Singing from the Novopay songbook

TALKING POLITICS BY GORDON CAMPBELL
Last updated 16:16 04/02/2013

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OPINION: Rarely have so many sung from the same songbook over as big a fiasco.

Finance Minister Bill English conceded last week that "in hindsight" things might have been done differently with the Novopay system.

Within minutes, Associate Education Minister Craig Foss said that "with the benefit of hindsight" the Novopay system could be criticised, but that he had acted on the best advice available.

Almost simultaneously, Education Minister Hekia Parata told reporters that "hindsight is a wonderful thing", but that she, too, had acted on the best advice available.

Had these three ministers who signed off the Novopay deal agreed among themselves that self-preservation required them to (a) blame their critics for being wise only after the fact and (b) blame their officials for allegedly misleading them?

With hindsight, it certainly looked that way.

The credibility problem is that their strategy contained almost as many flaws as the Novopay system itself.

Papers released last week under the Official Information Act indicated that far from being mindless boosters of the Novopay system, Ministry of Education officials had engaged in a two-year battle with Talent 2 (the Novopay providers) and had almost scrapped the system entirely four months before it went live last August.

In June 2012, the ministry produced an internal report listing 147 software defects and identifying nearly 6000 errors with the system.

Such were the concerns that officials began discussions with Datacom, the previous pay system provider, but those talks never came - or were never allowed to come - to fruition.

As the deadline loomed, then Education secretary Lesley Longstone and her deputy, Anne Jackson, reportedly advised Talent 2 that four essential deadlines had not been met by the company, thereby allegedly putting Talent 2 in breach of its contract.

In sum, it is hard to see how that paper trail supports an argument that Cabinet Ministers were being misled by wildly enthusiastic officials.

It looks more like the officials were ultimately told by their ministers to go away and make the system work, regardless.

Now, those officials are being cast as scapegoats.

It is easy to see why Parata's recent "karma" joke went down so badly in education circles.

Having flagged the problems beforehand and striven afterwards to make Novopay work, the officials found their own pay packets were going haywire.

Rather than sympathise, Parata chose to publicly express her satisfaction at their plight.

After all, had they carried out their prime duty - ie, to save her from political embarrassment? Plainly not. (Yet again, Parata's inadequacies as a leader and communicator have been self-exposed.)

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Ironically, by the end of the week, the government had reportedly restarted discussions with Datacom, apparently to sort out the software faults in Talent 2's system.

As of early January, teachers were owed nearly $12 million by Novopay.

Luckily for the government, all this got overshadowed last week by the coverage afforded to the death of someone who could communicate with the public: namely, television/radio presenter, print columnist and women's magazines staple throughout the 1990s, Sir Paul Holmes.

We won't see his like again, partly because the TVNZ market dominance that launched his professional skills and personal foibles to almost North Korean levels of exposure is now a thing of the past.

- Fairfax Media

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