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Joyclin Coates, a Unifor retiree, holds a Burnt by Phoenix sign at a Public Service Alliance of Canada rally at HMC Dockyard on Wednesday afternoon. Coates was at the rally to support workers affected by the beleaguered Phoenix pay system.
RYAN TAPLIN ? THE CHRONICLE HERALD
file photo

It’s a phoenix that’s resolutely failing at rising from its own ashes.

If anything, it just seems to make more ashes.

The federal government’s Phoenix payroll system has been an unmitigated disaster since Day 1. Its performance has been brutal; its left a legion of federal employees in its wake, employees who were paid too much, employees who were paid too little, and employees who were paid nothing at all. And after the faulty pay situation, all manner of hardships: banks that didn’t receive mortgage payments, bills that couldn’t be paid, and even demands for unpaid tax from the federal government’s own Canada Revenue Agency.

There’s probably plenty of blame to go around, but main villain seems to have been the government of Stephen Harper: eager to demonstrate the cost-cutting savings of a new automated system, the federal government apparently laid off federal payroll staff and replaced them with a system that wasn’t ready to be operational. In fact, it wasn’t even tested before being put into operation.

The rest, as they say, is payroll history.

On Friday, a new report said Phoenix has already cost the federal government over $1 billion to try and fix the problems, and could cost up to $500 million a year for the next five years to work out all the issues and catch up with a backlog of pay errors.

The system was supposed to save $74 million a year, primarily by removing payroll workers from their positions. Instead, it’s been a perfect example of senior staff backing a favourite horse despite worsening odds. Report after report has cited problems: one of the most recent, by federal Auditor-General Michael Ferguson in May, was blunt. “We concluded that the Phoenix project was an incomprehensible failure of project management and project oversight, which led to the decision to implement a system which was not ready. The decision to launch Phoenix was wrong.”

Keep in mind, the problems have persisted since the system was introduced in February, 2016.

What’s lost in the welter of recriminations, the performance bonuses paid to senior bureaucrats responsible for the mess and the lost millions of dollars of wasted money is a simple thing: at the heart of this issue, both in this region and across the country, is the fact that the federal government didn’t pay its own workers their proper pay.

Probably the biggest concern that anyone who isn’t a federal civil servant should have about the program’s monumental failure?

Perhaps that it was the replacement of a major IT system, something that could happen again in any aspect of an “upgraded” federal government services, from invoice payment to Employment Insurance to just about anything else you can think of.

There are lessons to be learned from Phoenix.

The question is, is anyone willing to learn them.

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