Friday, 11 October 2013 08:18

Pensions, passion and principles

Written by    Volume: 19  Issue: 7
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In April 2013, Canadian Government Executive hosted its first Leadership Summit to recognize exceptional public sector leadership. Awards were given out to celebrate noteworthy change management initiatives by public sector colleagues. Renée Jolicoeur and Brigitte Fortin of Public Works and Government Services Canada were honoured for their leadership of the Pension Administration Initiative that successfully consolidated over 25 legacy systems into one database and more than 130 departments into one centralized pension centre. “It can’t be done,” they were told, “not on time, not on budget, and maybe not at all.”

The Pension Administration Initiative was a key priority, and Renée Jolicoeur and Brigitte Fortin – the associate deputy minister and assistant deputy minister, respectively, responsible for leading the project – would not take “no” for an answer.

By January 2013, they had improved the quality and efficiency of services, driven costs down by 10 percent, and greatly reduced paper waste – all within budget.

The federal government’s pension systems had been a collection of 40-year old applications run on mainframes. Services were delivered by compensation staff in each department and most transactions were paper-based. The infrastructure for the provision of pension services was sprawling and ineffectual, and changes were required to provide better service at lower cost. The project had been ten years in the making.

Risk management
At a time when the government was having difficulty delivering large IT projects, Fortin and Jolicoeur nonetheless proposed several changes, including the possibility of web self-service for pension information and the integration of workflow management applications with core pension software.

To manage risk, they established a risk oversight committee of senior managers from several government departments who had experience in delivering large IT or major Crown projects. They were responsible for monitoring potential risks and ensuring those were addressed before they could materialize. “It’s really because we decided to take risk and face risk and manage our risks that we were able to succeed,” Fortin said.

“We were asking ourselves the question, what is the worst impact that could happen based on that decision?” added Jolicoeur. “It was often, from that start point, that we were able to say, ‘Okay, we won’t do it this way, we will do it that way because this is too risky'.”

Fortunately, Fortin and Jolicoeur had experience on their side. When they began the initiative, they were the first to test the waters of consolidation projects. But Public Works and Government Services Canada has a history of working with large projects such as this one. That experience helped guide the initiative.

As well, they studied the strategies and processes of other organizations before they created their plan, including the City of Halifax, British Columbia, Ontario, the New York City Police Department and large corporations.

Key factors
Fortin and Jolicoeur did several things that contributed to the success of the project. Their advice includes:

Assemble a skilled team. The project leaders had experience in compensation. PWGSC has a tradition of delivering big projects and the Shediac office was already a centre of expertise. “It was in our DNA,” they said. And given the size of the project, Fortin and Jolicoeur realized the need for a shared vision and shared leadership.

Have a rigorous plan. Take time to build a detailed plan and follow it so there are fewer surprises.

Manage the client departments. “You’re taking work away from the individual departments, so you have to show the savings and how service will improve. We had to know their numbers better than they did themselves, and get their people involved.”

Provide team support. To keep the team motivated and to prevent discouragement based on the lengthy delays to get approvals, Fortin and Jolicoeur openly discussed the obstacles, celebrated milestones, treated each completed stage of the project as a success, and fostered a sense of ownership. “Everybody on this project knew how many obstacles we had to go through, so [each] was treated as a success," Jolicoeur said. "It was their success. They considered that they were part of the success, and that makes a big difference.”

Provide continuity. Turnover of ADMs was kept to a minimum during the project, the deputy minister of PWGSC was briefed monthly, and other senior management was involved.

Power of passion
“Never give up,” was Fortin and Jolicoeur’s motto – channeling Sir Winston Churchill. “Know what can slow the project down, be realistic; this is tough to do. Be resilient, yet active and assertive; don’t wait for events. Know when to push, and when to wait. Be passionate. Show your frustration when things aren’t going well," they stressed. “Be passionate, so your team knows your passion. People like to build something useful, to have a lasting legacy, to have fun.”

Without passion, they said, there is less concern for the problems that need to be fixed, and without that kind of investment, the quality of work will suffer.

“But why are we passionate, and why were they passionate? Because I think the essence is that they understood the issues that needed to be fixed. And they embraced the fact, without any doubt, that the status quo was not an option,” said Fortin.

“People like to build something modern, and that’s a motivation,” added Jolicoeur.

Stand by principles
But they also said that, as leaders, they needed more than just passion to succeed. They needed to find the balance between standing by the principles they established going into the project and knowing when they needed to compromise to get the job done.

“You need to know when to push and when not to push, and wait a couple of days before you push, because you want to keep them,” Fortin offered. “You don’t want them to walk out the door because it’s not a good day for them, so you have to read your audience.”

Ultimately, Fortin and Jolicoeur stressed that the project was too big for one person to handle alone. Neither tried to take sole credit for the work; instead, they said that, throughout the project, they considered themselves to be partners in leadership. They emphasized the importance of the two components of trust: confidence in the other’s personal integrity, and confidence in their professional competence. They pushed each other to keep going during the difficult times.

“It’s impossible to do this project by yourself, one person. You want to be able to share the vision with someone else, because everyone challenges you to change the vision. So you need to have an associate to be able to cope,” Jolicoeur observed. “Often people talk about partnership, but they don’t talk about the positive impact of having a partnership. You have a partnership with a colleague, and you’re able to push the agenda.”

Lasting success
The project was delivered on budget, 11 months past the five-year target. It has already shown improved service, has taken 10 percent of the costs out of administering the system, including 475 full-time equivalent positions across the compensation community, and has seen a significant reduction in paper waste. Clients can now access their payroll stubs and pension benefit statements online, make changes to their personal information through the Compensation Web Applications, and contact pension experts through e-mail for support.

The new solution is being leveraged to migrate the administration of the RCMP and Canadian Forces pension plans to PWGSC.


The Pension Administration Initiative received a CGE Leading Management Change Award during the Leadership Summit in April 2013. You'll find more on the 2014 awards nomination process at:

Read 4418 times Last modified on Tuesday, 15 October 2013 21:58
Amy Allen

Amy Allen is a freelance writer and editor with Where magazine in Ottawa, and a former intern and staff writer with Canadian Government Executive magazine.

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