The Ministry of Education’s new payroll system Novopay has caused many problems for many schools. JUDE BARBACK considers whether it is one mishap too many for New Zealand education.
The nightmare that is Novopay
There is a mock-up of a Tui billboard currently doing the email rounds that touts Novopay as ‘a new and improved payroll service’. The punchline says it all: ‘yeah right’.
Described by some as “the biggest balls-up of all time” and others as a “farcical payroll system”, it seems Novopay, the Ministry of Education’s new payroll system, has done more harm than good since its introduction in August this year.
Among the problems reported are staff being underpaid, overpaid, or not at all, trained teachers paid as untrained teachers, staff paid for work completed at the wrong school, full-timers paid as part-timers, and so on.
For those affected by such mistakes, resolving them has often proved to be just as painful, hence the rather apt moniker ‘Novopain’. Call times to the help centre were reportedly lengthy, and the ‘help’ unhelpful, with more form filling required, leaving many schools with no choice but to reach for their cheque books to pay out-of pocket staff.
In a survey conducted by New Zealand Principals’ Federation, 45 per cent of participating schools said they had to pay staff themselves to resolve pay issues. The survey found that 79 per cent had been incorrectly paid for the most recent pay round, and 90 per cent reported ongoing problems with Novopay.
The survey findings do not appear to be exaggerating. Figures show that as of the beginning of November, there have been over 8,000 cases of school staff being either paid too much, too little, at the wrong rate, or not at all since the system’s introduction in August.
Why the Novopain?
Why has Novopay been, to quote more than one disgruntled principal, such a “shambles”?
Prior to its implementation, Novopay was flaunted as a 21st century payroll system with many benefits. It was proposed to reduce the amount of time spent by schools on managing their payroll and increasing the accuracy of pay for staff. Many schools looked forward to the promise of features such as the ability to easily change personal bank account details, tax codes, and email addresses in a seemingly streamlined digital process.
Plans for Novopay to replace the previous payroll system began years ago, with information released to schools at the beginning of 2009, with an intention to roll out they system by mid-2010.
However, the Ministry released a review in November 2010, explaining that the delay for the implementation of the Novopay service was to “ensure that the system has been fully tailored to meet the complex needs of the [old] payroll and to allow sufficient time for extensive and robust testing to take place”.
Secretary for Education Lesley Longstone says that while a full trial of Novopay was not feasible, there was extensive testing of the system before its launch. She says the problems thatare being experienced now could not have been foreseen in the testing phase.
It is difficult to understand why it has not gone as expected, especially considering the expertise residing on the Novopay Governance Board: senior representatives in the Ministry of Education, senior executives from Talent2 – the service provider – and independent advisers.
Longstone has been the face of defence to the insurgency against Novopay. She has been quick to point out that the vast majority of the 110,000 people on the Ministry of Education payroll system (not all are paid in every pay round) have been paid correctly through Novopay.
Under scrutiny on italCampbell Live**, Longstone reported a decrease in the waiting times for the help centre and recommended schools contact the Ministry directly to sort out their Novopay-related problems on their behalf.
However, for a system costing just under $30 million dollars to develop, the general consensus is: ‘this is not good enough’.
The roadshow fix^^^
In an attempt to smooth troubled waters, a roadshow has been launched to assist schools with Novopay problems. A team of specialists are travelling around the country offering training and help to schools.
Ministry of Education chief information officer and Novopay Governance Board member Leanne Gibson said that in hindsight they should have put this initiative in place from the beginning, not four pay rounds in.
The hurried nature of the roadshow has been apparent to schools. The PPTA reported that many schools were given a day’s notice of the training.
“It shows very little understanding of how schools work and smacks of last minute planning. Schools need to organise for teachers to be freed from the classroom to attend these sessions and that is no small thing. This is an extraordinarily busy time of year for everyone in schools and to simply drop other priorities for this activity is thoughtless and inconsiderate,” says PPTA general secretary Kevin Bunker.
The PPTA has also been calling for compensation for the extra time taken by many employees on resolving problems with staff pay.
“The Ministry of Education needs to find out nationally how many hours of employee time this is taking and then look at how it can recompense schools on an ongoing basis,” says Bunker. “Talent 2 is not doing schools a favour by letting them provide free labour on its proprietary profit-making payroll system. School employees are not indentured servants to Novopay.”
NZEI national secretary Paul Goulter says primary principals are now going to start invoicing the Ministry for thousands of hours of wasted time. Goulter told italNewstalk ZB*** that it is not just costing money but also costing valuable time spent in front of children improving teaching and learning.
Whether the Ministry will do as the unions wish is another story. Associate Minister of Education Craig Foss says the Ministry had not decided if it would compensate schools or teachers for the costs involved with mistakes on the Novopay system.
However, Longstone indicated that the Ministry would “provide support as appropriate” for schools suffering additional audit costs related to the introduction of the new system.
According to Ministry Group Manager Rebecca Elvy, the situation is improving. “We’ve gone from a priority backlog of almost 8,000 a month ago to just over 600. I expect that remaining number to be cleared within the next couple of days.When that backlog is cleared, the processing centre will begin work on salary assessments and overpayments,” says Elvy.
The Ministry started releasing daily Novopay updates to keep schools informed on progress reports from the Novopay progressing centre.
With the end of the school year looming, the Ministry and Talent 2 are making it a priority to get Christmas pay correct.
Until recently, Talent 2 remained strangely quiet throughout the whole debacle, offering a rather belated apology for “any inconvenience”. No real explanation was given other than “inevitable teething issues”.
A further apology from Talent2 Group CEO, John Rawlinson, was published in the December 10 issue of italEducation Gazette***, in which Rawlinson offered a more heartfelt response and qualified Talent2’s earlier apology:
“I have spoken to stakeholder groups and a number of individuals, and I truly believe that for many, Novopay has been a painful experience. For this we are sorry. You have our commitment that we will work hard to resolve the issues.
“In the week of 19 November, I had a number of media interviews. The main message I wanted to convey was that we understood the issues that Novopay had caused and that we were sorry.
“I am disappointed that some of my comments have distracted from the main issue of getting the system right. Talent2 is doing everything we can to ensure every payroll is processed easily and trouble-free.”
However, apologies, explanations, and attempts to rectify the problems will not escape the scrutiny of an independent review of the Novopay payroll project. Associate Education Minister Craig Foss welcomes the review, which will begin early next year.
“While the Ministry of Education’s new payroll project is still in its early stages, the number of issues resulting from the payroll transition has been unacceptable. The review will be comprehensive and thorough,” says Foss.
The last straw?
Elvy says the Ministry shares schools’ disappointment and is working hard to rectify the situation, but is the Novopay debacle one mistake too many for schools? The Ministry of Education’s actions this year – the proposed teacher cuts, increased class sizes, and Christchurch school mergers and closures – have left many schools feeling frustrated. Perhaps in isolation, the implementation of a botched payroll system might have been forgiven, but in the context of so many Ministry decisions that have left the sector feeling rankled, it appears to be the bitter icing on a bitter cake.
Auckland Primary Principals' Association president Jill Corkin said members were being encouraged not to undertake any new initiatives with the Ministry as a result.
“The reason for that is just the excruciating workload that Novopay is presenting and the pressure and stress that it's causing because we just can't see that we can take anything else on until we can sort it out,” she told Radio New Zealand.
Given the sector’s hostility towards it on the Novopay issue, the Ministry is understandably anxious to resolve the problem and says it is treating it as a priority. “We're focusing on making sure Novopay is implemented and operating correctly, as intended and as contracted to with Talent2,” says Foss.
The fallout from the Novopay fray appears to be settling, but it will leave another battle scar on New Zealand schools. When one considers the costs involved – in developing and implementing the system, in rolling out the training roadshows, in the likely compensation of staff – it seems wasteful in the face of so many other needs for New Zealand education. As principal of Otorohanga South School, Shawn Gielen, says below, “One of the Ministry's goals is to reduce compliance and unnecessary administration – FAILED – you do not meet the standard!”
Schools Speak Up^^^
Firth Primary School, Matamata: Principal, James Eldridge
If not so serious, you would laugh! I have a teacher aide who I regrettably could not employ for this term. She is now working some hours in another local school. I phoned Novopay to complain that $198 had unnecessarily come out of our school account. I was told it appears she has been paid $1513 per hour â”€ instead of $15.13! Novopay were going to investigate and get back to us. This was for a pay period ending 16/10.
“The lady concerned called in to see us with a pay slip in hand. Instead of having no pay for the first week of term 4, she received a payment of $18,143.71 with GST of $8534.59. Total over $26k was paid out of somewhere luckily not our school account.
“To add to this poor woman’s situation, she has no pay in her new job for six weeks. Regardless, she is extremely honest and wants the extra money gone.
“I have since learnt our neighbours at Matamata Primary have lost the money. Primary put in to pay 17.5 hours at $15.13 and she got 17.5 at $1513! Sadly, still not resolved.
“I still have three unresolved issues at the moment. Teacher Aides overpaid, banked staffing incorrect, and extra money lost out of bulk grant!”
Gladstone School, Mt Albert, Auckland: Executive Officer, Judith Howe
“I liken using the Novopay system to being treated like a dog. Just when the light dawns on a way around a problem, or the correct action to take, the next problem on the same subject occurs. One step forward, two steps back. Being an optimist, I fully believed that each time a NOVO…. Form was sent to Novopay via the email system that it would be actioned. That is but a dream very often. The backlog for the first pay in term 4 was ridiculous. I sent instructions for the many staff changes three weeks ahead, but none of them were actioned until the last day in October, some five weeks later. One cannot send an instruction without receiving TWO reference numbers, and then we must check up on every request that it has, in fact, happened. There should be room for some trust, some faith in the system. When it is a large school, with lots of changes/events involving Novopay, it is tiresome and very, very time consuming checking on every instruction.
“When things looked as if they were improving, with backlog requests reducing in the October pay periods, along comes new errors on 31 October. For our school, this included paying two staff not out of our school’s pay as should have happened but via another school where they also work part-time. The bulk timesheet was sent by us, not by them! They also decided to play with fire and for the first time short paid an allowance to the principal. Now that is getting personal and close to the bone.
“Do we like Novopay? Not so far. Have we received adequate service? In no way, shape, or form. Is there anything positive to say about them? Not at this stage, sorry. I have no confidence. The features that seemed appealing that we are promised (such as changing personal details of bank accounts, tax codes, email addresses, etc.) are still a carrot in the air.
“A positive comment to say about Novopay: out of the approximate 10 various people I have talked to at the Help Desk over time, at least three of them have been helpful, knowledgeable/trained, and pleasant to talk to!”
<<<Otorohanga South School: Principal, Shawn Gielen
“This is just one of MANY errors and issues we have experienced with my 43 staff on payroll:
“I employed a new staff member with a start date of (24 Sept) who we wrote a cheque out for, as her first pay was missed due to her forms not being processed in time despite being sent in within the required deadline and now AGAIN she won’t be paid! This means her first pay from payroll – at best – will be the 14th of Nov. What a joke – but no one’s laughing.
“The form clearly has '52 week worker' ticked, and they have her listed as a 'timesheet only' employee, and as no timesheets have been entered, she will not get paid again!
“I rang Novopayn for answers, and after the seven minute wait, the person said we had to fill in a Novo31 form to register an error–- we have already emailed the error and had a reply. I asked why I need to register it again and she said that they needed to research what the error is. I replied that I knew what it was as we had received an email stating this. I shared that email and then she requested a thousand various reference numbers for every form and query we sent known to man.
I asked ‘will this employee get paid this Wednesday?’‘No’ was the reply. Well, that was a fat waste of time. You would have thought someone who was at risk of missing two pays in a row would have been prioritised – not so.
“And then to add to the sweetness of it all, I have the auditor's words ringing in my ears that paying staff directly from our cheque account and having them reimburse us once they have been been paid is poor practice and should be avoided at all costs! Well, tell that to Novopayn!
“I have zero faith in this farcical payroll system!
“I have provided a separate office for my administrator to be able to go and deal solely with payroll issues one day a week. Obviously, that has meant employing other staff to cover duties on this day.
“I do expect a few teething problems with a new system, but this is unacceptable. My staff should not have to deal with the stress of colleagues not receiving their income.
“We received the first newsletter from Novopayn in February 2009 stating their intention to roll it out in May 2010. Here we are now and what a debacle. You would have thought three and a half years would be enough time to get something close to right. Not so.
“So much for working in an increasingly streamlined digital world as we revert back to writing out cheques to pay staff directly.
“One of the Ministry's goals is to reduce compliance and unnecessary administration – FAILED – you do not meet the standard!”
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