Provinces strive to avoid Ontario-style welfare glitch

Two provinces say they have opted to stay with mainframe technology rather than push ahead with a welfare system upgrade like the one that has come back to haunt Ontario.

The province of Ontario has experienced numerous difficulties with a system that was contract-built by Accenture Canada.

Mostly recently, the system was unable to calculate a three per cent across-the-board increase in the cheques sent out to the province’s eligible welfare recipients.

When Ontario first announced the Accenture deal in 1997, officials pointed to the need to replace technology that was 30 years’ old and operating on disparate databases.

The governments of Saskatchewan and Manitoba have mulled a similar upgrade to the technology that runs their welfare disbursements, but have stayed the course with mainframes from the 1980s.

“”It’s not the most contemporary technology, but it certainly works and has worked very well for us for the last 20 years,”” said David Anderson, executive director of information technology services, for Saskatchewan’s Community Resources and Employment Ministry. “”Rate changes are all table-driven. We just change the table and it basically all just happens. Two minutes and we make the change and it just goes.””

The IT is based on a system that was used in North Dakota to deliver foodstamps and was modified by SHL Systemhouse (now part of EDS) to suit Saskatchewan’s purposes.

Manitoba uses a mainframe system, also designed by SHL Systemhouse, which first went live in 1986.

“”It’s probably one of our most reliable systems. It’s very fast,”” said Brian Konopski, director of information technology for the Family Services and Housing Ministry with the Government of Manitoba. “”We probably have 600-plus users using it every day. The one nice thing about mainframe technology is that it is relatively simple and it does work very well for us.””

In both cases, the mainframe technology has been maintained by a team of government IT staff with continual enhancements as required by changes to the respective provinces’ welfare policies.

A more complete upgrade is practically inevitable for both systems, but both Konopski and Anderson say that their governments will develop a comprehensive business plan before taking that step.

Lack of adequate planning may have been directly responsible for the problems that the government of Ontario is currently experiencing with its Accenture welfare system, according to Joan Ramsay, a principal at Ottawa-based Partnering and Procurement Inc.

Ramsay worked on an upgrade project in New Brunswick where the province upgraded its welfare case management system, also with Accenture. A private consultant in 1996, Ramsay worked with the provincial government from procurement through contract negotiation to co-ordination with Accenture.

A key difference between the Ontario and New Brunswick projects was that the latter had direct support from the premier, and there was a plan in place to manage the transition between changes in government.

Ontario’s government may be large relative to New Brunswick’s, but Ontario can’t use that as an excuse for an IT project that escaped its control, Ramsay said. Nor can Ontario blame failure on a welfare caseload 10 times that of New Brunswick. In terms of the technology, “”it doesn’t matter, it’s the same business,”” she said. “”The fundamental issues are the same.””

The ability of the government to communicate its needs to an IT supplier and routinely make sure those needs are being met is paramount in any such project, she said.

“”The New Brunswick government understood its role in this initiative and what it was accountable for.

“”The unfortunate thing with a lot of these initiatives is that government presumes that . . . it has selected a service provider on the basis of its skills and capabilities and experience to deliver. So it defers a lot of responsibility and authority to those service providers to almost act on their behalf,”” she said.

According to Ramsay, the government of New Brunswick shared some its best practices with Ontario before it embarked on its own welfare project. She couldn’t comment on what Ontario may or may not have observed in those best practices or how applicable they were for the province’s needs.

Anderson said that the government of Saskatchewan will build its own business case for a new welfare IT infrastructure over time, but is currently focused on the development of secure Internet-based applications for citizen services.

He cautioned that any government IT project requires “”what I call good management oversight. You can’t give the farm away to consultants.

“”It’s really kind of: management beware,”” he said. “”You’d better have good, solid business management in place and oversight over the top of these things.””

In the wake of Ontario’s welfare problems and the billion-dollar federal gun registry boondoogle, the “”era of mega-systems development”” may be over, he said. Projects that are delivered in pieces over months rather than in builds that require years may be the next logical step.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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