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You are here: Home Blogs RMS April and May 2018: Photos from Ottawa, during the discussion "Two lessons from the Phoenix payroll puzzle," and from Montreal, at the Adte's annual colloquium

April and May 2018: Photos from Ottawa, during the discussion "Two lessons from the Phoenix payroll puzzle," and from Montreal, at the Adte's annual colloquium

by Jeanne Rasata Contributions Published on Jun 01, 2018 08:35 AM

Free Software Foundation president Richard Stallman (RMS) was in Canada in April and in May 2018 to participate in a couple of events.

On April 30th, he was in Ottawa, to support an initiative to create a free software solution to the Canadian government's employee payroll debacle. He and Joseph Potvin, executive director of Xalgorithms Foundation,1 led a breakfast discussion titled "Two lessons from the Phoenix payroll puzzle: Software freedom & algorithm accessibility."1

Phoenix is the Canadian government's new payroll system, which was supposed to provide "an employee self-service vehicle to decentralize data entry and increase access to information." Since its rollout in 2016, however, it has been plagued with malfunctions, which have led to under-, non-, and over-payments to over 200,000 federal employees.

The resulting stress and hardship for all affected has been considerable and, more than two years later, in spite of national outrage and ballooning costs ($1.2 billion and counting), the system is still not fixed.

As RMS points out, "Phoenix shows that state use of nonfree software can create a continuing disaster from which the only escape is a free replacement."

On May 29th, 2018, Canada's auditor general reported on the enormity of the failure. In the search for the causes of the problem, few have considered a practical software solution; in their event on 30th April, however, Potvin and RMS did just that. They proposed that (a) nonfree software being used by a government and (b) inaccessible rules are the two root causes behind the fiasco.

The auditor general "concluded that the Phoenix project was an incomprehensible failure of project management and oversight." However, Potvin, who for six years led IT expenditure analysis and reporting for the Chief Information Officer Branch of the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, says, "It's only incomprehensible if the essential questions are not asked."

Because the Phoenix pay system relies on nonfree software, according to Potvin, the first root cause is that "the Canadian government does not have the source code for it and, due to restrictive licensing, can't change suppliers. Nobody beyond the original contractors are allowed to run a copy of the system independently, to study how it all works, to run tests on it, or to adapt it with improvements."

RMS added,

Government exists for the people, and does its computing—all of it—for the people. So every public agency's responsibility to the people includes maintaining control of that computing. Any time government uses a non-free computer program, then logically, its owner controls that part of government's computing. We the people must insist that our government maintain full control of its computing, and must not let any other party take control of it.

Potvin went on to explain how the second root cause was inaccessible payroll rules: not only are they idiosyncratic, poorly-documented, and convoluted, but in the Phoenix system, each rule is a hard-coded procedural step instead of being dynamic and declarative. He said, "They famously claim there are around 80,000 rules. But we say: How many rule patterns are there? Less than a hundred? Maybe two dozen?"

RMS added that, when it comes to data-driven decision algorithms that a government uses, there is no accountability unless the algorithms are published.

Going well past merely analyzing the problem, Xalgorithms Foundation plans to fix the Phoenix problem with an initiative called MyPayChecker (CheckerMaPaye, in French), which "can provide those employees and payroll officers the most consistently accurate and transparently documented pay information, while also respecting their privacy."

According to Potvin,

The MyPayChecker Working Group will enable the world’s first digitally automated collective labor agreement. This means every clause, deduction and entitlement, and every priority notification, would be expressed in a transparent computable form in a free/libre schedule (i.e. annex) to the agreement, in addition to its conventional expression in natural language text. And each computable clause would be automatically and accurately discoverable on the Internet, to be efficiently retrieved without restriction for use in applicable transactions by at least three independent payroll platforms.

Again, Potvin:

We're going to throw down the gauntlet and issue a clear challenge to the companies behind the Phoenix project. We claim that a free software community can independently finance, create and operate within a year, a more respectful, more accurate, and more economical self-service portal for pay validation to support employees and payroll officers, than those companies can provide within a year.

According to Xalgorithms Foundation, the "Paycheck Target Challenge" (« Défi des salaires ciblés »), which Potvin announced during the breakfast discussion, will begin officially on June 1st, 2018:

Some lead time is required for the rules of this unusual competition to be discussed and finalized with stakeholders, and to invite other investors, companies, and technically inclined individuals, including Canadian Government employees, to collaborate with Xalgorithms Foundation in making MyPayChecker the service to beat. [...] And if the free software community wins this bet, the companies behind Phoenix can adopt it, since MyPayChecker will 100% shared.

Which Potvin jokingly referred to as being something akin to "wearing the other team's hockey jersey" and, more seriously, as a huge incentive.3 As the reporting this past week has shown, the Phoenix failure is currently a huge issue in Canada, and Xalgorithms Foundation's challenge could not be coming at a more opportune time.

Some photos from the breakfast discussion…

(Copyright © 2018 Mike Gifford (mgifford). Photos licensed under CC BY 4.0.)

…and, clockwise from top right, RMS checking email above the Ottawa River after the event, RMS and Joseph Potvin, and David Graham, a member of the Canadian Parliament for the riding of Laurentides-Labelle and an outspoken supporter of free software, who had attended the breakfast discussion. Three weeks after the event, on May 22th, 2018, in an appeal in favor of net neutrality in the House of Commons, he commented, "In the words of Richard Stallman, the father of the free software movement, either the user controls the program or the program controls the user."

(Copyright © 2018 Joseph Potvin. Photos licensed under CC BY 4.0.)

After Ottawa, RMS then headed to Montreal for the 5th free colloquium of the Adte (an association for free software, free science, free educational resources and free data for colleges and universities). This was RMS's second appearance at the event, and he gave his speech "Logiciel libre et éducation" ("Education and freedom"1).

(Copyright © 2018 Adte.ca. Photos licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

For all the photos from the event, along with comments, see here.


Thank you to everyone who made all these trips possible!

Please fill the linked contact forms so that we can inform you about future events in and around Ottawa and Montreal.

Please see www.fsf.org/events for a full list of all of RMS's confirmed engagements,
and contact rms-assist@gnu.org if you'd like him to come speak.


1. Xalgorithms Foundation convenes the primary Internet of Rules Working Group to design, produce, test, maintain and document Xalgo, XalgoAuthor, Lichen, and Interlibr, and to ensure that they operate well as a loosely-coupled system to express, publish and fetch computational algorithms on the Internet. As of May 2018 six Working Group charters are being drafted and discussed with sector stakeholders:
  • Xalgo4Trade (for automated inter-jurisdictional trade agreements),
  • MyPayChecker/CheckerMaPaye (automated labour agreements),
  • Benchmarks (for dynamic pricing linked to verifiable reference data),
  • Reciprocal Data (for data empowerment of individuals, and "mutual loyalty"),
  • Industrial Control Systems (for dynamic manufacturing process control),
  • AlgoRisks (for management of algorithm errors and omissions liability risk).
Follow these links to see its source code, architectural documentation, and organizational structure. ↩
2. See here for the event's presentation file.
3. For more on this, see Xalgorithms's media advisory.
4. Slides available here.
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