Ontario’s long road to IT welfare reform

Ottawa — When the Ontario government decided to overhaul the way the province delivers welfare to citizens, it sparked a major five-year project that produced savings of $200 million a year.

But it was a long road to that end,

says Bonnie Ewart, assistant deputy minister of the business transformation project at the Ministry of Community and Social Services.

“”What we had was eight unconnected technology systems and a 30 year-old system. We didn’t have common databases,”” said Ewart.

Working with Accenture Inc. as part of a public/private partnership, the province wanted to improve customer service and save taxpayers money. Accenture had just wrapped up a similar project in New Brunswick when Ontario announced it would change its system.

“”We had worked in a number of jurisdictions in the area of welfare and child welfare and had developed a strong knowledge base to improve service delivery,”” said Alden Cuddihey, partner with Accenture in Ottawa, who together with Ewart presented the case study at GTEC on Monday in Ottawa.

One of the goals of the Ontario project, said Cuddihey, was to make sure case workers spent more time on client-facing activities. The old process was lengthy and required two weeks to apply for assistance. And during the recession of the early 90s, case workers barely had time to qualify people instead of helping individuals with other tasks such as finding jobs.

The answer, in part, was to create call centres staffed by individuals trained as case workers to field calls from welfare applicants inquiring about their eligibility for benefits. Whereas the previous system required individuals to go to their local welfare office to answer questions about their financial situation, the new system replaced that first visit with a phone call. If a person is deemed eligible, a face-to-face interview is set up within three days. The new system also means there is a consistent policy across the province when it comes to eligibility.

An automated telephone system was also created for benefits recipients to learn when their next cheque would be issued and other information about benefits. A Web-enabled system provides case workers with technology to calculate eligibility and one, province-wide database meant all information is shared.

Cuddihey says the biggest change has been moving to a net-centric computing environment with the appropriate levels of security built in, creating one province-wide database.

“”It meant upgrading the network and making sure the appropriate bandwidth was available, with a special strategy to deal with bandwidth in Northern Ontario,”” said Cuddihey. “”We had to implement with the lights on — we had to test, plan, re-plan and do dress rehearsals. We had to consider things like what if the network goes down in Thunder Bay?””

During the project, Ewart says the team of 400, comprised of Accenture and Ministry staff, worked to create a system under intense scrutiny from the public and opposing political parties, not to mention the watchful eye of the provincial auditor.

“”We had four audits in five years, and four deputies and three ministers during that time,”” said Ewart.

Conducted as a value-based agreement between the province and Accenture, there was no up front financing; instead it was self-financed as the system achieved savings. The savings have covered the costs of both the ministry and Accenture and Ewart says the project broke even six months before it ended.

“”Since then we just keep incurring new savings because month to month they add on and it only gets better,”” said Ewart.

The $200 million savings each year is money Ewart says would have been spent had the province not put in the system it created.

“”So on the one hand, it’s not dollars you take to the bank, but it’s money we don’t have to pay out as a result of the new system,”” she said.

In the future, the system could be extended to evaluating eligibility for child care and assisted housing.

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