Ontario systems glitch mired in blame game

An Ontario government computer program, part of a solution designed to replace an aging system for the Ministry of Community and Social Services (MCSS), was knowingly launched without the functionality necessary to implement system-wide increases in welfare or disability payments, a source with knowledge of the project reported recently.

According to the source, the former Conservative government signed off on the project fully aware that the system, as it was delivered, could not address an increase or decrease in payments to Ontarian welfare or disability recipients.

Without this added functionality, welfare and disability recipients will have to wait until later this year for a lump sum increase to their payments legislated by the Liberal government. It will reportedly cost upwards of $20 million to add the necessary functionality to the existing system, and will not be fixed until next year.

But Niagara-Centre MPP Peter Kormos (NDP) isn’t letting the current Liberal government off the hook. “I don’t excuse the Liberals at all. It seems to me very fundamental that part of the process of proposing an increase of social assistance…involves enquiring of your tech people, amongst others, ‘what is the timeframe to make this happen’?” The system needed to be tested and apparently wasn’t, he said.

“I understand that they didn’t test for a rate increase,” Social Services Deputy Minister Kevin Costante, told The Toronto Star. “I don’t know why not. I wasn’t here at that time.”

When a budget is proposed, “it is incumbent on the ministers…to make sure the right questions are asked…and clearly even that wasn’t done,” Kormos said.

But he also lays blame on Accenture, formerly Andersen Consulting, which consulted on the project. “Andersen/Accenture’s…track record is one of deficiencies in the projects, as well as huge cost overruns,” he said. “We have here a half a billion bucks spent on a computer system and somehow Andersen/Accenture says, ‘well, it was up to the government to test drive it.’”

“To a certain extent that is like telling you to check the air conditioning on a car you are buying in January. I appreciate that the government should have to sign off on it in terms of…identifying any obvious flaws, but sure to goodness one of the fundamental qualities of this computer system has to be able to accommodate for adjustments in payment rates.

“This whole process reeks so thoroughly that I have called upon the attorney general to commence an inquiry into the public inquiries act specifically about the relationship between Andersen/Accenture and the province of Ontario,” Kormos said.

A spokesperson for Minister of Community and Social Services Sandra Pupatello said the minister, who was a critic of the system when she was in opposition, was aware that there were problems with the Service Delivery Model Technology (or SDMT as it is called), although she couldn’t say exactly when it was known the system would be unable to calculate the rate increase.

Regardless, it is unknown whether the inability to add system-wide increases was an oversight caught midway through the project, and decided against, or was dismissed from the start as an unnecessary added cost.

A senior IT project manager in the Ontario government told ComputerWorld Canada that adding a provision for rate increases “is almost a no-brainer. There will be rate adjustments or financial (change) on all financial systems” regardless of the environment for which it is built.

However, he said evidence points more to a poorly run planning phase as the culprit. “Usually when you missed an item, you missed one or two stakeholders,” as the system was being designed. Adding even a small feature later in the project, should it be requested, can often be costly and very complex. “If you try to retrofit a car without a stereo, you have to cut a hole in it.”

He said the incident also highlights the struggle IT continues to have with the art of project management — a struggle made all the more galling by the lessons supposedly learned during the Y2K crisis.

Tony Crawford, a former CIO and 30-year senior IT veteran, and now president of project management consultancy AlphaPM, said government exeutives are often quick to contract projects out without first understanding the risks inherent in such a decision.

“It all sounds efficient on paper,” Crawford, said, but noted that public sector officials, under intense pressure from voters to demonstrate quick results, too often assume that contractors — who may themselves sub-contract, or who consist of several different, competing firms — can handle everything. “It’s rare that a project fails because of technical issues,” he added. “A lot of the problems are simply communication…The client is responsible for that, because the client defines the system.”

Accenture built the system to allow for similar changes including payments for the back-to-school allowance and the winter clothing allowance, it said in a statement. But as far back as 1998, Pupatello queried MCSS Deputy Minister Suzanne Herbert repeatedly about the project’s efficacy.

“The external reimbursable costs tell me that Andersen is better off, from a business perspective, to go outside and outsource software development.”

An Accenture spokesperson admitted some contract employees helped with the project.

The exact methodology used to dictate payment to Andersen was also hotly contested, since it was to be paid — for the most part — out of cost savings. As of October 1998 Andersen had been paid $24.2 million according to Herbert, out of $30 million saved in business processes. But the provincial auditor, Erik Peters, said his office found “insufficient evidence” the savings were directly attributable to Andersen. To date, $284 million has been paid to Accenture, according to The Star.

Today the project’s total cost is estimated to be $500 million.

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