Number of public servants experiencing Phoenix pay issues shrinking: minister

Auditor general Michael Ferguson has been asked to determine how a move to modernize the federal government's payroll system turned into a fiasco in which more than 80,000 public servants were paid too much, too little or not at all.

Public Services Minister Judy Foote says Ferguson has agreed to conduct an audit of the problem-plagued transition to the Phoenix pay system.

She says the objective is to find out what went wrong and assure that similar problems can be avoided in future.

In the meantime, she's blaming the previous Conservative government, which initiated the move to Phoenix, for cutting 700 payroll staff and skimping on training.

Foote says the number of public servants still experiencing problems with their pay cheques has been whittled down to 67,500 from 82,000 in mid-July.

She remains confident that the remaining cases will be resolved by the end of October, although public service unions are skeptical.

Foote was grilled on the Phoenix system during an appearance Monday at a Commons committee.

She said the previous government had the option of doing "a full court press," directly training every employee involved with the new payroll system, or simply training a few people who could train everyone else. They opted for the latter because "it was cheaper."

Since problems emerged last spring, Foote told the committee that 250 additional compensation advisers have been hired to help eliminate the backlog of problem cases.

Opposition MPs said Foote must take the blame for proceeding with the second phase of the transition to Phoenix in April, despite warnings from public service unions that the government wasn't ready.

But Foote said she was assured by bureaucrats that "we were in a ready-to-go state" and that "there was no going back" to the old payroll system and no way to run the old and new systems simultaneously.

Senior bureaucrats who attended the committee with Foote confirmed that they told her the system was ready to be launched, an opinion shared by an independent, outside consultant.

Conservative MP Steven Blaney said "the blame game is not really useful" for public servants waiting to be paid, but then proceeded to lay the blame squarely on Foote.

"What we know now is that system was not ready to be implemented, she rushed into it. Now we have extra costs for taxpayers, nightmares for many workers," Blaney said outside the committee meeting.

New Democrat MP Erin Weir pointed out that the old and new pay systems operated in tandem from February to April and questioned why that couldn't have continued until the glitches with Phoenix were ironed out.