PSPC set to award contracts to speed up Phoenix pay processing, says Linklater, as unions protest third anniversary
Later this month, the department overseeing the fix of the government’s Phoenix pay system will award two contracts to companies in the hopes of speeding up the processing of public servants’ problem pay.
Public Services and Procurement Canada associate deputy minister Les Linklater, who is in charge of fixing the pay system, told the House Government Operations and Estimates Committee Feb. 27 that the government is getting feedback from vendors on six areas of action for fixing Phoenix.
“We are in a position to be able to move forward very quickly with a couple of contract bids in the next number of weeks on the automation front, which will allow more access to new ideas to help speed up some of the processes that are manual now that may have an opportunity to be automated,” he said.
PIPSC president Debi Daviau says that money to fix Phoenix must be in the upcoming budget, which will be tabled March 19. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
The six areas PSPC is seeking industry feedback on are automation, HR processes, lowering the queue, improving user experience, enhanced user access management, and training, said department spokesperson Jean-François Létourneauin an emailed statement.
In January, PSPC sent a request for proposals (RFP) to the 10 suppliers who had qualified for the automation stream in an earlier invitation to qualify, Mr. Létourneau said. Following evaluations, PSPC “expects to award two separate two-month contracts in March to two suppliers,” said Mr. Létourneau. He wouldn’t give any more details regarding who the vendors are or what they are proposing, citing that it’s an ongoing procurement process.
The request for proposals is meant to gather ideas from industry on how the government can use automated services to reduce the level of the manual processing of pay cases, which the government calls transactions.
Automating certain tasks, “such as confirming accuracy and completeness of data entry will allow compensation staff at the Public Service Pay Centre to focus on more complex cases,” Mr. Létourneau said.
Launched in February 2016, Phoenix was done in two parts: first, the government used off-the-shelf pay software that was configured to its 32 HR systems; and second, it centralized the compensation staff out of 46 departments and into the Public Service Pay Centre in Miramichi, N.B. Another 55 departments kept their pay staff in-house, which has generally led to fewer pay problems.
Mr. Létourneau didn’t say which types of transactions would be automated, but Phoenix has notoriously been unable to automatically process retroactive payments. This led to the ballooning of backlogged pay cases last year, in part because pay staff had to manually implement a slew of collective bargaining contracts that had been settled.
In 2012, PSPC was told that Phoenix would cost $274-million to build and implement, but Treasury Board had only approved $155-million in 2009. It didn’t ask for more money or inform Treasury Board that it removed or deferred more than 100 functions, including some critical ones, according to the auditor general’s spring 2018 report on Phoenix. The functions were supposed to be added on after all 101 departments were transferred to Phoenix.
While the backlog has been steadily decreasing, as of Jan. 23, the Miramichi pay centre had 474,000 cases awaiting processing, including 275,000 cases in the backlog.
The backlog decrease can be attributed mainly to the pay centre switching incrementally to the pay pod model, in which certain pay-adviser teams in the pay centre are aligned with specific departments. The entire pay centre would run on the pod model by May, said Public Services and Procurement Minister Carla Qualtrough (Delta, B.C.) during her Feb. 27 Government Operations Committee testimony.
The system was supposed to save about $70-million annually, but instead has cost more than $1.2-billion and counting. The 2018 budget announced $16-million to begin the process of replacing it, a project dubbed Next Generation HR and Pay and headed by a team in the Treasury Board Secretariat and chief information officer Alex Benay.
Recommendations from the team on the design of the new pay system is expected this spring. CBC News reported Feb. 25 that the backlog could take five years to clear, according to internal Employment and Social Development documents, while overall stability could take up to 10 years.
While the government hasn’t given exact timelines, it has said it expects to see a more significant increase in the processing of the backlog due to the use of the pod model.
Parties still silent on damages
The largest public sector union and now-former Treasury Board president Jane Philpott(Markham-Stouffville, Ont.) were still mum on how damages talks for the Phoenix pay system are progressing.
While union leaders suggested a deal was almost reached back in the early fall, it seems that whatever potential deal there was fell through.
During a Feb. 28 rally to mark the three-year anniversary of Phoenix, Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) national president Chris Aylward, who represents about 140,000 federal workers, said members “have had it.”
The group tasked with sorting out damages met a few weeks ago, and is scheduled to meet again on March 8, said Mr. Aylward. One key aspect to be raised at that meeting includes what each tier is going to look like. The tiered system would see employees compensated based on how bad their pay issues were, with excessively complex cases thought to be individually assessed, as previously reported by Civil Circles. Other aspects to be raised include what exactly PSAC members can expect in respect to damages that they’ve suffered and how they will be compensated for that, Mr. Aylward said.
Two representatives from PSAC are involved in the negotiations, Mr. Aylward said, who added he is hopeful a deal will come soon.
Prior to resigning from cabinet on March 4, former Treasury Board president Jane Philpott said the parties are making good progress on the Phoenix damages talks.The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
“The more often we meet, the closer we get,” he said.
There are 17 unions seeking compensation for Phoenix damages. Negotiations are being headed by a subcommittee of the joint Union-Management Consultation Committee, which consists of both government department and union representatives who work toward fixing Phoenix.
One of the key issues is making sure that all members are compensated, he said, as “even for our members whose pay hasn’t been interrupted, they still woke up every morning wondering: ‘Am I going to get paid this week?’”
A few hundred public servants closed down Laurier Street between Kent and Bank Streets on Feb. 28 to show their displeasure, eventually marching to the Prime Minister’s Office on Wellington Street. Mr. Aylward said that the rally was the kick off for a series of rallies across the country to show Members of Parliament that public servants are fed up.
It also launches a new list of demands, including that the government compensate all public servants for emotional hardship due to Phoenix, and that it amp up training and staffing.
PSAC also wants a clear and accountable timeline to stabilize Phoenix, eliminate the backlog, and transition to a new pay system.
While Ms. Philpott said during a March 4 media availability that she wasn’t “at liberty” to discuss details of the negotiation, including how much money the government had to work with to pay out damages, she said she meets with public sector leaders regularly.
“We’re making good progress, I’m working directly with the unions on Phoenix damages, and I’m hoping we’ll have good news to report soon,” she said. “I know how important this is, [and] we are determined to get a good deal that is good both for Canadians and for public servants.”
When asked how she responds to upset public servants, she said “they have assurances that we are determined to reach an agreement and that we will do so in the appropriate time.” She also said to “stay tuned” when asked about Phoenix funding in the March 19 budget.
Ms. Philpott resigned from cabinet later that day due to the government’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin scandal. Ms. Qualtrough is taking over Ms. Philpott’s responsibilities on an acting basis, the PMO said.
Mr. Aylward said he would be in touch with the government over the next few days to ensure that collective bargaining negotiations would “experience the least disruption possible” until a new minister is appointed, according to the Ottawa Sun. About 100,000 PSAC members are currently negotiating contracts.
Professional Institute of the Public Service president Debi Daviau, who represents about 55,000 government scientists and professionals, also held a press conference Feb. 25, demanding the government put money in its upcoming budget to fix Phoenix.
“You need the money to test and implement and maintain a new system,” she said. “I don’t know how it will be possible to replace the system if there isn’t adequate funding in the upcoming budget.”