The more things change, the more things seem to stay the same, at least for international travelers arriving in the United States over the New Year’s holiday period. For a second year in succession, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) computer systems experienced an outage that left thousands of passengers across the United States waiting in long lines to clear customs. This time, the outage was only for about two hours, while last year’s lasted four hours and affected more than 13,000 passengers on 109 flights, according to a Department of Homeland Security Inspector General report released last November that investigated the disruption. The DHS IG report indicated that the 2017 New Year’s problem was caused by an inadequately tested software change related to CBP’s long-running IT modernization effort.
No official cause or total number of passengers or flights affected has been given for the latest CPB computer hiccup. However, another IT modernization-related issue is a likely culprit given that a September 2017 Homeland Security IG report assessing the state of the Customs Department’s IT systems and infrastructure indicated that the main CPB computer system used to screen international passengers has seen its performance “greatly diminished over the past year as a result of ongoing efforts to modernize (its) underlying system architecture.” Before this latest outage, there were three other service disruptions in 2017, according to the IG report.
The few hours of distress suffered by international travelers, however, is minisucle in comparison to that of the tens of thousands of Canadian federal government workers who are now facing a third year of payroll system torment. In what is quickly moving into contention as one of the worst government-managed IT implementations ever, over half the 290,000 plus civil servants paid through the IBM-developed Phoenix pay system have been underpaid, overpaid, or not paid at all since its rollout began in February of 2016. Government records show that, as of November 2017, there were some 589,000 payroll-related transactions still awaiting processing, meaning many government employees are contending with several pay issues. For instance, in Canada’s Department of National Defense, 63 percent of its workers had outstanding pay issues as of 1 November 2017, with 15 percent having three or more outstanding problems to contend with. According to Canada’s Auditor General, nearly 50,000 government workers have had to wait over a year to get their pay straightened out.
A major objective of the Phoenix system—which traces its history back to 2009—was to save the government C$70 million per year through reductions in payroll processing overhead and staffing costs. However, things have not turned out as planned. While the original cost of the project was pegged at C$309.5 million, Public Services and Procurement Minister Carla Qualtrough, who is now in charge of the project, admitted in November that it might cost as much as C$1 billion and three or more additional years to completely fix the system. The added costs include hiring hundreds of new payroll staff—including some of the 2,700 laid off when Phoenix was introduced—to try to sort out the mess.
The pain has been acute for the thousands of public workers who have received less than their correct salary, but those thousands who have been overpaid have not escaped misery, either. For this latter group, the government delivered a New Year’s surprise: notice that they will have until 31 January 2018 to pay back any overpayments they received. If they don’t, they have been told they will have to pay back not the net salary overpayment after taxes were taken out, but the gross salary overpayment the workers erroneously received. They then will have to wait to claim the difference back on their personal income tax filings in May, with refunds coming who knows when. To say the least, demanding money that they did not receive and further complicating their tax returns has not made the affected government employees very happy, given that most have already spent months trying to get their pay straightened out to no avail.