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Public Services to pitch next step for Phoenix pay fix in September

By Emily Haws      

The options to streamline the process for correcting overpayments, transfers, terminations, and acting pay will be presented to Phoenix oversight committees starting in September, said head Phoenix-fixer Les Linklater.

Public Services and Procurement Canada associate deputy minister Les Linklater said more than 1,500 pay advisers are working on reducing the pay file backlog at the Public Service Pay Centre in Miramichi, N.B., but they are continuing to hire. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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The office responsible for fixing the troubled Phoenix pay system is taking another step forward, hoping to cut the time it will take to get thousands of public servants paid properly.

Problems with Phoenix have left public servants with too little or too much pay for almost two and a half years. Les Linklater, the associate deputy minister of Public Services and Procurement tasked with fixing the nightmare, said his office is working to streamline four of the 46 business processes that result in pay changes.

The four, which are overpayments, transfers in and out (when employees transfer departments), terminations, and acting pay (when an employee temporarily takes on a new role and receives a pay promotion), were chosen because they represent the largest portions of the pay file backlog.

Mr. Linklater said he couldn’t get into specific details about what they recommend changing, but an approval process will start in September.

The approval is needed because there are many workers across government involved in the process of getting bureaucrats paid.

“Essentially, our overarching objective would be to simplify the process, [and] take as much work out of the hands of compensation advisers as we can, while maintaining integrity, and ensuring better outcomes for staff,” he said.

“If there are issues or complexities to a process that can be eliminated or solved through technological fixes, we would certainly recommend to governance that those be pursued,” he added.

Public Service Alliance of Canada national president Chris Aylward, who represents about 140,000 federal public servants, including compensation advisers, agreed the four types of cases are the most problematic.

“If compensation advisers no longer have to spend as much time fixing these errors, they’ll have more time to spend on more complicated pay files,” he said, adding that getting public servants properly paid is his greatest priority.

Underpayments isn’t on the list because there is already a robust system to correct it, including emergency salary advances, said Mr. Linklater, and overpayments cause tax headaches. However, it could be addressed in the future.

PSAC national president Chris Aylward said the four types of pay cases being streamlined are the best ones to start with. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

The Phoenix project happened in two stages. First, the government contracted IBM to begin configuring off-the-shelf pay software to the government’s 32 human resources systems, dubbed Phoenix. Second, it centralized pay staff for 46 departments at the Public Service Pay Centre in Miramichi, N.B. Phoenix was launched in waves two phases in February and April 2016, depending on department.

Another 55 government departments are also on the Phoenix software, but have compensation advisers in their own departments. Phoenix was supposed to save the government about $70-million annually, but has so far cost the government $1.2-billion and counting. A recent Senate report predicted it could cost the government a $2.2-billion by 2023.

There are three committees to give feedback on the recommended improvements. The first two are director general and assistant deputy minister oversight committees.

Those two, along with the deputy minister oversight committee, were developed to give stronger oversight of the Phoenix system, which was lacking during Phoenix’s original development.

The deputy minister oversight committee, which gives final approval, is chaired by deputy Privy Council clerk Andrea Lyon. It’s not yet clear when the changes will be approved or implemented.

Mr. Linklater said the “enterprise-wide approach” ensures “we’re reflecting the priority views of all departments and agencies.” Overall, he said the community is engaged and “there’s a lot of interest in resolving or improving these processes as quickly as we can.”

Treasury Board taking next steps in new pay system development

Streamlining the business processes is one of four broader themes to improving the Phoenix system. Others include increasing the capacity at the pay centre by hiring more pay advisers and rolling out the pay-pod system, which has specific parts of the pay centre aligned with certain departments.

Additionally, the government is working to improve the timeliness and accuracy of HR data entry, which helps reduce the number of problem-causing retroactive payments, and is in ongoing talks with employees, unions and other stakeholders.

These improvements are working to tide the pay system over until a new one can be developed and put into place. The government doesn’t have “a governance approved suite of [specific] definitions” to determine when Phoenix is fixed, said Mr. Linklater, but the operating approach his team has been taking is that all the efforts will eventually lead to people being paid accurately, within established service standards, deemed “steady state.”

Chief Information Officer Alex Benay is leading the team developing the new pay system. Photograph courtesy of Alex Benay’s Twitter

He doesn’t think specific definitions are “essential,” he added. There are operating standards for specific types of transactions, but not all of them. For example, 95 per cent of parental and disability leave files are handled within 20 working days of them arriving at the pay centre, said Mr. Linklater.

Originally, there were notional targets of around 20-40 working days when Phoenix first went live, but the department has taken a step back from those at this point, said Mr. Linklater.

“Our goal would be to be able to, with [the] Treasury Board and the departments and agencies, be able to define service standards that go from end-to-end, from the time the employee enters their [case] to the time they see the result.” This is complicated, he said, because not all pay is processed by the pay centre in Miramichi. The Treasury Board’s Office of the Chief Human Resources Officer is working on developing end-to-end service standards, implementing them by the end of 2018.

Canadian Association of Professional Employees president Greg Phillips, who represents more than 15,000 government analysts and translators, said developing service standards now is helpful for the next system, but not so much right now. The sooner the government can switch to a new pay system the better, he added, because it’s clear Phoenix isn’t working.

“We should have been working on a new system before now,” he said in an interview Aug. 20.

Treasury Board announced Aug. 23 it’s taking its next steps to develop Phoenix’s alternative. Chief Information Officer Alex Benay, the deputy minister of digital government, will lead the team tasked with taking all of the lessons learned to develop the new system.

So far, it’s worked on a preliminary analysis of available sellers. It will soon look to the private sector to identify options for the pay system through a Request for Information, according to a press release.

It added the government will work closely with public servants and unions to determine a solution.

This new way of procuring large IT projects, which the government calls “agile procurement,” looks to start small, test, and then scale up new technology.

Mr. Aylward said in a statement that it was important “that the government has acknowledged that ignoring the knowledge and experience of our members while Phoenix was built and rolled-out was a key reason it became a fiasco.” He added they will make sure the government follows through on their consultation commitment.

“We’re pleased the government is moving forward with the development of a new pay system that will finally pay public service workers correctly, as well as meet the needs of our members who process those paycheques,” said Mr. Aylward.

That being said, the government can’t take its foot off the gas when it comes to stabilizing Phoenix, he said, as “thousands of workers are still being paid incorrectly every day and the government needs to bring this nightmare to an end as soon as possible.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Linklater said PSPC continues to hire people to work at the pay centre. So far, there are “well over 1,500” people working on reducing the backlog of pay files, he said.

“At this point adding human resources is one of the key prongs of our strategy to reduce the queue as quickly as we can,” he said. “So there’s a ‘for hire’ or ‘we are hiring’ sign out constantly, and we continue to bring in people all the time and get them trained up to help.”

The Hill Times

How pay change requests happen for employees serviced by the Miramichi Pay Centre

  1. A change is requested to an employee’s pay.
  2. The department or agency enters the data into its human resources system.
  3. A pay adviser from Public Services and Procurement Canada at the pay centre enters more data into the Phoenix system.
  4. The Phoenix system calculates the pay.
  5. The department or agency reviews the pay amount and authorizes Public Services and Procurement Canada to issue the pay.
  6. The employee gets a paycheque.

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