Ontario IT system problems resurface with welfare glitch

While Ontario welfare recipients are crying foul over a provincial IT project with Accenture gone awry, another province says it is “”very pleased”” with a similar system developed by the same company.

The Toronto Star

reported Tuesday that Ontario’s Ministry of Community and Social Services was unable to deliver a three per cent hike to people on welfare and disability due to problems with the IT system that Accenture built through a 1997 contract with the previous provincial government. The problem affects some 670,000 people.

In a statement issued to media on Tuesday, Accenture said, “”Each case is potentially unique, and system testing is essential to ensure that cheques reflecting new benefits amounts are issued correctly.

“”That there would be new rate calculations such as these with an additional cost associated for testing them was understood by the former government. Accenture will work closely with the Ontario government to make certain these new calculations are made and tested accurately, quickly and in a cost-effective manner.””

The ministry did not return calls for comment at press time.

Throughout its life, the system, referred to internally as the Business Transformation Project, has experienced costly errors and generally under-performed. According to a 2002 report issued by the Office of the Provincial Auditor of Ontario, the system “”inexplicably sent 7,110 discretionary benefit payments worth a total of $1.2 million to ineligible individuals.””

Detractors have pointed the finger at the government for profligate waste and a failure to predict these problems ahead of time.

Paul Bilodeau, for example, a spokesperson for the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), said that “”they’ve spent way too much on a computer system that didn’t work, and this is something that harks way back to the early days of the (former Ontario premier Mike) Harris regime. We’ve brought it up numerous times both publicly and at our various negotiating tables.””

Erik Peters, the Provincial Auditor at the time, warned that the government “”had not demonstrated due regard for economy and efficiency in the contract terms agreed to or in the administration of the work.””

The Auditor’s report concluded that “”Business Transformation Project staff considered many of these defects to be emergency or high-priority items in need of repair.”” Also that “”there were still significant opportunities to improve on the (Accenture) agreement’s administration”” after 1998.

In stark contrast, the ministry responsible for welfare in New Brunswick said that its IT infrastructure is working without a hitch.

Accenture designed a system for New Brunswick’s Department of Family and Community Services in 1996, which was completed and delivered in 1998. “”We’ve been very, very pleased with Accenture,”” said department spokesperson Lorie-Jean Johnson. “”There’s been no problems with the system. No, we’ve never encountered any problems like (Ontario’s) at all.

“”They do a quality assurance program, they survey us, they meet with our deputy minister and senior managers of the department. It’s very much open communication. We’ve never had a problem with Accenture,”” she said.

The system, called NB Case, currently manages profiles for 26,000 provincial households. The contract between Accenture and New Brunswick was originally for $21 million over five years and has since been renewed for an annual operational fee of approximately $3.5 million. Johnson said the system’s hardware and software have been updated several times as per the department’s requirements.

Ontario’s original investment of $180 million in its Accenture IT has ballooned to an estimated $500 million. The fault lies partly with the wording of the 1997 contract, which the Provincial Auditor said lacked any specific definition “”of the respective responsibilities of Accenture or ministry staff.””

These types of mishandled private/public sector partnerships are surprisingly common, said Howard Grant, president of Ottawa-based Partnering and Procurement Inc.

The problem, he said, often stems from unrealistic deadlines. “”Often when a politician has put a stake in the ground with respect to timing, then what will happen is the people involved in the public and private sector (are told), ‘Do what you can by this date.'””

He added that, “”Instead of getting it right to start with — and I mean right in terms of full functionality — going back and retrofitting it is incredibly expensive.””

Partnering and Procurement was used to oversee that an additional services contract awarded by Ministry of Community and Social Services to Accenture in 2002 was conducted in a transparent manner and that other service providers were fairly considered.

“”It’s unfortunate that once you make a huge investment in IT and you’re going with one company that you’re wedded to that company,”” said OPSEU’s Bilodeau. He added that government-based IT work should be handled internally and that government departments should hire more IT workers rather than contract work out.

Grant said that the issue isn’t necessarily in-house versus contract but a disconnect between expectations and obligations. “”This is where you’re doing trade-offs, and at the end of the day, this is what politicians are accountable for.””

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