Ottawa

Pulling off a bureaucratic miracle: How the CERB got done

It took long hours, nervous nights and a complete rethinking of how government does business to get the program up and running in record time

When millions of Canadians were suddenly desperate for cash, unable to go to work but staring down grocery bills, rent and mortgage payments, and all the other day-to-day costs of living, federal officials were scrambling to bail out the country. As they considered their options, the conditions were ripe for disaster.

Thousands of Canada Revenue Agency employees were preparing to vote on a mandate to strike. Canada’s EI program survived on systems written in an ancient programming language. And a lumbering federal bureaucracy, which typically launches new programs only after months of tinkering, stood between Canadians and billions of dollars in emergency assistance.

On Tuesday, March 17, the first signs of a catastrophic jobs crisis that would, within days, send unemployment off the charts revealed themselves in an alarming spike in Employment Insurance claims. That morning, Service Canada’s top officials scanned the previous day’s number of new EI claims. A typical daily average hovered around 9,000. The historic high was 38,000 at the peak of the 2008-09 financial crisis. The number on March 16 was 71,000.

By Thursday morning, as daily EI claims kept rising, it was clear the feds could not adequately respond to the pandemic’s devastating effect on shuttered workplaces across Canada. At an 8 a.m. meeting, a set of scary projections served as a “call to action.” Within the hour, deputy minister Graham Flack was on the phone with Ian Shugart, the clerk of the Privy Council that serves as the nerve centre of government. Briefings with ministers on the COVID-19 cabinet committee soon followed. By the end of the day, officials had cobbled together the initial concept that would become the Canada Emergency Response Benefit.

Less than a week later, after hours of tense parliamentary negotiations that bled into the early hours of March 25, as EI claims dwarfed even the previous week’s totals, Governor General Julie Payette gave royal assent to a bill that authorized the government to make emergency payments to Canadians. Two weeks later, the first Canadians to apply for payments saw money in their accounts.

The rollout took a series of miracles. The CRA’s disgruntled employees volunteered in the thousands to take on long hours—some of them even doubling their workweeks. Service Canada’s programmers tricked their outdated programming to accept a new, flat-rate payment with a simple application process. And senior officials at the Department of Finance, Employment and Social Development Canada and the CRA, along with the Privy Council Office and the Prime Minister’s Office, flipped the typically glacial pace of government on its head.

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A billion-dollar federal program normally takes at least six months, or even a year, from the moment the light bulb goes off in someone’s head to its deployment in the real world.

The government’s signature policies are often hatched by the Prime Minister’s Office, mulled over by policy shops deep in the bureaucracy, floated past technical teams, digested by a cabinet committee and then the full cabinet, run past the Department of Finance and Treasury Board for financial approvals, and debated by Parliament. Then public servants design the program’s rollout and, after yet more consultation and testing, go live.

The CERB cleared all of those stages in record time. The slow-and-steady bureaucracy relented for the sake of expediency. “A lot of the previously accepted protocols of how information is shared, or who talks to whom, they all kind of went out the window when we got into crisis mode,” says Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough, one of the lead ministers on the file.

READ MORE: Workers who are rehired may have to cancel and repay their CERB payments

Service Canada, the program that administers many federal social benefits, confronted intimidating technical challenges. Canada’s EI system runs on 40-year old systems written in COBOL, a programming language that dates to the middle of the 20th century. The department’s coders, says a senior Service Canada source, would end up “tricking the system to override the years of coding developed to support the delivery of the EI program.”

It became clear early on in the whiteboarding process that sketched out the CERB that Service Canada could handle applications submitted by Canadians eligible for EI. But six million workers who didn’t qualify for the program would be left out, so the Department of Finance called the Canada Revenue Agency and asked how quickly they could create their own capacity to handle a huge influx of applications outside the EI program.

“Three weeks is an incredibly short time to launch a new program, but we were pretty confident we could do it,” says Frank Vermaeten, an assistant commissioner at the CRA. “We’ve got an IT branch that’s probably second-to-none in government, so we’re really lucky that way.”

The legislation moved faster than Service Canada’s tech wizards. When the bill that would approve the CERB was tabled in Parliament, bureaucrats were still trying to figure out how to shift two million Canadians who’d applied for EI—but qualified for the new program—to the new system. But they solved the problem by April 6, when the CERB opened to applications.

There were moments of drama. One night, when the new EI application platform was live to a limited number of users, the system “went down” at about 10 p.m. “There was tremendous nervousness about the nature of the issue,” says a senior source at Service Canada. By midnight, it was all systems go. “I’ll admit that was a nervous two-hour window,” the source told Maclean’s.

The CRA was busy creating a parallel structure to Service Canada, which would handle all applicants who didn’t qualify for EI. The agency’s technical teams grew concerned the sheer volume of applications, once they were open to the public, would crash the system. Vermaeten says the agency was comfortable handling a million applications a day, but they expected at least four times that amount in the first week. Someone came up with the idea of staggering applications by birth month. On the first Monday, Canadians born between January and March would apply. The next day, it would be April to June. On Friday, and over the weekend, anyone could apply.

Everyone loved the idea, and when it filtered up to the PMO, Trudeau ran with it. In one of his morning press conferences, he asked applicants to wait their turn.

The platform didn’t bar anyone from applying; the agency relied on the honour system. And it worked. Vermaeten remembers looking at the first available data at the end of the day on April 6. Three-quarters of applicants were born between January and March. The trend held all week. “Canadians clearly listened to this,” says Vermaeten. “Even though they were desperate for cash.”

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The CRA needed to vastly expand its capacity to help Canadians with the application process. Most of the agency’s workforce was working from home—only a couple of dozen people every day headed into the sprawling campus in Gatineau, Que., which houses 8,000 public servants in normal times—and a request went out to employees whose jobs were considered non-essential during the pandemic. Could they work the phones to guide Canadians through the application process? “We had 7,500 people volunteer,” says Vermaeten.

“Before the pandemic, things weren’t going well at the bargaining table, and we were doing strike votes,” says Marc Brière, the national president of the Union of Taxation Employees. His members have worked without a new contract for 3.5 years, and now they were being asked to help. No one hesitated, says Brière, but he noted many CRA employees are working an astounding amount of overtime.

As Canadians apply for the CERB and their employees sign up for the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, and at the same time the feds roll out billions in student aid, Brière says some of his members have been asked to work seven days a week—including an extra five hours on weekdays and a combined 15 hours on weekends. Those are 80-hour workweeks.

Viktor Bender, whose normal job involves visiting companies and ensuring they’re applying taxable benefits properly, now spends every day on the phone, taking questions from confused CERB applicants, from his home in Brossard, Que. He says most people on the other side of the line are in good spirits. “People aren’t really frustrated,” says Bender. “They’re grateful and thankful that we’re there and doing something.”

Julian Nicholson, a CRA resource officer in Hamilton, Ont., helps colleagues navigate the CERB and, in spare moments, talks directly with taxpayers. He works 12-hour weekdays, as well as a shorter shift on Saturdays. Nicholson says in early April, he once took 185 calls in a single day. “This has been our moment,” he says.

“The Prime Minister and the federal government has put a massive workload on our shoulders to come to the rescue of millions of people,” says Brière. “We’ll get back to bargaining as soon as we can, but now we need to deal with this.”

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When the CERB launched, its eligibility requirements still excluded large subsets of out-of-work Canadians. A few weeks into the program’s rollout, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives said 1.4 million Canadians weren’t eligible for federal support, many because they either earned too much or too little income—but nowhere near enough to survive. Student groups complained, too.

Every few days, Trudeau would announce the result of behind-the-scenes tinkering. On April 15, the PM said seasonal workers were covered, as were Canadians who earned up to $1,000 a month or those whose EI had run dry. On April 22, he announced $9 billion for students that was later approved by Parliament.

Many Canadians continue to be frustrated. Those who lost their jobs before March 15, the start date for the CERB, have faced huge delays sorting out their EI applications.

Qualtrough didn’t expect the program to be perfect on day one. The CERB itself was a massive change in direction. Only a day before it was sketched out on March 19, Trudeau had announced two new programs, dubbed the emergency support and emergency care benefits, that officials decided were too complicated for Canadians in dire need.

There’s a tendency to make it “almost impossible to fail” in government, says Qualtrough, given the reams of approvals required to manage risk down to zero. “Because of the public accountability in spending public dollars, it feels a lot harder to admit that something you tried didn’t work, and course-correct and just abandon something,” she says.

One of the pandemic’s lessons for how to run a government appears to be that a little risk goes a long way. Millions of Canadians felt relief, at least in the short-term, thanks to billions in fast-tracked aid. But taking on more risk requires politicians, public servants and the public to rethink how government works.

“I think we also have to sensitize the public to it being okay to course correct in government, and trying things that are a little bit more bold or risky,” says Qualtrough.

The scope and speed of what happened to get the CERB out the door is unparalleled—a truly historic moment for the public service. That’s not lost on the minister who oversaw the operation. “I could never have imagined that I would go down in history as the minister with the highest unemployment rates or the most Canadians out of work during a crisis,” she tells Maclean’s.

Her previous cabinet gig, as head of federal procurement, involved fixing the failed Phoenix payroll system and weathering delays in shipbuilding and fighter jet purchases. Qualtrough certainly never saw this coming. “I figured I’d be in this policy file, and we’d get to look forward and create all of these innovative things. I never imagined we’d be where we are today.”