Auditor General Michael Ferguson arrives to hold a news conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Tuesday regarding his 2017 Fall Report. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Auditor General Michael Ferguson arrives to hold a news conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Tuesday regarding his 2017 Fall Report. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Cost to fix Phoenix pay system to surpass $540 million: auditor general

Michael Ferguson’s review hints the entire system should be scrapped

The federal government’s chronic salary struggles could be on the verge of ballooning into a billion-dollar boondoggle, the auditor general says in a scathing review that hints the entire system should be scrapped.

Michael Ferguson’s review of the disastrous Phoenix pay system reveals just how many and how often public servants are either being overpaid and underpaid, how little headway federal officials have made to correct the mistakes, and how the government under-reported the number of outstanding pay problems even as issues continued to grow.

In all, there were 150,000 employees with pay problems that needed correcting at the start of summer, and a value of over $520 million worth of mistakes — almost as much as the government initially believed it would cost to fix Phoenix.

And that number — $540 million — is likely well below what it will ultimately cost, Ferguson concludes.

The Liberal government can’t assure Canadians about when the pay problems will end or how much it will ultimately cost to get a system that “comes close to its original goal,” said Ferguson, who makes a point of citing a similar problem in Australia that took seven years and $1.2 billion to resolve.

Canada, he warns, is in the same ballpark.

And while he doesn’t say what the government should ultimately do, his auditors recommend the government look at all options, including whether it might be better for the Liberals to ditch the system entirely.

The government has agreed to provide Parliament with a full and detailed cost estimate, but not until next May, with plans to finalize by next month a preliminary roadmap of dozens of projects aimed at fixing Phoenix.

Phoenix was not the only issue Ferguson identified in his latest tranche of audits:

— Callers to the Canada Revenue Agency got the wrong answer to their questions 30 per cent of the time, well above the 6.5 per cent error rate that the agency publicly reports — and that’s only when they were able to actually get through to an employee; only 30 per cent of calls placed by auditors were connected.

— Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada didn’t monitor whether Syrian refugees were being properly integrated into Canadian society, including basic information such as how many children were enrolled in schools.

— Health Canada couldn’t say whether its oral health program for First Nations and Inuit children helped in any way.

— Female offenders weren’t getting the rehabilitation they needed, especially those with mental illnesses; some prisoners with severe impairments or at risk of suicide continue to be held for observation in segregation cells, against the advice of experts.

— Cadets at the Royal Military College were being academically challenged, but the school didn’t ensure they learned proper military conduct, ethics or adequate leadership skills.

Combined, the audits amount to what Ferguson describes as a bureaucratic focus inward, rather than thinking about the people they are there to serve. It’s a message that Ferguson has delivered before, but that the government has yet to hear, he said.

“When I look at these audits together, I find that once again, I’m struck by the fact that departments don’t consider the results of their programs and services from the point of view of the citizens they serve,” he said in a statement.

That message appeared to ring loudest in Ferguson’s review of Phoenix, which the Liberals themselves requested last year. The IBM-designed Phoenix system, a project originally embarked upon by the government’s Conservative predecessors, was supposed to save $70 million a year by modernizing, consolidating and centralizing pay processing.

Instead, the government has had to hire hundred of experts to deal with a relentless barrage of pay problems that don’t seem to be getting fixed. The Senate has decided to pull out of Phoenix, and departments and agencies have had to implement workarounds to make sure employees get paid.

Statistics Canada, for instance, kept its old pay system in place for the army of temporary workers hired for the 2016 census.

The Liberals expect to spend $540 million to fix the system that cost $310 million, but Ferguson warned that figure is likely to climb even higher, going so far as to warn about similar problems in Australia that have ended up costing the government $1.2 billion over seven years.

Ferguson only looked at what happened since the Liberals took office. An audit about what went wrong in the lead-up will be released in May.

The Liberals green-lighted the new system shortly after coming to office, despite concerns from officials that it wasn’t ready to handle the 80,000 different rules overseeing issues like parental leave or compensating those in temporary supervising roles, known as acting pay.

Acting pay makes up one-quarter of all outstanding pay issues — a queue that as of the end of June sat at 494,500, the report says, or about five times what it was when Phoenix launched in early 2016. About 49,000 employees have waited more than a year to have their pay issues resolved.

In the last fiscal year that ended in March, some 62 per cent of employees sampled were paid incorrectly at least once, the report found.

The causes of pay problems were myriad, including pay experts who couldn’t enter data into the system half the time to fix errors because doing so would cause further mistakes.

Even as the backlog of cases grew, the report says that the government under-reported the numbers by about 30 per cent because it excluded requests that didn’t have a dollar value, or that it didn’t believe would take a lot of time to process.

The report says that the government has set aside a lot of time, money and bodies to deal with Phoenix, but it hasn’t addressed any of the underlying causes or developed a long-term sustainable solution.

Jordan Press, The Canadian Press

Just Posted

Chemainus Secondary School 2021 graduate and valedictorian Chayla Pollock receives her certificate from principal Lori Hryniuk. (Photo by Don Bodger)
Valedictorian Pollock’s address to the Class of 2021

Different kind of setting in a classroom for the traditional presentation

Chemainus Secondary School 2021 graduate Nina Bumstead. (Photo by Don Bodger)
Grad ceremony proceeds, with a twist

Red carpet outside works out well for Chemainus Secondary’s Class of 2021

The Crofton trailer park home where the bodies of two people were found. (Photo by Don Bodger)
Mom still waiting for answers after daughter and her fiance found dead in Crofton

Pair discovered dead in their Crofton home in May identified as Rachel Gardner and Paul Jenkins

Chemainus street signs now contain Hul’qumi’num translations, like this one at the corner of Willow and Legion Streets. (Photo by Don Bodger)
Street signs go up in the Hul’qumi’num language

Chemainus intersections feature direct translations

FILE – Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, takes part in an event on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, July 7, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Indigenous Peoples Day must be a ‘call to action’, says Assembly of First Nations chief

Discovery of children at Kamloops residential school site must lead to change, Perry Bellegarde says

Nanaimo Fire Rescue crews on scene at a boat fire near the boat ramp at Long Lake on Sunday, June 20. (Greg Sakaki/News Bulletin)
Boat burns up on Nanaimo’s Long Lake, man and child unhurt

Jet skiers attempt to put out fire by circling around to spray water on burning boat

Point Roberts is part of the mainland United States but not physically connected to it, to reach the community by land one must pass through Canada. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Closed Canadian border leaves Point Roberts’ only grocery store on verge of closure

‘We’re Americans but we’re not attached to America. It’s so easy to forget we’re here,’ says owner Ali Hayton of Point Roberts, Wash.

The Somass Sawmill sits idle in early May 2021. While the kilns have been in use occasionally, and the lot has been used to store woodchips this spring, the mill has been curtailed since July 27, 2017. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)
Port Alberni to expropriate Somass Sawmill from Western Forest Products

Sawmill has been ‘indefinitely’ curtailed since 2017

Robin Sanford and her fiance Simon Park were married in an impromptu ceremony at Abbotsford Regional Hospital on June 16. (Submitted photo)
Mom dies day after witnessing daughter’s hospital wedding in Abbotsford

Nurses help arrange impromptu ceremony in 3 hours for bride and groom

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

B.C. Finance Minister Selina Robinson with Premier John Horgan after the budget speech Tuesday, April 20, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. home owner grant won’t be altered, despite expert advice

Tax break for residences worth up to $1.6 million too popular

B.C. conservation officer Sgt. Todd Hunter said a black bear is believed to have killed local livestock. (THE NEWS/files)
Black bear believed to have killed miniature donkey in Maple Ridge

Trap set for predator that has been killing livestock

Penticton mayor John Vassilaki and Minister of Housing David Eby have been battling over the Victory Church shelter and BC Housing projects in the city. (File photos)
Penticton heads to court over homeless shelter as BC Housing audit begins

The city was not satisfied with the response from Minister David Eby regarding the ongoing situation

People enjoy the sun at Woodbine Beach on June 19, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Tijana Martin
BC Hydro assures customers it has ‘more than enough’ power to weather the heatwave

Despite an increase of pressure on the Western grid, blackouts are not expected like in some U.S. states

Most Read