Ashes to Ashes – The Canadian Phoenix Pay System Debacle

You know that you are in for a good read when you see the sentence:

No public servants should ever have to go without the pay they have earned. 

And that sentence – hidden at the very bottom of an official update on the Phoenix pay system implementation pretty much sums it all up.

So what is Phoenix – the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has an excellent mini site (beautifully named “Phoenix Falling“) which well documents the drama.  

The Globe and Mail summarised things well when it noted:

The Phoenix pay system, created by IBM, is based on the PeopleSoft program used widely by large corporations across Canada and around the globe, but was altered to fit the needs of the massive federal public service.

It’s a complicated system that incorporates dozens of separate pay grades, negotiated contracts and individual employee preferences.

“It’s like 101 companies, basically, coming together with like 27 collective bargaining agreements, it’s 80,000 different rules.”

So what could possibly go wrong?

As the Global and Mail notes:

The Phoenix system was introduced in early 2016 for some departments.

About 720 public servants — mostly new hires and students — have contacted the government about not receiving pay. Another 1,100 have not received parental, long-term disability or severance payments, while more than 80,000 employees entitled to supplementary pay for extra duties, overtime or pay adjustments have had problems.

Or as it is summarised by the Canadian Public Services and Procurement department:

Issues began to emerge shortly after Phoenix was first introduced.

As with any major information technology system, some challenges were expected and, early on, the majority of issues were addressed as they arose. However, following the full implementation of Phoenix, the volume of reported pay problems quickly outstripped the capacity of Public Services and Procurement Canada to respond. An examination of the situation determined that the issues stemmed from two major sources:

Backlog: When Phoenix went live in February, the Public Service Pay Centre in Miramichi had a backlog of 20,000 employee cases. Another 20,000 employee cases were transferred from individual departments shortly after the system was implemented

Learning curve: Users of Phoenix, both in departments and at the Pay Centre, faced a steeper-than-expected learning curve as they adjusted to the new system. It quickly became clear that much more should have been done to plan and prepare for the new roles, responsibilities and processes required by Phoenix

The Canadian Auditor General has been requested to undertake a review of the implementation.  

This will be one report that will be well worth reading.

Alas none of this should have been a surprise to anyone implementing a major payroll system.  

As we noted back in 2013, similar challenges occurred in Australia.  The independent report into the matter noted:

The replacement of the Queensland Health payroll system must take a place in the front rank of failures in public administration in this country.

It may be the worst.

And the service provider?

IBM.

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