Feds still encountering training issues years after Phoenix launch

Nearly three years after launching the Phoenix pay system, the federal government is still trying to fix training issues.

Ministry reached out to private sector for help

The federal government is still encountering training issues years after Phoenix was launched. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Nearly three years after launching the Phoenix pay system, the federal government is still trying to fix training issues.

Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) recently asked the private sector to help find solutions — news which came as a surprise to unions representing public servants.

At the end of October, the PSPC — the ministry responsible for managing Phoenix — published a request for information on asking companies to suggest "innovative" and "proven approaches."

"One of the identified challenges present in the existing environment is the lack of training material for the [human resources] and pay systems and the efficacy of the existing training materials," reads the document.

November deadline for private companies 

CBC/Radio-Canada asked the government for details on the private-sector request.

The ministry "is continuously seeking new ways to improve training and to offer up-to-date tools to Phoenix users," PSPC spokeswoman Michèle LaRose wrote in an email.​

LaRose said that the federal government has already modified the training its compensation advisors receive by adding a practical component to the curriculum. A working group was also put together in order to evaluate the methods used to train all of the pay system's users.

Do you really believe that people who had to [...] work with Phoenix [...] are still sitting idle and waiting for someone to come train them? People had to learn to do things by doing them. - Magali   Picard , national executive vice-president of  PSAC

According to LaRose, PSPC could launch requests for proposals in order to develop new training methods once it's done analyzing the responses to its information request. Businesses had until Nov. 29 to send in their ideas.

A training program was put in place in December 2015 — just a few months before Phoenix was officially unveiled in February 2016 — to help public servants get ready to submit their leave requests and time sheets through the system. This training was also offered to compensation advisors, human resources advisors and financial officers.

Online training was made mandatory for all employees and managers in December 2017. Compensation advisors must also complete their own training curriculum. All Phoenix users have access to online resources such as webcasts, tip sheets, checklists and procedures, LaRose added.

'Too little, too late,' union says

"Why wasn't this call for help made over two years ago?" asked Magali Picard, national executive vice-president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), one of the largest unions representing federal civil servants.

She believes the government should have put more emphasis on training in the early days of Phoenix. It's "too little, too late," she told CBC/Radio-Canada, adding that public servants found ways to deal with data-entry problems on their own by seeking help from colleagues, for example.

Magali Picard, national executive vice-president of PSAC, called the federal government's call out for help on fixing training problems, 'too little, too late.' (CBC)

"Workers had not been trained, so we entered our leave requests, our overtime requests, our holiday requests, the way we used to with the old system, but we got error messages," she said.

"Our people did not keep their arms crossed while hoping for the system to work out. They learned, "What doesn't work? How should I input my personal information so that it shows up properly on my pay stub?"

The vice-president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) also believes that the key issue is not training, but rather what happens behind the scenes.

"The Phoenix pay system is a bit complex to use. More training might be interesting, but the problem doesn't have much to do with day-to-day use. The errors are within the system, behind. The system makes calculation mistakes, and those mistakes keep piling up," said Stéphane Aubry.

Stéphane Aubry, vice-president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, says the main problems are behind the scenes and not with training. (CBC)

As of Nov. 28, there were 289,000 "financial transactions beyond normal workload" at the Public Service Pay Centre. That's 14,000 less than on Oct. 31, but it's still too many according to union officials.

"Financial transactions beyond normal workload" is the term used by the federal government to describe backlog transactions. It is possible for a public servant to experience more than one backlog problem. Ottawa estimates that "more than half of public servants are experiencing some form of pay issue (including those served by the Pay Centre as well as non-Pay Centre departments)."

Picard argued that the real solution to Phoenix's problems is to assign more compensation advisors to a specific department or agency, instead of asking those advisors to deal with all ministries. They would therefore be better equipped to deal with the individual needs of said department or agency.

She believes that this approach could help fix the backlog faster and to avoid errors in the future. She said that pay pods of this kind that were put in place at the Miramichi Pay Centre in New Brunswick have helped to solve some issues.

With files from Florence Ngué-No