Canadian unions call for Phoenix pay system to be ditched

By on 16/11/2017 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Debi Daviau, President of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (Image courtesy: @PIPSC)

A civil service union has called on the Canadian federal government to scrap its troubled Phoenix pay system and build a replacement in-house.

The call from the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) came after public services and procurement minister Carla Qualtrough said on CTV on Sunday that she couldn’t guarantee that the cost of fixing Phoenix would not reach CAN$1billion (US$780m).

At a news conference held by the 50,000-member union in Ottawa on Tuesday, president Debi Daviau said: “After nearly two years of problems with IBM’s Phoenix pay system, our members have lost confidence in the promise of fixing Phoenix.

“Despite all efforts to fix Phoenix, the number of open cases of pay problems has grown to 330,000 as of October 2017 – with no end in sight. Enough is enough.”

Phoenix shows no sign of rising from ashes

Daviau called on the federal government to task its own IT professionals with building a new pay system based on the latest version of Oracle’s PeopleSoft human resources management system, adapting it to the complex requirements of federal pay, the Canadian Press reported.

It should take about a year to build and properly test a new system, the union leader said, but she was unable to provide a cost estimate for the project at the news conference.

“The government needs to stop throwing good money after bad and start investing in a system that works,” she said. “As it happens, we already have the expertise and the people within the federal public service capable of designing and building it. They just need the opportunity to do so.”

IT system running out of friends

The call was backed by the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), which represents 180,000 government employees, and opposition party the New Democrats. PSAC national president Robyn Benson said: “We welcome any system that would pay our members.

“If Phoenix has taught us anything, we know that any system will require thorough consultations and testing.”

Tens of thousands of public servants have faced problems with pay since the computerised system was launched in February 2016, with some underpaid and some paid late or not at all. Others have been overpaid, leading to complications when paying tax.

The government has spent hundreds of millions of Canadian dollars trying to fix the problems, including an extra CAN$140m (US$110m) provided in April 2017 for departments to hire additional staff.

Senate takes the lead in abandoning Phoenix

In October, Canada’s Senate confirmed that it would no longer use the Phoenix system for its own employees after 18 months of errors and delays in payments. Parliament’s upper house issued a tender notice for private companies to contract for its payroll and pensions system.

A spokesperson for Qualtrough’s office said on Tuesday that it “continues to work with all partners including union leadership to find innovative and efficient solutions to the pay issues.”

“We called in the Auditor General in order to help better understand the problems,” the spokesperson added. “We look forward to that report when it is made public next week.”

The system has long had problems, particularly around late, inaccurate or missing payments for staff. Michael Wernick, Canada’s Clerk of the Privy Council, told Global Government Forum back in October 2016 that “it’s very clearly a collective clanger, and I worry about it a bit because it’s done reputational damage to the ability of civil servants to deliver IT projects – and that’s not helpful.”

The lessons to be learned from weaknesses on the scheme, he added, include “standard advice that we should have heeded more: you have to really, really sweat the details, and communicate what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. We under-communicated and under-trained, clearly.”

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See also:

Michael Wernick, Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet, Canada: Exclusive Interview

About Liz Heron

Liz Heron is a journalist based in London. She worked on daily newspapers for more than 16 years as an education correspondent, section editor and general news reporter. She was Education Editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and has contributed to a wide range of British media including The Independent, The Guardian and the BBC.


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