfaction surveys for our floors vs. others, because I have to believe there will be a large net bump.
Would I like 10% more space to store stuff? Sure.
Would I like more bathrooms? Sure.
Would I like to go back to workplace 1.0 with the larger footprints but give up the collaborative spaces and natural light? Not at all. I could “live” with the old way, but this floor is awesome. The only thing that would make it even better is if the whole building went that way, thus freeing up pressure from others to use our space too or if we had already had the rest of the pending tools.
Because I was absolutely wrong about real 2.0, I like it. I really like it.
There really weren’t any forward-looking ones, at least not upfront. They had some generic elements under governance, but that was it.
What the REAL criterion should have had
It is pretty simple — is there a plan in place going forward that addresses major issues, is risk-based, and is written down. There are lots of bells and whistles beyond that, things like cost and timelines, but the most basic element is “Do they have a plan?”
What did the audit find?
The audit found that
Departments and agencies had significant difficulties in providing timely and accurate pay information and in supporting employees in resolving pay problems
A sustainable solution will take years and cost much more than the $540 million the government expected to spend to resolve pay problems
What COULD the audit have found?
I need to digress for a minute and talk about the audit process. Generally speaking, auditors come forward and say, “Okay, here are the terms of reference for the audit, i.e. this is what we’re going to look at”. There may be some back and forth with the department to say, “Wait, what about this?” or more likely “Wait, that isn’t part of this project” — it looks at what is in scope and what is out of scope.
Then the actual audit process begins, there are lots of documents and meetings, and preliminary findings are shared with the Department. This is the opportunity for the auditors to say, “Based on the docs we have, and the info we have been given so far, this is what we’re thinking we might say.” At this time, departments go crazy and say, “whoa, THAT’S not true, did you read this doc and this doc and this doc?”, often three docs that the auditors were never given. So they’re wrong about some aspect because they didn’t have any evidence from what they had seen so far. A gap, if you will.
Then they come back with their draft audit findings, they go through some iterations where the department gets to agree or disagree with some of the wording, often saying, “Wait, if you say THAT, with that language, we have to disagree, it goes too far”, and the auditors balance out their wording with their findings. While some people get their backs up that this is interfering with the independence of the auditors, it is often more along the lines of the auditors saying, “We examined the building plans for a green cabinet, a blue cabinet, and a yellow cabinet, and we found no evidence of cost analysis.” And the department says, “wait a minute, we had full analysis for yellow, and partial for blue, but agree with nothing for green.” And the auditors go back and look at their evidence and come back with revised wording that likely says “Not all projects had full cost analysis in place and there were significant gaps for most.” They’re still slapping someone, just making sure they’re slapping the right someone with the right language. And to be candid, some of it is seeing how much pain the department can handle. Can it handle 4 slaps or only 2? So the auditors start by saying “YOU COMPLETELY SUCK” and water down the language a bit at a time until the department stops whining, somewhere between “YOU MOSTLY SUCK” and “YOU’RE KINDA SUCKY IN CERTAIN AREAS”.
Because after the audit is done, there are two things the department has to produce and the level of work depends on which of those phrases the department could live with:
A management response; and,
A management action plan.
The management response is a simple response where the departments says “We agree” or “We disagree” with the recommendations. The cycle of responses over the years has ebbed and flowed, with some periods existing where no DM ever wanted to disagree with an audit recommendation. Even if they thought the auditors completely misunderstood the situation, they would say “We agree” and then in the prose explain how they were planning to either not do what they said or the exact opposite of agreement. The responses were somewhere between a sorry/not sorry situation and a Sir Humphrey response from a Yes Minister episode.
In more recent years, and changes in Auditor Generals, DMs feel more comfortable to say, “Wait, hold on a minute, we grudgingly agree with your findings, but NOT your recommendations on how to fix it…so we disagree.” But auditor generals NEVER want the report to say the department disagrees, as it basically means they’re saying fairly confidently that the AG didn’t understand the subject matter or project. If a department disagrees, this means they seriously disagree and then suddenly the AG jumps into the project directly, often working to massage the language enough to be so much “motherhood and apple pie”-type statements, that NO deputy could ever disagree with the recommendation. And then they’re back to bland recommendations that the department can agree with easily. Yawn.
But, regardless of the MR, the department also has to create a management action plan. And there is one relatively universal truth to MRs and MAPs — a “plan to have a plan” is not a plan in and of itself. The department cannot say, “Oh, yeah, that’s a good idea, we’ll look it, develop a plan, and then implement it.” They are SUPPOSED to say, “Hey, good idea, we’re going to do THIS and THIS to implement.” In other words, you need to have some content and an actual plan, not a plan to have a plan.
What would this look like in this case? They would have recommendations for a clear set of roles and responsibilities between players. Which this audit did recommend, except that the response is that they’ll create such a plan. A plan to have a plan, not the plan itself.
They would have clear recommendations relating to the role of other departments who send the pay files to Phoenix. The audit found that “Departments and agencies contributed to the problems; however, Public Services and Procurement Canada did not provide them with all the information and support to allow them to resolve pay problems to ensure that their employees consistently receive their correct pay, on time” so they did articulate a problem. Yet the response is a plan to have a plan to fix that.
There should be clear recommendations on transparency, risk-based triaging, cost breakdowns and service delivery mechanisms. Again, there are some strong hints to do that, and the response is “We’ll develop a plan.”
DEVELOP A PLAN???? What the heck have they been doing for the last two years or even the last 8 months while the audit was busting their chops internally? The Department *knew* that the audit finding was coming, and they should have had the plan relatively complete in certain areas. It should be ready to go.
Heck, the language was so watered down, it looked more like “we’re working on a strategy on how to develop a work plan that will lead us to a complete plan to respond to the challenges identified …. zzzzz”. Their plan is to develop a plan to have a plan. They haven’t even developed the PLAN for the plan, let alone the actual plan.
No governance in place, but watered-down wording that could possibly lead to little concrete change.
No transparency in data, so employees are still wondering what the state of pay is, and no recommendations or commitments to change that reporting.
Hardly any commitment at all of anything, other than a plan to have a plan.
It’s unfathomable that such an audit passed even the most basic internal tests at the OAG. Based on the actions committed to, it seems more like the audit equivalent of a hangnail than a project that is way over cost and a disaster on the ground. The system is bleeding out, but good news, they think they might know someone who can come up with a plan to develop a strategy to stop bleeding in general. But let’s not rush into anything resembling a solution.
Directive on Financial Management of Pay Administration, Treasury Board
Policy on Results, Treasury Board
Directive on Results, Treasury Board
Supporting Effective Evaluations: A Guide to Developing Performance Measurement Strategies, Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat
COBIT 5: Enabling Processes, Information Systems Audit and Control Association, ISACA
As with the review yesterday, the policy on results, directive on results, guide to PM strategies, and COBIT 5 are virtually worthless to the exercise. They tend to talk heavily about programmatic delivery results (external results of spending), and have very little to offer in the way of measuring or monitoring internal services. To the extent they do, they tell them what types of things they should do in general, they don’t dictate or give explicit instructions. The first two, however, are a lot more detailed and do include some directive language, along with some indication of actual service standards and duties/obligations. Not enough to run the Phoenix system, but at least PSCP managers would have had SOMETHING to rely upon.
The second criterion was:
The resolution of problems related to paying public service employees is being effectively and efficiently managed.
For these ones, a few of the documents are the same, but it is the ones from TBS that are different and quite telling:
Guidelines on Costing, Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat
A Guide to Costing of Service Delivery for Service Standards, Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat
COBIT 5: Enabling Processes, ISACA
Information Technology Information Library Service Strategy, second edition, 2011
What the REAL criterion should have focused on
Now, if you take those above pieces, and break them down into manageable chunks to audit, you would expect to find some of the following:
A comprehensive inventory of all the pay action requests in the system;
Detailed reports of nature (type, age, and department) and impact (materiality, $$ estimate, $$ as a percentage of annual salary);
Clear project management principles showing differentiated approaches based on nature and impact;
A risk-based triage process and analysis of the various PARs;
Cost breakdowns of the steps taken to date and how they impacted the resolution of numbers outstanding;
Key performance measures in place for overall and individual workload management, tied to nature and impact; and,
Training in place to respond to basic training, ongoing maintenance and emerging issues.
While there are other things you COULD see, those seven items are pretty basic tools.
You could also likely examine three other items that deal not with the PARs themselves, but the client service function:
Clear identification and public sharing of service standards for various types of PARs and how the system is doing, updated likely weekly;
The system in place for people to access and receive status updates on their individual file and to know what is happening, even a queue number if the answer is nothing yet; and,
Detailed communications plan in place to transparently share the detailed reports.
What did the audit find?
The audit concluded that there was “The number of pay problems continues to increase”, “Public Services and Procurement Canada did not have a full understanding of the extent and causes of pay problems”, and “Departments and agencies had significant difficulties in providing timely and accurate pay information and in supporting employees in resolving pay problems.”
What COULD the audit have found?
It is clear to anyone and everyone that the solutions in place are not meeting the needs. And on some of the elements I mentioned above, the auditors did have some views:
The inventory was not comprehensive, there were clear gaps;
The reports are rudimentary at best, and don’t give details on nature or impact;
Differentiated approaches based on nature and impact were done, mainly based on various pressure points over time, but with little analysis or evidence of the result for each group; and,
The training was not done before launch and hasn’t kept up.
They could have also expressed concern that there were clearly other gaps:
No detailed risk-based triage;
No cost breakdowns;
Little in the pay of performance metrics or service standards; and,
No exception management system, nor any feedback and status mechanism.
The audit failed in this area on two counts. First, the audit recommendations could have been quite prescriptive and detailed, saying “We recommend you do x or y, and do it by such and such a date”. Which PSPC would then have to commit to doing, and to do so publicly. The recommendations are more general than that, telling them to do better rather than saying they failed to meet even the most basic standards at all. As a result, PSPC basically was able to respond that they are to develop a plan as to what their overall plan should be. A plan to have a plan, not even the final plan itself.
More importantly, though, the auditors had access to the internal data. While it is clear that the PSPC system is not robust enough to generate the reports needed, some more rudimentary reports could have been developed and calculated. And, given the public spectacle surrounding the audit, part of the role of auditors is to report on what is happening and how it is performing. Instead of giving us the reports we need, or coming as close as they could at least, they went for straight-up overall volumes. Stakeholders — namely employees — had almost no more useful info or data than before the audit.
Here is the most minimal of tables that I had expected and hoped to see:
Type of Pay Action Request
< 1 month
1 month to 6 months
> 6 months
Put in pay (i.e. new employees)
Acting pay (up to 2 weeks)
Acting pay (over 2 weeks)
Removals from pay (retirement)
Removals from pay (special leave)
Don’t get me wrong, I think that table is insufficient. I just think it was the most basic table and that they should have been able to provide it, or even generate it as part of the audit, even if there was a gaping sub-area / black hole called “other”. Basically, people, they hadn’t triaged yet so they weren’t even sure what was in there. But arguing there are 500K requests doesn’t tell me anything about nature OR impact.
Now, I expected that table, and it didn’t come. Nor was there any details on maternity leave, sick leave, overpayments, assignments, secondments, other administrative changes, etc. There could be another 10-20 categories for the Type of PAR, but it is not just the categories as the time factor besides it — how old are the requests, how big is the queue? Because once the report is generated the first time, it can be generated again. With showing changes since the last one. I suspect the age figures would have to be even more disaggregated (maybe 1m, 2-3m, 4-6m, 6m-1y, 1-2y, 2-3y, etc.). That would give you decent details on the nature — at least for the type of PAR and the age of the request.
Where I was apparently dreaming in technicolour was in thinking that they might even go further. Think of the above table, with the same PAR categories down the side, but instead of showing the age, the table showed the dollar value across the top. For some reason, the materiality threshold set by PSPC was $100. Almost every request would be over that threshold in gross terms, particularly as acting pay is only paid if it is longer than 3 days now. So their threshold is meaningless. Instead, I’d hope to see something along the lines of 0-1000, 1000-2500, 2500-5000, 5-10K, 10-20K, > 20K as the cutoffs.
Why? Because it would give a clear and compelling indication of the magnitude of the problem. There are lots of stories of people complaining about Phoenix, but not all complaints are created equal. Some are life-altering disasters, with people not being paid for over a year, running into tens of thousands of dollars owed. At the same time, there’s Joe Worker next to them in the queue who didn’t get their three-day acting pay last week. Both people deserve to be paid, in full and on time, but when I have to triage the files, the person who is owed more money is likely facing a larger personal impact, particularly if it is combined with a longer period of time and affecting multiple tax years.
Now, the auditors hinted that the info isn’t available, and to be blunt, I don’t entirely believe them. I believe the info isn’t READILY available, but I don’t believe that it couldn’t be generated with some basic methodology. Even if they had 300K files in the queue, and didn’t really have a way to code 40% of them, they would still know the profile for the ones they have and be able to extrapolate what it means for the others. Is it a perfect methodology? Nope, but there are lots of previous audits that did more with less.
While there were some basic charts and tables included, they really didn’t provide much info on the scope at all. I thought they at least might have profiled one of the participating departments as an example, but they didn’t even do that.
I literally felt like it was a completely missed opportunity to pull back the curtains and provide SOME info to all the affected employees. They deserved an audit that went farther and produced more, particularly when they saw that PSPC didn’t have the data already available.
When I read the Office of the Auditor General’s audit of Phoenix, I was beyond disappointed (A disappointing audit of the Phoenix problems). In part, I think it is because I am too familiar with audits from my previous job where I read just about every audit done by my department in the last nine years, plus some of the broader OAG ones. Yep, I’m a public admin geek. I was even somewhat amused when I saw the news coverage about how aggressive the report was in its condemnation. And, if you weren’t a regular reviewer of audits, you might just go with the press conference and some of the findings and think, “Okay, they’re being appropriately harsh”.
Except the OAG knows how to be harsh when something isn’t working, and the language they would use for that kind of screw-up wasn’t present in the report. So let’s look at the report and see what they COULD (or even should?) have said, but didn’t.
What were the criteria?
Let’s go in reverse order, and start with the third criterion that the auditors set up in their audit:
Comprehensive and coherent governance and oversight detailing accountabilities and responsibilities for resolving problems related to paying public service employees are defined, agreed to, and implemented.
That’s what they expected should be in place, and that’s what they were looking to find. They based that criterion on a bunch of documents, including:
Financial Administration Act
Public Service Employment Act
Department of Public Works and Government Services Act
Directive on Financial Management of Pay Administration, Treasury Board
Policy on Terms and Conditions of Employment and the Directive on Terms and Conditions of Employment, Treasury Board
Policy Framework for People Management, Treasury Board
Policy Framework for the Management of Compensation, Treasury Board
COBIT 5: Enabling Processes, ISACA
Now, here’s the thing. NONE of those 11 documents say what that oversight framework should look like. They have hints, sure, like the fact that there should be clear roles and responsibilities, there should BE a framework that everyone knows, and generally speaking, that it should be focused on doing proper things related to the subject matter, in this case, pay and benefits.
But the really interesting thing is the last one. Quoting from the Wikipedia page, “COBIT (Control Objectives for Information and Related Technologies) is a good-practice framework created by international professional association ISACA for information technology (IT) management and IT governance.”
This is standard practice for the OAG. They look at the various docs from within the government, realize that there’s no professional standard to really say what SHOULD have been done, and thus they use an industry best-practice to help them figure out what the standard should have been. You know, as if the people running Phoenix had done the same research, read the same best practice that the OAG “discovered”, decided it applied to this situation and used it.
Now before you think I’m defending the Phoenix managers, I’m not. I’m just pointing out that using COBIT 5 as the benchmark basically is the OAG admitting that there was no clear, existing standard in the first 10 documents to tell them what should have been done, and thus they had to create one. But it is mainly to give themselves some sort of independent, industry-based “cover” for their approach. It’s mostly worthless and has nothing whatsoever to do with the audit.
What the REAL criterion should have focused on
The first criterion should have been broken down into some basic building blocks:
Was there governance and oversight? Before you can decide on the rest, you need to rate whether there was anyone in charge. And if so, identify who and for what. If you look at it from a standard “project” basis, there would need to be clear parcelling out of problem identification, consideration of options and alternatives, analysis of individual options with recommendations, policy and program design of a single option, functional and operational design guidance, service delivery design, and implementation (which itself would break out into multiple sub-headings, more applicable to the other two criteria). Now, the audit says that the first 4 or 5 of those are either not part of this audit or political decisions that won’t be rated. However, without identifying all the steps, it’s almost impossible to know if there was any governance and oversight throughout. Basically, without getting too simplified, the question isn’t which of those steps did what and when, it’s to know if those in charge had the equivalent of a project charter that laid all that out from beginning to end. It is the most basic element. And it doesn’t exist. Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) have bits and pieces of some of it, but they don’t have a comprehensive roadmap. Or anything even close to it. If there was, you would move on to secondary questions like was it risk-based, implementation schedules, work plans, updates, monitoring, key performance measures and milestones, detailed reporting, transparent sharing of the documents amongst all the key players, etc. Don’t get me wrong, almost no large-scale project in the government has all of those things, so it’s a sliding scale. But to even get ON the scale, you need the most basic tool of governance and oversight to lay out the various phases and steps in detail. Call it the picture on the box for putting the jigsaw together, and they not only don’t have the picture, but some of the people involved are also making up their own pieces.
Were there detailed accountabilities and responsibilities? If you did the first step, you could then move to the second step where you lay out who is doing what, how, when and even why. But as you can tell from reading the audit, the first time all the roles and responsibilities were clearly laid out seems to be in response to the audit. In order to explain it to the auditors, documents were created after the fact to say “Hey, here’s what we’re doing!”. That sounds terrible, I know, but to be blunt, it’s not uncommon. Many projects get by with far less documented detail than auditors want, and even the COBIT thing is part of that…if PSPC had a single doc that put it all together as what they said they were going to do, then the auditors would just audit them against that document. Without it, they kind of have to invent it, and you can see that when the auditors describe it, they have no source material to base it on, other than the interviews and ad hoc materials created by PSPC (most likely for the audit, or at least, coinciding with the same timelines as the audit). But the audit does make it clear in multiple places that the docs weren’t being used by management, or even existed previously in some cases.
Was the governance comprehensive and coherent? Okay, while I hate to let PSPC off the hook, this is a standard that is virtually impossible to meet with auditors. Because no matter what you have done, the auditors will always say you could have done more or done it better. There is only one organization in the entire government that tends to meet their standard and it is the military. If you are deploying troops to a battlefield with a mix of ice, snow and sand, there is a document somewhere in DND’s doctrine manuals that says how many latrines to build, where the materials are coming from, and who is responsible for setting them up on what day and likely the number of rolls of toilet paper that are needed by the size of the military force deployed. Most other departments don’t even come close to that standard, nor should they try. It is over management to the nth degree. However, the lower standard that can be met is if all the players are identified in terms of their roles (linked to B above) and the various stages (linked to A above), and if all of them are generally contributing to the same recognized goal that they all agree to in advance.
What did the audit find?
The audit concluded that there was “no comprehensive governance structure in place to resolve pay problems in a sustainable way”.
There is a bit more obiterdicta (commentary) in the text, but that was their big conclusion. That’s it, that’s all.
What COULD the audit have found?
It could have said that there was virtually no evidence of oversight, governance, accountability, or responsibilities at even the most rudimentary levels that you would expect to find in place for a branch picnic, let alone a multi-million dollar project of this level of complexity.
It could have listed 20 or 30 project tools or documents that the auditors expected could have been put in place for any project management endeavour and then noted that PSPC had virtually none of them complete. Maybe even ranked them on a scale of 1 to 5 for each, where 1 was notional and 5 was complete. It would clearly show on the chart/table that PSPC never went above 3 (partial) on any of the 20-30 elements. This isn’t rocket science or even a new methodology, it’s similar to how TBS does Management Accountability Framework assessments. TBS basically says “We expect the following six things, which ones do you have?” and then rates them for degree of completeness. And then assigns colours/risks based on how far off the standard the department is.
Any one of the three groupings I used above could have five to ten documents/tools under each. A good project wouldn’t necessarily have them all, but they should have MOST. And clear explanations why some of the others weren’t applicable.
So when the auditors say there was “no comprehensive governance structure in place to resolve pay problems in a sustainable way”, there are 5 weasel phrases in there that water it down:
Was there NO structure or just not the FULL structure?
Was it not comprehensive, only partial?
Was there a plan but it wasn’t in place?
Was it not sustainable?
Was it not capable of full-resolution, only partial?
By sticking those five weasel phrases in, it softens the report by a factor of five.
Instead, it could have said there was no project management capacity applied to the project at even the most basic levels.
Or it could have said that the most fundamental aspects of governance and oversight are completely non-existent.
THAT would have been an auditor being harsh. And based on all the reports coming out, much more accurate. But if an auditor is that harsh, it means someone would pretty much need to be fired. Because someone was SUPPOSED to be in charge, and such a finding would mean that they clearly didn’t do any of the things they were expected to do.
And that’s only the first of three conclusions that we didn’t get, and would be disappointing by itself.