It’s the provincial government’s recurring nightmare.
Since going online Nov. 11, SAMS, the Ontario government’s new $242-million welfare caseload software is still plagued with a number of glitches.
So far the system, which manages hundreds of thousands of social assistance payments and case files, has been a PR disaster for the provincial government — not unlike the early days of SDMT, the system that preceded it.
The year before Accenture Canada’s custom-built SDMT system was launched province-wide in 2002, the software made headlines after a trial run in Hamilton-Niagara led to blank cheques, overpayments and missing drug and dental benefits for recipients.
SDMT had huge cost overruns: the province reportedly paid Accenture $284 million for the system, but additional staff and training costs to get it running saw the price balloon to about $500 million.
The Liberal government at the time would go on to spend millions more following SDMT’s rollout because the system initially couldn’t execute a changeover required to implement a 3-per-cent, province-wide welfare rate increase in 2004.
It took nearly a year to make the change, and the Liberal government blamed the previous Conservative regime for the problem, given it was the latter that signed the contract with Accenture.
The Conservatives said they weren’t made aware of any such shortcomings prior to signing off.
Fast forward to the present, and days after SAMS (Social Assistance Management System) was launched, the province was scrambling to stop or recover $20 million in overpayments the new system assigned to 17,000 welfare recipients caused by an embarrassing “glitch” that Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne would later apologize for publicly.
A few weeks later, in early December, the province had to allocate $5 million to municipalities, most of that going to cover overtime pay for Ontario Works employees swamped by other SAMS glitches and workarounds.
Experts familiar with the systems argue the problems flow from issues such as inadequate training for users and computer coding that isn’t a suitable match for the “discretion” required to manage complex Ontario Works, and Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) files.
“If you’re a code jockey and you’re trying to write code for a new system, you need a yes or no answer. But that’s not the way welfare works. Welfare is a whole web of discretionary decision making that no code jockey is ever going to be able to deal with,” says John Stapleton, Innovations Fellow at the Metcalf Foundation and a former social assistance policy analyst with the Ontario government.
“You have a (welfare) system now that is so complicated … you have exceptions, to exceptions to exceptions based on discretion,” he says, referring to individual case file scenarios.
There’s a complex maze of rules that govern who is eligible for welfare benefits, such as availability for work and asset limits that depend on the nature of one’s disability and family size — variables that some experts describe as “transactional relational data.” These cascading exceptions are what make the job of coding for a system like SAMS so challenging.
Based on off-the-shelf software called Curam, an IBM product, SAMS was billed as a state of the art system, a bold upgrade from its ponderous and outdated predecessor SDMT.
Touting SAMS days before its November launch, Community and Social Services Minister Helena Jaczek told a committee hearing at Queen’s Park that she felt “fairly confident the new system will have a pretty seamless roll out next week.”
But ODSP and OW caseworkers and managers in the province say the roll out continues to be anything but.
“The people who use the system every day continue to be extremely frustrated with the system, its functionality and the intermittency of its reliability,” says Sarah Pennisi, a director for social assistance and employment opportunities in Niagara region.
Frontline Ontario Works staff in the region’s five offices overseen by Pennisi are forced to continue validating — by hand — individual payments SAMS issues to welfare recipients, checking for a multitude of ongoing inconsistencies, says Pennisi.
In an emailed statement, Community and Social Services confirmed it has logged 17,300 tickets — calls from welfare workers in Ontario to the help desk set up to address SAMS problems. The ministry says the volume of queries is within “a reasonable range” given a new system of SAMS’ magnitude.
“We know the implementation of the improved system posed challenges for some staff and clients,” said Amber Anderson, press secretary to minister Jaczek.
In a followup statement, Jaczek said SAMs will deliver social assistance programs “more efficiently and consistently” and once a new client portal that’s part of the system becomes accessible, it will allow recipients to receive their information and correspondence and report their monthly income.
SDMT, the predecessor to SAMS, was highly dependent on notes from caseworkers, making it very text heavy, a senior social services ministry official told the committee hearing at Queen’s Park attended by minister Jaczek.
Martin Thumm assured SAMS on the other hand is already “data rich” and highly automated, adding supposed to lead to far more consistency when the system calculates benefits for recipients.
The province insists staff training, as well as testing of SAMS, prior to launch was rigorous.
Thumm told the committee seven full data conversions were performed, which entailed taking all of the data from SDMT and converting it into SAMS, then running tests and validations of those tests.
As for staff training, the first round kicked off in January 2014, with a followup refresher program at the end of last summer. The training included a minimum of 40 hours of end-user training for staff over 10 weeks, which, Thumm said, took workers right though the new software application: “end to end, and all of its functionality.”
Dylan Lineger an ODSP worker in Ottawa, and an OPSEU union vice-chair, went through the SAMS training last year but says it was problematic.
“We didn’t have a kind of sandbox environment to play around with and perform daily transactions. It was more of ‘here’s how you enter somebody’s address, and here’s how you enter somebody’s income,’ ” but they were all separate. They were never connected.
“That made it very difficult for people to learn (the system) because we don’t operate like that. When you’re working on a client’s file you’re putting all the information in at the same time, and one thing may actually have an impact on another thing,” Lineger says.