Pay shambles for teachers a failure of accountability

When I worked as a part-time itinerant music teacher back in the 1980s and 90s, I was a payroll officer's nightmare. I was employed by various schools in the region for just two or three hours a week. Then, as I became more qualified and experienced, my salary rose in small increments that were sometimes difficult for the education bureaucrats to track. And schools would then occasionally add or subtract my hours, depending on demand.

Back in those days, if a teacher had a payment problem, you could actually ring, or even visit, the person who paid you. If you contacted these bureaucrats - men dressed in walk shorts and short-sleeved shirts or women dressed in trouser suits - they would take your file, patiently make note of any changes and the problem would be solved in a few days at most. And best of all, you had a name and a number of an accountable human being if something went wrong.

These Ken Quangos and Penny Pushers of the old Education Board were part of the ''bloated'' and ''inefficient'' public service that Bill English has worked hard at eliminating, in order to have more ''frontline staff''.

Today, government payroll duties have been outsourced and a competitive tender process has selected highly efficient international companies.

Yeah right. Novopay, a subsidiary of Australian-based Talent2, now pays, or doesn't pay, the nation's teachers.

According to the company's website, Talent2 has a payroll solution that is ''easy to implement, efficient and low cost to run, risk free, offers you the peace of mind of local support and a disaster recovery back-up!''

Try telling the teachers of New Zealand that. In less than 12 inefficient weeks, Novopay has become the Jetstar of the payroll industry. I suspect the company would  deliver dog-roll better than payroll. So numerous have been the cock-ups that it will be front-page news when Novopay gets it right rather than wrong.

What amazes me is teachers have taken no industrial action.

Try employing tradesmen after your last cheque bounced and they'll walk off the job until they get paid. And fair enough too.

Yet our teachers have patiently worked through their pay problems, while continuing to teach. One school's administration has reportedly been spending two expensive days a week sorting out Novopay problems. Hands up all those who still think outsourcing is the answer.

These are the same teachers who are told by neo-liberals that they are failing a ''tail'', need constant monitoring through National Standards and are so lazy the only way they'll get results is to be subjected to performance pay.

Can you imagine the debacle performance pay would be if Novopay were within a million miles of it?

To be fair, there are more than 90,000 teachers and support staff to be paid each fortnight, so surely mistakes are inevitable when switching to a new system?

Perhaps, but the country's thousands of beneficiaries seem to be paid correctly, as do many other government and private employees.

From what little I know about IT, when most companies implement a new system, they carry out extensive testing after coding is done. They don't just ''roll it out'' untested. Did this happen with Novopay? I suspect the rush to make deadlines, probably because there was a big payment due once the system went into operation, was part of the problem.

But could the debacle have been due not just to the incompetence of Novopay, but the Education Ministry as well? Possibly.

When Hekia Parata decided to close Christchurch schools, the data her ministry provided was woeful, with phantom rolls and buildings appearing out of nowhere. Even the best payroll system in the world will fail if the data that is being inputted is faulty.

So rather than just blaming the Novopay contractors, as the Government is doing at present, I look forward to the ministers involved taking some real action, such as enacting penalty clauses and withholding payment if targets aren't met.

After all, it's our millions of dollars that are being wasted here. And he who Novopays the piper calls the tune.

The Dominion Post