back to article Leaked email: Unit4 ERP system leaves some school staff with 'nil pay'

After schools in Surrey, England, went live on a new £30 million HR, payroll and finance system, the responsible county council is being forced to prioritize support calls for problems that are delaying staff pay. According to a note sent by Surrey County Council's service desk – seen by The Register – it confirms issues that …

  1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    Spokespeak translation

    The Council has apologized for "any inconvenience to employees and schools."

    apologized: couldn't help acknowledging it happened

    inconvenience: the complete havoc we wreaked

  2. elsergiovolador Silver badge

    Language

    Some level of disruption was expected throughout such a fundamental transition to a new system, but we are sorry for any inconvenience to employees and schools adversely affected; our primary focus has always been the welfare of our staff as we resolve any errors, and we are grateful for their efforts and patience as we work through these issues,

    Expected disruption as an excuse for major blunders, a token 'sorry' for show, vague assurances about caring for staff, and a pat on the back for 'patience' with their mess.

    Seems to me like PR person wasn't paid either...

    1. CrazyOldCatMan Silver badge

      Re: Language

      vague assurances about caring for staff, and a pat on the back for 'patience' with their mess

      And promotions for the PM/team leader/manager involved.[1]

      Got to be seen to be a success - perception is everything!

      [1] Many years ago at a certain bat-winged purveyor of cellular base stations, they put in, at great cost, a factory management/ERP system. After many failed attempts to implement it, they eventually managed to get the 'factory management and parts management' of it into production. But, sadly, not the bit that actually handled the shipping of the final product. It either had to just sit in the shipping warehouse or, at vast expense, be shipped manually to the customer. The PM and manager involved all got payrises and big pats on the back for a 'project well-delivered'. Mind you, BWPoCBS was renowned for never sacking managers - instead they just got promoted to a role that lacked any ability to actually do any damage (AKA 'Special Projects Director' that had one intern reporting to them and sat all day in their office with nothing to do other than contemplate their over-full pay packet)

      1. cat_mara

        Re: Language

        “An ERP rollout can never fail, it can only be failed”

  3. heyrick Silver badge
    Flame

    or has left the individual in serious financial hardshipa

    They're teachers, teaching assistants, etc.

    That a single pay screwup has this effect suggests there's a far greater problem than a misbehaving computer.

    Maybe, you know, piss away a little less on the fancy IT and pay the staff a little better?

    1. cyberdemon Silver badge
      Devil

      Re: or has left the individual in serious financial hardshipa

      Clearly these so called "teachers" have all squirreled away the cash and should be duly prosecuted for Fraud, False Accounting etc. Everyone knows that Unit4BusinessWorld™ is completely fool proof, bomb proof, bug proof etc. It's like Fort Knox. There's no way that the money could not have been paid..

  4. Richard Tobin

    Compensation?

    Will they be compensating people who have been charged for overdrafts and missed payments because of this?

    1. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge

      Re: Compensation?

      And the damage to their credit rating that goes with it? Thought not.

    2. JimboSmith Silver badge

      Re: Compensation?

      When a company I worked for had a pay snafu, our manager called an emergency meeting at 9am that day, which was payday. He wasn’t affected but people lower than his paygrade were and he wasn’t happy. He said that the problem had been investigated and the cause found, to our general amazement. He said the director of the division would like to speak to everyone at lunchtime (another meeting) and that if we could demonstrate a loss (fine/charge for late payment of something etc.) the company would cough up for it. The director turned up bang on 1pm, apologised for the cockup, said he’d banged heads together quite hard and everything would be fixed by lunchtime the next day at the latest. If it wasn’t then the relevant people would come and explain why it wasn’t and would apologise in person themselves.

      Repeated what the manager said about covering fines etc. However went on to say if you needed money now, (mortgages, rent, large credit card bill etc.) he’d have the finance division write a cheque immediately and you could have the time off to go to the bank to pay it in. Said he’d come in at 6:30am that morning to start looking into what went wrong along with other relevant people. We agreed afterwards that this was the textbook example of how to handle this hopefully very rare type of event.

      When we had gotten in that morning, there were some seriously pissed off people and by lunchtime everyone was far happier and confident that they would be looked after.

  5. Mike Pellatt

    They have form

    This is the same council that, in 1997/8, decided it didn't need a new corporate HQ but could stay in County Hall (no longer in the county) and reconfigure the office space there, take on 4 hub office buildings across the county, and do hot-desking.

    Small problem, they didn't realise the listing status of the building made the reconfiguration unworkable. And hot desking couldn't work as Highways, Education and Social Services were all on separate networks. Whoops. (I was a councillor, not in the majority party, at the time)

    It took them another 20+ years to finally relocate into the county, as recommended by the outgoing administration in 1997.

    And they got in a hotshot head of IT who had some weird "dialtone service" slogan for IT.

  6. Pascal Monett Silver badge
    Mushroom

    An inconvenience ?

    So not getting your monthly salary is an inconvenience ?

    Let me educate you on what an inconvenience is :

    An inconvenience is when I go to the supermarket to get Appenzel for my cheese fondue and they don't have any.

    An inconvenience is when I want to go to a traffic website and their cameras are down.

    An inconvenience is when my alarm clock is set for 5:45 and my intestines wake up at 5:20.

    THOSE are inconveniences.

    Not getting paid at the end of the month is NOT an inconvenience, it's a bloody catastrophe.

    It's hours talking to the bank, trying to avoid getting redlisted on credit bills, getting angry letters from another fucking administration threatening you because your monthly payment did not go through.

    An inconvenience. Really.

    I wish all those at the head of that county council would not get paid until this whole sorry mess is resolved.

    THEN they might understand what the word inconvenience means.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: An inconvenience ?

      Jesus wept! You seemingly work in IT and live hand to mouth? I’ll admit it would be annoying, but for someone who is in a well paid job it’s just bad planning on your part.

      I’d be far more upset about the ruined cheese fondue.

      1. Random person

        Re: An inconvenience ?

        It is more than an inconvenience to withdraw money out of your savings to cover your outgoings because you employer has not managed to pay you.

        > By law (Employment Rights Act 1996), your employer must pay your wages on your agreed pay day.

        >

        > If an employer does not pay on time, it can:

        > * affect an employee's financial security and wellbeing

        > * damage the working relationship

        > * lead to legal action

        https://www.acas.org.uk/if-your-wages-are-not-paid

        There can be many reasons why somebody might not have a spare month's salary available to cover their employer's error.

        Finally it appears that this isn't the first month that this problem has occured, from the article.

        > The Register asked the council why it was necessary to create a group for very serious problems which might leave staff struggling for day to day money, and how many service desk calls were placed in this group in the last three months.

      2. Richard 12 Silver badge
        FAIL

        Re: An inconvenience ?

        Most of the people affected are minimum wage (or close to), and will be absolutely ****ed by this.

        The TA who helps my child at school does not have a large buffer. The teacher probably doesn't either.

        I'd also remind you that even relatively well-off people do not keep a large reserve in their current account.

        Even if you do have the net reserves, being paid late can easily put you overdrawn or miss direct debits if it takes "3 working days" to transfer money out of your savings account - which sometimes it does, without warning.

        Not to mention the loss of interest and penalties often incurred by moving money out of a savings account.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: An inconvenience ?

          I know for a solid fact that the front line staff here would have pitchforks, torches, and sturdy rope for the people who screwed up payroll, for exactly the reasons mentioned above.

          Hence, when we make even small changes to how payroll works around here, it's a major event with lots of communication before, during, and after.

      3. Snapper

        Re: An inconvenience ?

        ODFO!

        With k.n.o.b.s on!

      4. J.G.Harston Silver badge

        Re: An inconvenience ?

        "IT" and "well-paid job" in (almost) the same sentence?!?!?!?!? Excuse me while my sides split.

      5. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: An inconvenience ?

        You seem to be making some major assumptions about this person's personal circumstances. 78% of single parents have less than £1,500 savings, or none (ONS family resources survey, 2021-2022). After the most brutal cost of living shock in many decades, those figures won't look better now. All it takes is your partner dying and you're in that group - there but for the grace of god etc.

        On a wider basis, 47% of all households in the UK have £1,500 or less in savings. I think it's safe to assume some of those work in IT, where jobs tend to be pretty well paid, but certainly not for every role.

        In any case, this article is about school employees. Teaching Assistants earn £12k per annum on average, and I'd imagine single parents are overrepresented, because it's one of the few jobs that works well from a childcare perspective. Good luck saving on that. I imagine some of them might be looking for an exit into a better paid job, by reading a free IT publication.

      6. Casca Silver badge

        Re: An inconvenience ?

        Who said that the people affected is well paid?

      7. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge
        Facepalm

        Re: You seemingly work in IT and live hand to mouth?

        Hard to believe anyone could miss the point quite this badly. But here it is.

  7. Paul 87

    IT service providers need to start carrying financial penalties as well for any software screwups, even if they're end-user driven ones. It'll reduce the likelyhood that anyone gets to "go live" without appropriate system testing, including potentially dual-entry and ensuring that the new software is actually fit for purpose, and that staff understand what the new system does and why.

    Too many of these systems go into companies and local authorities without either side understanding each other.

    1. FirstTangoInParis Bronze badge

      What is it with payroll systems and go live fiascos? A new system for a very large government department went live and behold there was a screwup of biblical proportions. People got paid nothing or a years pay or someone else’s pay.

      Having done payroll calculations for just one employee, I know it’s very fiddly but once you get your head round it it’s not a major faff. But why are they not running a parallel payroll for a couple months before being allowed to go live?

      1. Richard 12 Silver badge

        No error checking at all, it seems

        Most people get paid roughly the same amount every pay period, only changing for obvious reasons. Even those on zero-hour contracts generally only vary much for holidays and manager revenge.

        So any significant difference between this payslip and the previous one is suspicious and needs explaining.

        Of course, the real issue is usually that there's no consequences for failure, but huge bonuses for success. It is hard to get someone to understand something when their bonus depends on them not understanding it.

      2. Christoph

        But it's hardly their fault that they have trouble with such a new and unconventional function as computerised payroll. I mean it's not as if running payroll went all the way back to the very first ever commercial use of computing and should have been totally sorted many decades ago?

      3. elsergiovolador Silver badge

        What is it with payroll systems and go live fiascos?

        My guess is that contracted consultancy probably hires cheapest workers they can get, which means they barely understand what they are doing if at all. I mean those people just sit by the computer and "do nothing" so why pay them a lot. Why upset shareholders?

        That, and the second issue is that there is most likely no penalties of any meaningful kind. Public sector got accustomed that these businesses charge fortune and deliver little. It's considered "normal".

        1. CrazyOldCatMan Silver badge

          Public sector got accustomed that these businesses charge fortune and deliver little

          We always have service credit penalties written into the contracts (we are not allowed to call it 'monetary penalties'). At least one outsourcer has withdrawn from the contract (and paid the termination fee) because the service credits that they owed us were higher than the remaining potential income from the contract..

          (You are only allow a certain percentage per-month but when they fail the KPIs month after month, those service credits build up..)

    2. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge

      IT service providers need to start carrying financial penalties

      Agreed, but it is up to the contracting body to put those into the contract. Usually that body is too incompetent to do that. Often they can't even spec the project properly.

      And contracting bodies who include such penalty clauses might find no one bids for their work.

      Sure, you might say "legislate that every software project must be delivered error free, and the suppliers are liable for any defects". That could either kill all external development entirely, or the courts would be even more clogged than they are now. It's a complete fallacy to suggest that anything but the simplest hello world software can be guaranteed to be bug free. Even with extensive testing.

  8. david 12 Silver badge

    Software is not "the easy part" of systems.

    People expect software to be "the easy part". Even to me, it looks easy -- it's just a program to do some fairly simple stuff. Not rocket science or brain surgery.

    But experience teaches us that big software projects are really difficult

    1. JamesTGrant

      Re: Software is not "the easy part" of systems.

      I think badly run projects go badly. Why do ERP projects have a poor reputation? I think because they are relatively ‘one-off’ per organisation per generation, they tend to require indepth knowledge about every role in the organisation and often large organisations have no one group that understands what and how the organisation does/runs, and every user is a stakeholder but not every user is considered or even included in testing.

      Then, the project is generally outsourced to an integration partner who are looking to get the thing signed off as fast as possible for a fee and don’t share the same motivations and pains as the organisation that is receiving the ERP. Often the ‘project completion’ criteria are fine grained but rather miss the point of the bigger picture. Often the organisation holds its nose and ‘goes live’ because the prospect of continuing to spend money on the project is deemed too unpalatable, and the ‘scream test’ step is missed - leading to screaming and weeping for a while after launch until the organisation muddles through (usual) or goes bust. Either way it often ends up looking like a financial disaster. And inflicts misery on all the end users.

      1. Mike Pellatt

        Re: Software is not "the easy part" of systems.

        I think you just described Horizon down to a tee there.....

  9. Denarius Silver badge

    root cause

    Is it possible that modern "hiring processes" have a strong bias employ to skilled BS artists as they pass the buzzword bingo AI and string search systems use to select candidates ? This implies actual competency is irrelevant

    1. theOtherJT Silver badge

      Re: root cause

      It's possible, but I'm not sure it's "Modern". Trying to hire for complicated jobs while offering utterly insufficient amounts of money has been producing shitty candidates since basically forever.

  10. cantankerous swineherd

    am I alone in detecting a correlation between "new SAP system" and "complete waste of public money"?

    furthermore, is it conceivable that there is a causal connection between these two events?

    if so, why would a public body spaff money up the wall unless they had some other motive?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      A tender this size would have had to go through EU procurement rules, and they favour incumbents with a track record of bidding for and delivering projects. Not necessarily delivering them well. But the barriers for new entrants are very high.

      You have to have a legitimate reason for not choosing a vendor. If you don't, you risk being sued, even if (perhaps especially if) you are public sector.

      1. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge
        WTF?

        You have to have a legitimate reason for not choosing a vendor

        Say what!?!

        The client can choose whoever the fuck they like. For public bodies, the tender and acceptance process is supposed to be transparent, documented, and provide value for money. That's it. If they don't feel the encumbent is value for money, or will do they job well enough, they're under no obligation to use them again.

        Sure, the encumbent might sue. Seems to be standard toys-out-the-pram practice these days, and the supplied often has more money and lawyers than the client. But if the reasons for non-selection are genuine, it'll get thrown out.

      2. khjohansen

        You can't blame the EU for this ...

        It's been FOUR YEARS now - I know it's a knee-jerk reaction to blame EU, but THIS must be British Bureaucracy!

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: You can't blame the EU for this ...

          EU procurement rules only ceased to apply in the UK in 2021 and this contract was awarded in 2020, under the EU procurement process: https://ted.europa.eu/EN/notice/-/detail/440857-2020

    2. jmch Silver badge
      Facepalm

      "am I alone in detecting a correlation between "new SAP system" and "complete waste of public money"?"

      Probably not, but this article is about Unit4 not SAP

  11. Potemkine! Silver badge

    Are software managing payroll something that new that it needs so much debugging and is so much unreliable?

    Oh, I get it, there's AI in it, right?

  12. johnB

    It's payroll, for god's sake!

    Payroll is just about the most basic business IT system you can get. It's been done "on the computer" since the 1960's.

    How on earth did these jokers get something that simple wrong?

    And would you now trust them to be able to do anything???

  13. breakfast Silver badge

    Picking numbers out of the air here but...

    Supposing that we have £3.9 million to spend over four years. Do we think a payroll system like this could be implementated by a team of 7 developers of the kind you would get for £100k per year, given four years to do it? Is it possible that either a smaller team or less expensive developers would have been able to perform the implementation?

    Another public sector organisation that could potentially have saved money by in-sourcing.

    1. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge

      Re: Picking numbers out of the air here but...

      Sounds easy, right? Seems like a lot of money for something so apparently simple.

      But unless this team of developers has an intimate understanding of the entire business, all its operations, its supplier interactions, its obligations to its clients downstream, all its staff, all its needs, how/where/when everything will be stored and accessed, then it's likely to be a very rude awakening for them.

      And that's usually where these things go wrong. The contractor sends in their best hotshot consultants who know how to make it sound easy, they understand enough of how these things generally work. The client usually lacks sufficient competency to see they're being bamboozled. Once the contract is signed, the expensive consultants disappear onto the next bid, and the project is passed off to the cheapest code monkeys they can find. These guys often have little to no understanding of the business they're building this stuff for, and can only work from inadequate specs.

      The specs are inadequate because of the aforementioned incompentency of the client, who also doesn't really understand exactly what they need or how they want it delivered.

      And so it all, inevitably, goes to shit. Again and again.

      1. Richard 12 Silver badge

        Re: Picking numbers out of the air here but...

        It's 'ing payroll.

        It's as standard a function as it's possible to have in any business software of any kind.

        Every single employer in the entire legal jurisdiction has exactly the same requirements.

        Only difference is how many salaried and hourly employees, and the pay intervals.

        Literally everything else is the same, by law!

        An ERP that cannot do payroll is like a text editor that cannot display ASCII.

  14. Binraider Silver badge

    Ahh yes, ERP be hard.

    Perhaps if the tax code wasn't so bloated and obscure computer consultants wouldn't be earning billions in revenues off their systems that don't work.

    But perhaps the job creation is the point of the bloated rulebook...

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