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Government to take ‘entirely different approach’ to replace Phoenix pay system

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OTTAWA — Angry civil servants protested the Phoenix pay system debacle outside a federal Liberal cabinet retreat Thursday as the Trudeau government declared it would soon be taking an “entirely different approach” to how its employees get paid.

In a statement released as protesters gathered outside the Liberal retreat in Nanaimo, B.C., the Treasury Board Secretariat said it would seek out potential alternative pay systems through a procurement process it will launch to replace Phoenix.

The government has already been looking at a number of software providers and will work with civil servants and their unions in testing and ultimately launching a replacement human resources and pay system, the statement said.

“The TBS team has been working on preliminary analysis of available vendors and, as part of an upcoming notice of proposed procurement, will be looking to private sector expertise to identify potential innovative alternatives for a new system.”

No timetable has been established for when testing might begin on any alternative system. That will be determined as the government speaks with suppliers, said Treasury Board President Scott Brison.

“Part of the engagement with vendors is actually defining that because we have to know what is realistic,” Brison said as he arrived in Nanaimo for Thursday’s meetings.

But Public Service Alliance of Canada members have almost exhausted their patience, union president Chris Aylward told placard-waving government employees.

The Liberals could face consequences in next fall’s federal election if they don’t act more quickly, he warned: “You start showing respect to federal public-sector workers, or you will pay in October of 2019.”

The Trudeau government’s last budget included $16 million to search for an alternative to Phoenix, which has caused massive headaches for more than half of federal employees who have been overpaid, underpaid or not paid at all.

The Phoenix system, launched more than two years ago, was supposed to save taxpayers money but is currently on track to cost more than $1 billion.

As of July 25, 560,000 pay files remained in the backlog of cases pay system operators have been dealing with. Public Services Minister Carla Qualtrough called the backlog unacceptable, but added she’s encouraged to see it has been in decline over the past five months.

In a report issued earlier this year, auditor general Michael Ferguson blamed the Phoenix debacle on a culture within government of bureaucrats avoiding reporting failures to their supervisors.

Finding an alternative system has been left to a “multi-disciplinary” team at Treasury Board under the direction of the country’s chief information officer, Alex Benay.

“The team will take an entirely different approach than the one that led to the implementation of Phoenix, including strong governance and direct accountability,” the statement said.

But that team must act fast if the government is to gain back the confidence of its employees, said Debi Daviau, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada.

And alternative systems are already readily available within government that hold the potential to be adapted to the entire federal civil service, she added.

“We hope the government will test every viable alternative, including adapting the corporate administrative system currently used at the (Canada Revenue Agency),” Daviau said.

“Our members have already waited for an alternative long enough.”

Roughly 55,000 employees at CRA and the Canada Border Services Agency fall under that system, said Daviau, who said it only needs to be adapted to produce paycheques — a process currently being handled by the national pay centre in Miramichi, N.B.

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