The federal government is rationalizing information technology under the banners of saving money, improving service and making government more accountable, but it is also acting under increasing pressure from a serious personnel crisis. Over the last five years, the growth rate in CS (Computer Systems) employees has been 7 per cent — unsustainable over the long term – while spending on hardware and software has begun to drop.
The federal government believes it can save $500 million a year through attrition and the elimination of vacant and unknown status positions, according to the report of the Information Technology Services Review (ITSR). “The ultimate strategy will likely include some combination of headcount reduction and hiring to fill new competencies (e.g. impose a hiring freeze on ongoing replacement for the high volume of retirements projected for coming years while facilitating new hires for the higher-skilled positions that will open up as a result of increased IT process maturity).”
An annual half-billion dollar saving on personnel costs compares favourably with projections that “whole of government” hardware and software procurement may bring in annual savings of about $120 million, depending on how the accounting is done.
But the reorganization will not be easy. Speaking to the GTEC technology exposition about impending service delivery transformation in October, Jim Alexander, acting Chief Information Officer at Treasury Board Secretariat, said, “There will certainly be changes if these initiatives are implemented. First, in where some of our 40,000 administrative and IT personnel are located – a portion will remain in departments, while others will become recognized service delivery specialists as part of new government-wide service delivery organizations. Second, in the nature of their work – automating paper-based routine transactions will liberate employees to perform higher value and more fulfilling tasks. The modernization program will mean different types of work but also new types of jobs.”
The size of the CS Group is a symptom of serious problems with how federal IT is currently managed. The ITSR report advised that, “compared to peer organizations, the GoC [government of Canada] consistently under-invests in hardware and in software tools but, as a result, requires 233 per cent more FTEs [full-time equivalents] to deal with comparable workloads in the functional areas that were studied.”
There are some serious personnel issues to be addressed: training opportunities for personnel whose background is with equipment that is being phased out, and fair competition for the smaller list of higher-skilled jobs available at the common service organizations.
A presentation to federal IT executives last summer was blunt about the challenges of moving people to new roles. Within the federal government IT community, there are literally hundreds of different job titles and descriptions and inconsistent use of competency profiles to define their work.
Classification standards for the Computer Systems group were designed during the mainframe era and have never caught up to the age of personal computers, networks, Internet use and online service delivery.
At the end of September, union leaders of the federal Computer Systems Group entered conciliation talks with Treasury Board Secretariat. They are armed with a strike vote of almost 90 per cent from members who were stung by the recent loss of incentive pay aimed at keeping CS employees on the payroll during the high-tech boom.
Fully aware that the government wants to reduce its numbers sharply from about 15,000 people today, the CS Group knows it is an essential component of the evolving service delivery strategy. The government may want to reduce the number of CS Group members, but it needs them to meet its transformation agenda. The terms of the new contract will shape federal IT strategy for years.