News / Ottawa

Minister suggests considering options other than Phoenix pay system

The government has budgeted $540 million to fix the long-troubled pay system— but it still might not be enough, according to a scathing report from the Auditor General.

Auditor General Michael Ferguson speaks during a press conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa.

Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press

Auditor General Michael Ferguson speaks during a press conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa.

After the Auditor General released a scathing assessment of the Phoenix pay system, Public Services Minister Carla Qualtrough said they’ll work to fix it, but for the first time she acknowledged they are open to other options.

“We can’t take our eyes off the ball. We need to stabilize our current system. We’re also exploring longer term options that may or may not result in Phoenix being the long term solution,” she said.

Auditor General Michael Ferguson found multiple problems with the system, concluding the government has consistently underplayed the problem, and that a fix could still be years—and hundreds of millions of dollars—away.

“It will take years to fix the pay system, and it will cost much more than the $540 million the government has identified,” Ferguson said at a press conference Tuesday. “They didn’t understand the size of the problem and what was going to need to be done.”

Ferguson said the government has to make this issue more of a priority if it’s going to address the problem.

“I can say it’s unacceptable, but unacceptable just doesn’t capture the seriousness of this issue,” he said. “This has to be the government’s main priority to get this issue resolved.”

This audit focused exclusively on the government’s attempts to fix the problem, and a second audit is expected next year to diagnose how the program failed so spectacularly.

Last week, Qualtrough apologized to public servants and admitted that the backlog had risen to over 500,000 cases, nearly twice what it had previously been reported as.

Ferguson said clear number on the scope of the problem has been a major part of the challenge.

“Departments are sometimes putting out numbers that don’t give people the full picture. They give a picture from a certain point of view within the department.”

He said the government was slow to react.

“It took Public Services and Procurement Canada four months to recognize that there were serious pay problems, and it took the department about a year after that to have a better understanding of the problems.”

Qualtrough said they now have a handle on the problem and she believes there will be improvements to the backlog and to wait times beginning next spring.

“There’s always room for improvement but I do think now we have a very good handle on the complexity, the scope and the scale of this problem and it’s not going to be easy.”

Robyn Benson, president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, said the government should have known the problem was significant.

“We have been telling them every step of the way that the problem is substantial.”

She said the government was initially so pleased with the potential cost savings that they didn’t want to admit it wasn’t working.  

“I don’t believe they were prepared to accept failure.”

On Qualtrough’s suggestion, the government might look at another option. She said she just wants her members to get reliable paycheques.

“We will work with anyone. We will sit down with them and try to figure this out.”

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