The government of Ontario next month will take control of a controversial 3-year-old welfare payment system that critics say is still underperforming and failing to deliver a return on investment.
The Social Delivery Model Technology (SDMT) system was custom-written by Accenture Ltd. to modernize and improve business processes at the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services (CSS). Accenture has run the system for the ministry since its installation in 2002.
The five-year development project started in 1997. Accenture was to be paid no more than US$151 million but eventually billed $206 million. The overall price tag ballooned to an estimated $335 million.
Since the SDMT system went live in 2002, end users have complained about downtime and difficulties with usability and stability, which has provoked political controversy. The computer system doesn’t work the way it was supposed to after all this time.Shelley Martel>Text One chapter of the saga will end on Sept. 30, when Accenture’s contract to run the system expires. In a statement, the CSS claimed that knowledge transfer with Accenture has been completed and that the ministry is “fully prepared” to assume maintenance and support responsibilities.
But criticism of the system continues from some corners.
“No one can say that the public got value for its money,” said Ontario legislator Shelley Martel, a member of the provincial parliament from the Nickel Belt region. “The computer system doesn’t work the way it was supposed to after all this time. People have to go in and manually make changes when they should be done directly online. I don’t know what the government can do to fix the computer problems at this point.”
Some regional welfare administrators this week agreed that there are outstanding issues with the system — primarily the fact that it’s still difficult to use.
For example, Janet Menard, a director of Ontario Works in the Region of Peel, said the system is rules-driven and complex. Adjustments related to policy changes can be made only during regular upgrades, she said, which can cause problems for her operation.
Without offering details, a CSS spokesman said via e-mail that many improvements have been made to the underlying technology. For example, the system has been tweaked so that the ministry can reduce the number of consultants needed to run it.
In addition, the spokesman said that response times have improved, system availability has been running at 99 percent over the past year, and rigorous testing is regularly undertaken prior to enhancement rollouts. For its part, Accenture stands by the results of the project. “Accenture’s work for Ontario has helped create a welfare delivery system that operates more efficiently than at any time in its history,” stated Accenture partner Alden Cuddihey, in an e-mail.
He claimed that the Ontario government has paid the additional $55 million billed by Accenture out of savings, not with tax dollars.
Despite the system’s troubles, Menard also believes that it is an improvement over its predecessor. The SDMT has “taken us well beyond other welfare jurisdictions in terms of technology,” she said. “It’s a good foundation.”
Study Finds Many IT Failures in Ontario
Some 40 percent of all IT projects undertaken by the provincial government of Ontario fail to meet goals in some way, according to a report issued last month by a task force of government and academic officials. The province’s IT projects are missing targets in a variety of ways, including cost overruns, the inability to achieve expected benefits, and the loss of support and momentum, the study found. In many cases, the “results (are) well short of hoped-for outcomes,” the report said.
The report has already prompted the government to adopt a portfolio management approach on all major IT projects, said Government Services Minister Gerry Phillips in a statement. In addition, plans are under way to create a scorecard-based system to assess risks and ensure that projects are in line with priorities.
The task force was commissioned in September 2004 by the province’s Ministry of Government Services.
The report, titled “On the Management of Large-Scale Information & Information Technology Projects,” was commissioned in part because of the perceived shortcomings of the Social Delivery Model Technology welfare system created by Accenture, according to an agency spokesman.
Among the recommendations of the task force was that the Ontario government “significantly increase the strength of its governance of major operational transformations.”