Service Design Network
Author - Service Design Network

In 2016 the Canadian federal government introduced a new pay system, called Phoenix. The system was meant to be automated and cost-effective, saving the government millions of dollars a year. Instead, what transpired is described as the most serious pay debacle in Canadian history and an “incomprehensible failure” by the Canadian auditor general. While the federal government exists in its current state of transition – waiting for a new system and unable to go back to the old one – individual departments throughout the federal government are designing their own band-aid solutions to support employees.

Service Design Award 2020/21 Finalist Project

Design in a Crisis: Rescuing the Pay Experience for Federal Government Employees - by PwC

Category: Professional Non-Profit/Public Sector

Client: Shared Service Canada Government of Canada

Location: Canada


As of the beginning of 2020, the Phoenix pay system still had not been replaced. A 2019 employee survey of federal public servants estimated that about 72% of Canada’s 273,000 federal government employees have been impacted by the failure of the system through underpayments, over-payments, and non-payments. The Standing Committee on National Finance estimates that the cost to taxpayers to fix Phoenix's problems could reach a total of $2.2 billion by 20234.

As the government scrambles to design a new system and replace the failed platform, hundreds of thousands of federal employees continue to feel the impact. At the peak, the government had over 260,000 Phoenix-related pay issues in its backlog. The severity of some of the issues, the complexity of the problems, and the volume of affected users continues to mean that individual employee issues are not getting resolved in a timely manner. While the federal government continues to exist in its current state of transition – waiting for a new system and unable to go back to the old one – individual departments throughout the federal government are designing their own band-aid solutions to support their employees.

One such department was “Department-X” – a 8,000+ person organization responsible for delivering shared technology services to all other departments of the Canadian federal government. As of early 2019, Department-X had an average of 51% of employees with active pay-related issues and an average of 10,000 unresolved pay issues in its departmental backlog. In absence of a government-wide solution, senior leadership within Department-X came together to find a way to more proactively support departmental employees. They engaged “the Design Company” and together both teams initiated the first efforts to personalize and design a client-focused approach to pay issue resolution. The goal was to design a brand-new service offering to support Department-X employees experiencing pay issues, increase issue resolution and transparency, decrease time to resolution, and improve employee satisfaction.


Because of the sensitivity and urgency of the issue, from the beginning the Design Company worked in a paired-up model with the Department-X team using a series of co-creation workshops and collaborative activities throughout each of the stages outlined below.

Stage 1: Discover and Define

Our process started by conducting a series of activities to understand the true scope, scale, and impact of pay issues for Department-X employees. We facilitated workshops with current pay service employees and pay experts to understand the complex processes that were in place to deal with pay issues. We created process maps and identified all of the actors that touched the existing processes, prioritizing the actors (servicer deliverers and service recipients) that played a primary role. We then conducted a series of 23 interviews with people who represented the prioritized actors to understand their experiences and perceptions of the current process, where they experienced the biggest barriers and why, and what their biggest needs were in navigating the pay issue resolution process.

We then facilitated a series of co-creation workshops to build personas for the prioritized actors and create journey maps highlighting the key moments in their current experience. We used these persona-specific journey maps to highlight the most significant pain points, and develop root cause problem statements that outlined the goals and barriers for each pain point. Through this activity we were able to define over 60 root cause problems that were important to solve in the new service offering.

Next came the important task of evaluating and prioritizing the list of 60 problems to focus on the problems MOST worth solving. To do this, we defined a set of evaluation criteria that would form the basis of all prioritization activities for the remainder of the project. We defined 3 internal criteria and 3 external criteria that reflected the most critical aspects of a good pay service experience for users:


  • Would this increase transparency for clients?
  • Would this decrease the level of uncertainty for clients?
  • Would this improve response time for clients?


  • Would this help employees be more efficient?
  • Would this help employees be more effective?
  • Would this help employees feel more empowered to own solutions?

We took this ‘inward’ and ‘outward’ facing approach, because we know that a positive employee experience correlates directly to a high-performing customer experience; therefore, we engineered the design of the new service with this dual-perspective in mind.

With these evaluation criteria in place, we applied relative weightings to each one and then scored each of the 60 problems worth solving using a quantitative evaluation tool. The outputs of the tool enabled us to visually size and map the problems based on value to clients and value to delivery agents, as well as cluster adjacent problem statements into key themes. These themes became the problems MOST worth solving. This approach also helped us navigate potentially differing opinions about what problems should be the focus, providing a fact-based methodology for decision making and building alignment amongst diverse stakeholders.


  • Current state analysis of processes
  • User personas
  • Journey maps and pain points
  • Problem statements (problems worth solving)
  • Evaluation criteria
  • Prioritized problems MOST worth solving

Stage 2: Ideate

After prioritizing our problems MOST worth solving, we began developing solutions. In a second series of co-creation sessions, we used inspiration cards, brand tangoes, and out-of-category examples as inspiration for brainstorming multiple solutions to each problem. No idea was too big or too small to be considered. The goal was to get participants to think outside of what was feasible, and dream about the art of the possible. We also revisited the personas and journey maps to validate that the solutions would address the needs of users. Using this rapid brainstorming approach, we generated over 80 solutions.

We then revisited the six user-centric evaluation criteria and assessed each of the solutions using the same quantitative evaluation tool that we’d used to prioritize the problem statements. A handful of solutions emerged as the ones that would be most effective at delivering results for employees – both service deliverers and recipients. For each of these solutions, we then built solution canvases that allowed us to “stress test” the ideas.

The solution canvases provided additional detail about the user problems that they best solved, the value of the solution for Department-X and for clients, risks and barriers, potential metrics/KPIs, current and future stakeholders/groups to involve in delivery (and therefore in design), current state technology to leverage, and supporting processes/resources available from elsewhere in Department-X. This resulted in a one-page summary for each of the prioritized solutions, which were then run through a risk-assessment of their feasibility, based on value, cost, urgency, and effort.

Based on this analysis we identified the solution that we would explore and prototype in our upcoming design sprint. The remaining solutions fed an innovation pipeline retained by Department-X. The solution that became the focus of the design sprint was a ‘one-stop shop’ dedicated pay service desk, with a multi-level service delivery model to:

  • Provide employees direct access to knowledgeable compensation advisors
  • Manage intake, triage, and routing of cases
  • Provide issue resolution research and advisory


  • Solutions MOST worth pursuing
  • Solution canvases
  • Prioritized solutions based on risk assessment
  • Alignment on the solution to prototype

Stage 3: Design, Prototype, Test

To design and prototype our Pay Service Desk, we used an immersive design sprint. We first aligned on the parameters for the sprint, including the three focus use cases (general pay inquiries, transfers in/out of Department-X, performing in a temporary “acting” role involving a pay grade adjustment). This helped us align expectations and enable quick and focused progress through the sprint. Participants each week varied as we brought in relevant experts, real clients, service delivery employees, and the implementation team – all of whom were part of the design process.

The fully immersive 2-week sprint was divided into three parts:

Part 1: ‘Front of the House’ design

  • Creating a detailed map of what the end-to-end service should look like for users, across multiple interaction points and channels
  • We used sketches and storyboards, role play, outcome statements, and low fidelity prototypes to define the desired experience

Part 2: ‘Back of the House’ design

  • Validating the feasibility of the “front of house experience,” and creating a detailed map of the operational processes and associated technology platforms necessary to support the desired “front of house” experience, ensuring input from internal process, HR, and pay experts

Part 3: Prototype, test, revise

  • Translating the integrated “front of house” and “back of house” designs into a cohesive and feasible user flow and sample communications that would mimic the future state experience
  • We tested with 10 clients to understand whether the prototype addressed their needs and evaluate it on the three external evaluation criteria to understand potential impact – users indicated that the prototypes (if made real) would improve transparency by an average of 130%, would improve certainty by an average of 160%, and would improve timeliness of resolution by an average of 170%; all users unanimously agreed that the solution would represent a marked departure from their current experience


  • Service blueprint
  • Validated user flow and prototypes
  • Implementation requirements


The detailed outputs outlined above were simply the starting point. The real magic happened in implementation, when the prototypes and sample materials came to life. In our visual document we’ve included images and artifacts from the new Pay Service Desk in action – what clients are experiencing today. The implementation of this new service also included extensive planning, change management, employee training, and communications.


Prior to launch, the solution was presented to Department-X’s executive committee, where the President said, “we always talk about our employees being our greatest resource and investing in them, it’s great to see this is happening and it will make a great difference.”
The brand-new Pay Service Desk launched in October of 2020 and in its first four weeks has seen incredible results. The service is receiving approximately 250 requests per week (an increase of 70%), with a 45% issue resolution rate within the Pay Service Desk process. The average time to resolution is now 5 days – a remarkable new service standard.

Only 30% of requests are now escalated to other government-wide pay operations teams, reducing the burden of their backlogs by 70% and increasing their teams’ capacity by more than two-thirds (to deal with pay issues from other departments). In addition, the calls relating to pay issues that were previously routing through the general HR Service Desk (accounting for nearly 70% of its call intake) are now routed directly to the new Pay Service Desk. Not only has this reduced handover times and wait times for clients it has also created 70% more capacity for the general HR Service Desk to focus on its core business – human resource requests.

We’ve also heard directly from employees, with clients raving about the impact to their experience saying, “Wow this is incredible – this was with Phoenix for 3 years and the pay desk fixed it in less than two weeks!,” and, “you’ve accomplished in days what a lot of other groups couldn’t in months,” and “…your staff are not just solving problems and finding missing years, they are removing some major stress from our lives,” and “my thanks to your team for their dedication and hard work on behalf of SSC employees who seemingly have nowhere else to turn to for much needed assistance with their pay issues.”

We’ve also seen significant impact to employees delivering the service, with feedback including, “we really are making a difference in employee’s lives - one case at a time,” and, “since joining the team…I think we have already accomplished quite a bit even in just the last 3-4 weeks and it’s awesome to see how far we’ve come already.”

A change impact assessment was conducted by the Department-X change management lead, identifying a highly engaged workforce, with an average of 95% committed to supporting the change needed for the success of the new Pay Service Desk. These measures of change adoption and engagement demonstrate the near unanimous buy-in of those impacted by the change.

At the time of this submission, a satisfaction survey was in draft, with plans to release it 2 months post launch. The survey is designed to assess the impact of the new service against the six evaluation criteria defined at the very beginning of the project – transparency, certainty, response time, efficiency, effectiveness, and empowerment. Based on both the operational measures above, and the qualitative feedback we’ve received so far, we’re confident that the survey results will demonstrate the intended impact of the new service. The early pulse on client and pay advisor testimonials signal a positive experience on both sides of the house.


As Department-X took on the implementation and change management efforts for delivering the new Pay Service Desk, the world was hit by Covid-19. The choice was made to move ahead with launching the service during the pandemic to demonstrate investment to the organization’s 8,000 now virtual employees. The launch of the Pay Service Desk was a tangible way that Department-X could demonstrate that they were delivering their promise to engage, empower, and enable their employees. Leadership emphasized the importance of working with employees to get the new service right and invited continued collaboration with employees to ensure user input while fine-tuning processes.

The services offered thorough the Pay Service Desk will gradually expand over the coming months to include additional pay-related inquiries beyond the original three use cases.

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