Canadian Senate committee calls for Phoenix error resolution targets

By on 05/08/2018 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Canada's senate says that Parliament should supervise the government’s actions to fix civil service pay problems (Image courtesy: Intiaz Rahim).

More should be done to support civil service employees who are waiting to have their pay problems resolved following the troubled rollout of the Phoenix pay system, a Senate report has recommended.

Around half of Canada’s 300,000 government workers have encountered at least one problem with their pay since 2016, when the new system was brought in. These have typically involved incorrect or late payments, with sometimes “disastrous” consequences for staff, the report by the Senate Finance Committee notes.

The fiasco has created “unnecessary hardship, anxiety and stress” for tens of thousands of public servants, it states.

Up to 600,000 holed pay packets

Targets should be set for resolving the almost 600,000 requests for outstanding pay, it said. The government should also report to Parliament on options and costs for replacing Phoenix, the expected impact on employees, and on whatever measures will be put in place to avoid making the same mistakes.

The government pledged to replace the system in March, committing to spend CAN$16m (US$12m) over the next two years on looking for a replacement.

The system was intended to centralise pay operations for government workers and save taxpayers CAN$70 million (US$38m) a year. Instead, it has already cost nearly CAN$1 billion (US$760m) in unplanned expenditures, a figure which is expected to rise to CAN$2.2bn (US$1.69bn) by 2023.

Programme management criticised

The committee said it was dismayed that the project went ahead with minimal independent oversight, and that no-one had accepted responsibility for the problems with the system, nor been held to account.

A “fundamental management culture problem” in the public service was partly to blame for the debacle, the report said. There is an ethos that “resists sharing negative information, runs away from risks, and avoids responsibility when mistakes occur,” it added.

This chimed with the findings of an earlier report by Canada’s auditor general, which branded the pay system an “incomprehensible failure”, and blamed it on a “much deeper cultural issue” within the federal government.

The committee stressed that it should have a role in overseeing actions the government took for fixing the problems, since the government “has had this so wrong for so long”.

“It’s an embarrassment that a G7 country like Canada has failed to pay tens of thousands of its own public servants properly. Canada has one of the best public services in the world, but the Phoenix disaster has revealed a cultural problem within the management of the federal bureaucracy, a problem that we have to address if the government is to successfully undertake complex projects such as this one in the future,” said senator André Pratte, deputy chair of the committee.

Finger pointing

Public services minister Carla Qualtrough and Treasury Board president Scott Brison said the government was reviewing the Senate’s report, but blamed the previous Conservative government for creating the problem.

“When they [the Conservatives] irresponsibly treated this project as a cost-cutting measure instead of the complex enterprise-wide business transformation that it was, they set the project up to fail,” the ministers said, according to an article in national newspaper the Globe and Mail.

Chris Aylward, national president of civil service union the Public Service Alliance of Canada, said that employees must be central to any solution to the Phoenix failure. “The government must accept responsibility, compensate employees in the form of damages, and put a robust process in place that encourages employee engagement, feedback and collaboration and real consultation with their unions.”

The union has called for a public inquiry into the scandal.

About Catherine Early

Catherine is a journalist and editor specialising in government policy and regulation. She writes predominantly about environmental issues and has held permanent roles at the Environmentalist (now known as Transform), the ENDS Report, Planning magazine and Windpower Monthly, and has also written for the Guardian, the Ecologist and China Dialogue. She was a finalist in the Guardian’s International Development Journalism competition 2009, and was part of the team that won PPA Business Magazine of the Year 2011 for Windpower Monthly. She also won an outstanding content award at Haymarket Media Group’s employee awards for data-led stories in Planning magazine. She holds a 2:1 honours degree in English language and literature from Birmingham University.


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