Canada learned from Australian experience, Phoenix minister says

Following a CBC/Radio-Canada report, Minister Carla Qualtrough said her government learned from the errors caused by the Phoenix in Australia when the Canadian government rolled out the same system in 2016.

Carla Qualtrough defends efforts to manage Phoenix fallout after CBC/Radio-Canada report

Public Services and Procurement Minister Carla Qualtrough said her government is aware of the problems encountered in Queensland, Australia, when an IBM-provided payroll system similar to Phoenix was launched there in 2010. (CBC)

The minister responsible for the federal government's Phoenix pay system said her government is aware of the problems associated with a similar system launched in Australia, and has learned from the mistakes made Down Under.

Public Services and Procurement Minister Carla Qualtrough was reacting Monday to a CBC/Radio-Canada report which revealed the Canadian government did not consult with the state of Queensland, Australia, after it suffered a "catastrophic" rollout of its IBM-provided payroll system in 2010. 

"We did our homework," Qualtrough told Mathieu Nadon, host of Radio-Canada's Téléjournal Ottawa-Gatineau. "We looked at the different payroll projects that IBM created."

She said the government has analyzed and learned from the findings of independent experts who have examined the Australian experience.

"On the governance of the system, Australians have had problems similar to ours. We have set up a different system, we have learned from Australia," the minister said. 

The government also looked at the successful experiences of IBM payroll systems in the Alberta and Ontario governments.

Miramichi remains

Qualtrough said Ottawa will not follow the example of Queensland, which had also centralized its payroll department, but quickly decided to decentralize it to correct the problems.
Beth Mohle, the secretary for the Queensland Nurses and Midwives Union, said the rollout of the payroll system in 2010 was a disaster. 'It was chaos,' she said. (Lorian Belanger/Radio-Canada)

Canada's pay centre in Miramichi, N.B., is here to stay, but the government will increase human resource experts in the 101 departments that use Phoenix, Qualtrough said.

"We are committed [to keeping] Miramichi. We hired experts, we just can't tell these people that they have to go elsewhere in the country," she said. 

However, the government still wants to change the pay process.

"We will create clusters of specialists who will be assigned to a particular ministry. We tried the experiment in three departments and we had good results," the minister said.

Qualtrough added that the government still plans to recruit about 100 more people to work at the call centre.

No plans to dump Phoenix

There are no plans to scrap the Phoenix pay system entirely — at least not at the moment.

"We have to pay our people every two weeks, so we can't get rid of it because there are no other pay systems. My priority is to stabilize the system, to ensure that all public servants are paid on time and accurately," Qualtrough said.

However, the minister said the government is looking at a replacement, noting that it could take another two or three years to find one. 

"We recognize that Phoenix is ​​not the state-of-the-art system we need. We chose it almost 10 years ago, so while working to stabilize it, we are looking at what other system could possibly replace it," she said. 

In the meantime, she could not say how long it will take for the government to fix all the problems with the Phoenix system, nor could she shed any light on how much the bill for this system will be. She maintains, however, that it will not cost $5 billion, a figure floated by Australian payroll technology consultant Malcolm Thatcher, a key witness at Queensland's public inquiry committee. 

"We do not know yet how much it will cost," Qualtrough said. "We have invested about $300 million since we formed the government, and it continues."

With files from Radio-Canada