'Omnishambles' describes Novopay perfectly

Last updated 11:49 10/02/2013

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Back in November, "omnishambles" was named Word of the Year by the Oxford English Dictionary. A few days later John Rawlinson, chief executive of Talent2, was in New Zealand to apologise for Novopay.

"We pride ourselves on getting things right ," he added, without a trace of irony.

Around the same time, the education ministry decided to restructure its payroll services unit. All this as thousands of errors have continued to cause school staff to miss out on wages, fortnight after fortnight.

Omnishambles is a neologism coined by the writers of BBC political satire The Thick of It to describe a situation shambolic from every possible angle.

Here it crossed over from fiction to reality some time in 2012, when Ministry of Education officials decided to blithely press on with the chaotic payroll system despite a catalogue of errors and missed deadlines that would have sent most private-sector businesses hurtling into their lawyer's office, screeching breach of contract.

The roots of the problem go back to 2005, when a deal was struck with Talent2 to replace the ageing Datacom payroll system. Both sides hopelessly underestimated the complexity of the system. Teachers were used to a more flexible system; Novopay didn't have the capacity for this.

It was a train wreck waiting to happen. Technological flaws and an incompatibility between the system and how the education sector works led to missed deadlines. The ministry sent increasingly angry letters and, it appears, Talent2, realising the contract was no longer a money- spinner, got cold feet. It threatened to scale back the project in 2011.

By 2012, both sides were in too deep. (Incidentally, last year wasn't a good year for Talent 2. It's share price fell by 67 per cent - and it was delisted from the Australian Stock Exchange.)

Ministry managers investigated dumping Novopay or adopting a hybrid of the old and new payroll systems. But, with the threat of legal action from Talent2 and the wrath of their political masters hanging over them, it was deemed "unpalatable" to ditch Novopay. Incredibly, the system got the green light from ministers two months later and, by August, Novopay was live.

Obvious questions loom large. Were ministers told the extent of Novopay's woes? The final report - recommending sign-off - suggests not. But Associate Education Minister Craig Foss was receiving regular verbal briefings. Education Minister Hekia Parata's sister Apryll is a deputy secretary. This week, with her particular brand of obfuscation, Parata would only say ministers got a "range of advice".

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It's safe to assume the Government wouldn't have ordered a ministerial inquiry if it had too much to worry about. And officials - particularly in education - are National's preferred whipping boys.

The Government is preparing the ground for officials to take the rap. But, ultimately, this omnishambles must be seen against the backdrop of cost- slashing and downsizing in the public service - officials ignored the warning signs to deliver a cheaper system.

- Sunday Star Times

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