The Toronto Star , May 1, 2016
We’ve known for a year and a half that Ontario bungled the introduction of its costly new welfare case management system, known as SAMS. The program has been plagued with technical problems that led to tens of thousands of errors in calculating benefits, privacy breaches and documents that had to be shredded.
Now it turns out that the woman in charge, Community and Social Services Minister Helena Jaczek, was warned directly that there were “significant” problems with the system before it was launched back in November 2014. Nonetheless, the government went ahead anyway – a move that eventually cost $52 million in fixes on top of the system’s $240 million price tag.
The new information comes courtesy of The Canadian Press, which obtained documents about the introduction of SAMS through a freedom of information request. According to CP, they show that about 10 days before the system was launched, the minister received an email that included a memo from the leader of the team in charge saying that things weren’t going smoothly.
“I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that there have been significant challenges both with the development of the solution and with site readiness,” said the memo from Martin Thumm. It went on to say the problems were “not unexpected” given the scale of the initiative.
This wasn’t just a routine screw-up. It had a direct effect on tens of thousands of the most vulnerable people in the province, the 446,000 who receive regular social assistance through Ontario Works and another 464,000 on disability benefits.
Thousands received no benefits, or cheques for as little as $5. Another 17,000 were issued overpayments that had to be sorted out later at the cost of considerable disruption in the lives of the recipients. Then documents were sent out that breached privacy laws and as many as half a million tax documents were issued with wrong information – and had to be reprinted at a cost of $175,000. It was a litany of failure.
Late last year, auditor general Bonnie Lysyk said in her annual report that top officials in Jaczek’s ministry knew there were problems with SAMS before launch, but rolled it out regardless. Asked about that, Jaczek said at the time that “nobody told me.”
The newly unearthed internal memo puts the lie to that. At the very least, Jaczek was told directly that there were problems, and had a chance to intervene before the system was put into operation. There’s no evidence that happened.
Ontario taxpayers have paid for all this fumbling, with the cost of SAMS swelling by more than 20 per cent (or $52 million) just to get it running smoothly.
At the same time, the government’s reputation has taken a well-deserved hit. Warning bells were sounding, but apparently no one at the top was listening carefully enough. This is the kind of thing that voters remember.