Ontario’s disastrous computer roll-out will trouble welfare rolls for months to come

Posted on July 2, 2015 in Social Security Delivery System

NationalPost.com – Full Comment
July 2, 2015.   David Reevely

The buggy computer system Ontario’s government forced on the province’s towns and cities last November to manage welfare and disability rolls isn’t expected to be fully fixed until next winter.

The Social Assistance Management System, or SAMS, cost $240 million and was a disaster from the beginning. Data from its predecessor was often corrupted, it took ages to make simple changes to welfare recipients’ files, and it didn’t reliably print out the cheques for needy people that were its main reason for being. It sent out too much money to some people, not enough to others. Sometimes on time, sometimes not.

After a month or so of insisting that SAMS’ problems were just temporary glitches, the government admitted the thing was a mess and hired outside consultants from PricewaterhouseCoopers to tell it what to do. The consultants reported at the end of April that the government needed a major, but major, recovery plan, practically a do-over. They identified 57 high-priority fixes, just to get started with.

The province delegated day-to-day benefit operations to municipalities many years ago, then stuck them with a buggy new computer system.

The recovery plan was supposed to be done by the end of May. Not all implemented or anything, but at least spelled out in detail. They called it an “integrated transition plan,” though one problem they noted was that people were confused by what “transition” meant in this context, which seemed like a smashing place to start.

The plan is still not done, according to a spokeswoman for Liberal Community and Social Services Minister Helena Jaczek, the proprietor of this particular monkey-circus. Happy July.

“The ministry has made significant progress incorporating all 19 recommendations from the PwC report into an Integrated Transition Plan to ensure we are doing everything we can to keep improving SAMS implementation and to transition to regular operations,” Amber Anderson wrote by email when I asked how it’s going. They’ve appointed a program manager. They’re working on it. “Once the plan is completed, we’ll be in a position to share it and to determine if additional costs will be incurred.”

A rough draft of the plan, from early May, anticipated that the strategizing and preparation would be pretty much done by now and the ministry would be into doing real work fixing things.

The people who use SAMS are now at least familiar with its failings, said Aaron Burry, the City of Ottawa’s general manager of social services. The province is ultimately in charge of the social-assistance system but it forcibly delegated day-to-day operations to municipalities many years ago. So the city runs the actual welfare offices, following rules and using systems set by the province.

SAMS is not working as well as the system it replaced, but it’s no longer a maelstrom of emergency updates handled by freaked-out staff. “The way it worked yesterday is how it’s going to work today,” he said. “So there’s a least a degree of stability.”

But it’s still inefficient at basic tasks like changing the address on a welfare recipient’s file, which drives workers nuts. In his last written status update to city council, Burry pointed out another problem: it takes a “team lead” to transfer a welfare recipient’s file from one case worker to another. A clerk used to do that. So they’ve named a bunch of team leads.

It’s not exactly efficient, and it’s representative of weaknesses that have city staff wrestling with their computers rather than helping people. The problem is “primarily having enough time with the client to focus on their needs and talk about what they should be doing next,” Burry said.

Social workers want to understand what welfare recipients’ lives are like and help them find programs and assistance that will help them provide for themselves, he said. With SAMS’s shortcomings, they can’t.

“You come in, you studied for years how to work with people, and now you’re a key-punch operator,” he said.

Burry believes the government is serious about fixing the system but he’s not observed a lot of progress so far. “I need to see that these things they’re talking about are actually going to happen,” he said. One challenge Burry sees is that SAMS is based on an off-the-shelf program from IBM; repairs the ministry makes could break any time the underlying software is updated.

His department estimates it’ll cost about $1.5 million extra for Ottawa alone to deal with SAMS this year, and the province has only promised to cover a third of that so far.

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