The head of SAP Canada’s public services team is well aware that the word “Phoenix” connotes disaster, but the company is confident it has a solution for the federal government’s failing payroll and HR systems that have made headlines since 2016.

“We have a tremendous amount of reputational risk at play here,” Bob Conlin told IT World Canada shortly after a press conference where government officials explained the next steps of the plan to replace Phoenix.

Alongside SAP, Ceridian and Workday – international companies with Canadian offices – will compete to install what the government calls the “Next Generation HR and Pay Solution”.

“We know what could happen, and we know what’s happened to the players on the other side that delivered the Phoenix program,” said Conlin.

Those players, specifically IBM, was awarded the contract to update the government’s 40-year-old payment system in 2011. IBM had proposed a PeopleSoft-based system to replace the old one, but after countless issues and thousands of unpaid – or overpaid – government employees, the feds changed their tune, noting in its updated tender that “The Phoenix issues have shown that HR and pay are mutually dependent and don’t exist in isolation.”

That means amalgamating human resource and payroll systems in a consistent manner, something the government did not to do nearly a decade ago. It’s an “amazing technical challenge” according to Conlin.

“Today you have the government with a litany of aged and almost out of service HR systems that are from many different companies that do things very different, like spreadsheets to something sophisticated like PeopleSoft. And they all manage employee records across departments differently. With a centralized payroll, you have to have all departments consolidate the information and normalize it in a way that the payroll system can consume it. That’s a huge task.

“And as we saw, one of the world’s largest system integrators had to struggle with that, and with the other things that plagued the program.”

Canada’s Treasury Board president Joyce Murray indicated a huge shift in terms of how the government is approaching this project.

“We’ve learned the lessons of the past and have radically changed the way we are pursuing a modern, user-friendly, and mobile HR and pay solution,” she said in a press release.

For the past year, the government has been asking vendors to prove their worth and demonstrate the ability to navigate the complicated waters created by the disjointed HR and payroll systems. Insights were collected from thousands of employees on potential features of a new system, according to the treasury board, between January and April.

“The next step will be to establish partnerships with one or more of the vendors for the co-design and the delivery of pilot projects to test solutions against the real complexity of federal government HR and pay needs,” concluded the release.

Conlin is confident that SAP, which has a significant presence in the Ottawa region with a wide-variety of clients, has the answers.

“I know we can get this right.”

A final decision on the winning vendor is expected to be made by the end of the summer.