Canadian federal IT systems are on brink of collapse, government docs reveal

By on 03/02/2020 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Prime minister Justin Trudeau was briefed on the precarious state of federal IT systems following his re-election in October 2019. Picture courtesy of Alex Guibord

The IT systems serving Canada’s federal services are at risk of “critical failure” after years of under-investment, according to a memo obtained by The Canadian Press.

Briefing notes for prime minister Justin Trudeau, obtained last week by the national news agency through the Access to Information Act, reveal that legacy IT systems are “rusting out and at risk of failure,” with officials advising immediate action.

The National Post reported that while much of the text had been deemed sensitive advice to government and blanked out, one visible line states that the public service will be working on projects “to stabilise mission-critical systems.”

Some of the IT systems reviewed are built on “outdated technology” and almost 60 years old, the report warns. “These ageing platforms neither meet the desired digital interaction nor are capable of full automation, and thus are unable to deliver cost-savings through back-office functions,” it says. These include major systems such as the one operated by Employment and Social Development Canada to manage child, parental, senior and employment insurance benefits, National Post reported.

The prime minister was briefed on the situation after the Liberals were re-elected in October 2019. In the run-up to the election, Trudeau promised sweeping changes such as increasing benefits to pensioners, widows and widowers. But the documents warn that any system updates will put further pressure on an already creaking infrastructure.

“The complex array of existing programs and services means that future program changes, to continue providing Canadians with the programs and services they expect when interacting with their government, will need to account for pressures on legacy IT systems, which are facing rust-out and critical failure,” it says.

In an interview with Global Government Forum last year, the former Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet, Michael Wernick, highlighted a chronic lack of investment in IT over many years. Warning that federal bodies’ back office IT systems have long struggled to attract the money required for essential maintenance and upgrades, he called for more government funding “for internal service platforms: financial management, HR management, the pay system, information management and storage systems. The plumbing and wiring of the public service is very difficult to get attention and investment for, and that’s why we’ve had terrible rust-out problems.”

Commenting on the release of the briefing notes, Andre Leduc, vice-president of government relations and policy with the Information Technology Association of Canada, told National Post that IT budgets are currently being used up keeping existing systems running, leaving few resources for implementing new systems.

While departments aren’t “hitting the panic button” yet, he said, concern is mounting. “There is a lot of concern, both within the bureaucracy, within the political layer, and within industry about we need to get this ball rolling. We need to help government digitally transform.”

About Natalie Leal

Natalie is a freelance journalist whose work has been published by The Sun Online, The Guardian, Novara Media, Positive News, and Welfare Weekly, among others. She also writes reports and case studies on global business trends for behavioural insights agency, Canvas8. Prior to working as a journalist Natalie worked for the public sector in social services for several years. She switched careers in 2013 after winning a fully funded NCTJ in a national writing competition. She holds a Masters degree in social anthropology from Sussex University where she specialised in processes of social change and international conflict and reconciliation processes.

One Comment

  1. Tim Bullock says:

    Two observations:
    1) “Glad” to know we’re not alone: the little systems for which our work group is responsible are on the bubble, as well.

    2) Seems to be symptomatic of a larger issue re. life cycle management of assets, be they informatics, civil engineering, what-have-you. There are many examples of critical assets which are acquired via a process of capital investment, but for which inadequate provisions, financial and otherwise, are made for on-going maintenance and eventual replacement. The problem is not unique to government, either. This suggests the need for a profound culture change with respect to “financial intelligence”.

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