Ottawa spends $1.2M on travel for Phoenix training boot camp

In its ongoing efforts to fix the troubled public-servant payroll system known as Phoenix, the federal government spent more than $1 million sending new hires to the Ottawa region for training boot camps.

New deputy minister also appointed to oversee troubled public-servant pay system

The Public Service Pay Centre is shown in Miramichi, N.B. The federal government spent more than $1 million sending workers to Gatineau, Que., for Phoenix training. (Ron Ward/The Canadian Press)

The federal government spent more than $1 million sending workers to a training boot camp in its ongoing efforts to fix its troubled payroll system, called Phoenix. 

Compensation advisers from across the country have travelled to a facility in Gatineau, Que., for sessions described by government officials as mandatory. 

"As part of our ongoing efforts to resolve pay issues as quickly as possible, we have been recruiting compensation advisers to work in our Gatineau office as well as our satellite offices," said Nicolas Boucher, a spokesperson for Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC).

"New staff in the these locations as well as compensation experts from other government departments and agencies participating in our [boot camps] and helping us process transactions have travelled to Gatineau from various locations across Canada to attend mandatory training sessions."

'I'm happy something is getting done'

Travel costs associated with those sessions top $1,224,000, according to the government's response to an order paper question from Conservative MP Deepak Obhrai. Although specifics are not broken down, the document says costs include accommodation, incidentals, and per diems between June 2016 and May 1, 2017. 

In an email, Boucher added, "These costs are in accordance with the requirements of the Travel Directive, and are included in the previously announced budgets dedicated to resolving Phoenix issues."

"I'm happy something is getting done," said Kelly McCauley, the Conservative critic for Public Services and Procurement.

"Yesterday alone we had 14 calls about Phoenix to my office," McCauley said during a phone interview. 

Liberals, Conservatives blame each other

Since the Liberal government rolled out the Phoenix pay system, tens of thousands of government workers have been underpaid, overpaid or not paid at all. While problems first emerged in early 2016, many issues have still not been resolved, causing financial hardship for thousands of families. 

So far, Ottawa has put more than $400 million toward fixing the public-servant payroll system.

The Liberals have blamed the Phoenix debacle on the previous Conservative government, saying their efforts to cut costs by laying off compensation staffers set the system up to fail.  The Tories have fired back that the Liberals rolled out the system when it clearly was not ready.

New Phoenix point man

The federal government has also created a new deputy minister position tasked with overseeing the stabilization of Phoenix. 

Les Linklater, who currently serves as associate deputy minister, will take on the role July 4, according to an internal staff memo obtained by CBC News. 

"In addition, a new interdepartmental Deputy Minister Committee will be established. Its main role will be to provide direction and oversight to the actions that will be required to stabilize the HR and pay systems," the memo states. 

Linklater, who also spent time in the Privy Council Office, will be working with both PSPC and the Treasury Board to ensure the departments are co-ordinating on Phoenix-related issues. He will be reporting directly to PSPC deputy minister Marie Lemay. 

Government 'embarrassed,' union says

CBC News has also learned that earlier this week union leaders spoke with the government's new task force dedicated to resolving Phoenix issues. 

In April, Ottawa announced Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale would lead a new working group to find Phoenix solutions.

Robyn Benson, president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), said that during the meeting she made three clear requests of the working group.

"We went to explain that they need to engage IBM to address the technological problems that there are. There are still problems within the system itself," Benson said during a phone interview.

She also said her union would like to see the satellite offices for compensation advisers, which were set up last year in response to the pay crisis, be kept open. PSAC would also wants more resources invested in the government's permanent pay centre in Miramichi, N.B. 

Benson added she would like public servants to be paid by public servants, and called for an end to contracting out work related to Phoenix. 

Benson said she was pleasantly surprised the committee seemed receptive to her pitch. 

"I really think that they're quite embarrassed and they want to fix it," she said. 


Katie Simpson is a foreign correspondent with CBC News based in Washington. Prior to joining the team in D.C. she spent six years covering Parliament Hill in Ottawa and nearly a decade covering local and provincial issues in Toronto.