Canadian government pledges no ‘cut corners’ on Phoenix replacement

By on 16/09/2018 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Scott Brison says it would be unacceptable for public servants not to be paid accurately and on time for their work (Image courtesy: Mike Gifford/Flickr).

The Canadian government is working up plans to replace its troubled Phoenix shared service, stating that this time round it will adopt an “entirely different approach” to designing and building a central system managing civil servants’ pay.

Ministers pledged to replace the system in March, committing to spend CAN$16m (US$12m) over the next two years on looking for a replacement. And a new statement from the Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS) says that a multi-disciplinary team has been established to deliver options for a new system covering human resources and pay.

Scott Brison, president of the Treasury Board and minister of digital government, said: “Public servants deserve to be paid accurately and on time for their work. Anything less is unacceptable.

“As we explore and develop a modern, user-tested and reliable long-term solution to public service pay and HR for the digital era, our government is embracing a culture of accountability, innovation and agility. We won’t cut corners as was done with the Phoenix pay system.”

Rising from the ashes

The TBS team, led by Alex Benay, chief information officer of Canada, has been working on a preliminary analysis of available vendors, according to a statement from the TBS. A forthcoming procurement notice will look to harness private sector support to identify how a new system could be implemented.

“The team will take an entirely different approach than the one that led to the implementation of Phoenix, including strong governance and direct accountability,” according to the statement.

Experts, unions, technology providers and public servants will help develop and test the new system, which will reflect the government’s digital principles by being agile, open and iterative, the TBS said.

Calls for haste

Public employee union the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) called on the government to hurry up with implementing a solution. PIPSC president Debi Daviau said: “Now that the government has committed to finding an alternative, it needs to speed up implementation of those alternatives. Our members can’t wait another two years.”

The union is calling for the upgrading and extension of the Corporate Administrative System (CAS) – an existing system used by the Canada Revenue Agency and Canada Border Services Agency. “We believe the CAS system can be adapted and brought online much more quickly than the government’s current (and vague) timelines for implementing an alternative system,” said Daviau.

Troubled history

Public servants have faced problems with pay since the computerised system was launched in February 2016, with many staff going underpaid or not at all.

Others have been overpaid, leading to complications in tax bill calculations.

Phoenix was touted as a means to save the government CAN$70m (US$54m) per year, but within 18 months flaws in the system had produced outstanding pay issues totalling CAN$520m (US$400m) that affected 150,000 public servants, according to a report by Canada’s Auditor General.

Last month, a Senate report found that the project went ahead with minimal independent oversight, and that no-one had accepted responsibility for the problems with the system or been held to account. A “fundamental management culture problem” in the public service was partly to blame for the debacle, the report said, adding that it identified an ethos that “resists sharing negative information, runs away from risks, and avoids responsibility when mistakes occur.”

About Colin Marrs

Colin is a journalist and editor with long experience in the government and built environment sectors. He cut his teeth in local newspaper journalism before moving to Inside Housing in 1999. He has worked in a variety of roles for built environment titles including Planning, Regeneration & Renewal and Property Week. After a spell at advertising industry bible Campaign magazine, he became a freelancer in 2010. Since then he has edited, local government finance publication and contributed news and features to Civil Service World, Architects’ Journal, Social Housing, management titles and written white papers for major corporate and public sector clients.


  1. Mark Elliot Geres says:

    Speaking Truth to Power – A Project Manager’s Dilemma

    I recently read an article published by a Canadian newspaper, entitled, “Feds overestimated, ignored issues with Phoenix before rollout: Review”.

    The following excerpt resonated deeply with me, “The $165,000 review from an Ottawa-based consulting group, commissioned by the federal government, says briefings on the rollout were focused only on positive news, and that the department overseeing the project had a strong culture against “speaking truth to power.”

    Read full article here:

  2. Mark E. Geres says:

    I’m behind the Auditor General 100%. He’s had it right from the get go!

    The report said the government must pay attention to the pitfalls associated with managing the risks and challenges with “complex projects with IT components.”

    “The result could be more failures like Phoenix,” the report stated.

    Phoenix pay problems haven’t improved, Auditor General finds

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