‘Nobody told me’: Helena Jaczek on new welfare payment system problems before launch

Helena Jaczek, Ontario's Minister for Community and Social Services is surrounded by the media following question period at Queen's Park Legislature in Toronto on Monday December 1, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

TORONTO – A memo noting “significant challenges” with a new disability and welfare payment system reached Ontario’s community and social services minister two weeks before the problem-riddled, $300-million computer program was launched, The Canadian Press has learned.

Helena Jaczek has said no one informed her about the system’s troubles before it was rolled out.

Weeks after the Social Assistance Management System was launched in November 2014, serious defects and performance issues became public – it erroneously queued up $20 million in overpayments – $382,000 of that was actually paid out.

Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk said in her annual report late last year that the SAMS executive committee, which included the deputy minister and three assistant deputy ministers, knew there were problems with the program before its launch, but they rolled it out anyway.

When Jaczek was asked, following the report, if anyone had informed her of the problems with SAMS before its launch, she replied, “Nobody told me.”

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But on Nov. 1, about 10 days before SAMS’ launch date, documents obtained by The Canadian Press through a Freedom of Information request show that the minister received an email that included a memo from the team leader noting the preparation had not gone completely 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,” Martin Thumm wrote.

“However, this was not unexpected in such a large and complex modernization initiative, and in every instance we have worked together to overcome these challenges.”

Jaczek said in a statement Tuesday that there are always concerns with new systems, but the memo indicated they had been resolved.

“It was not until after SAMS went live that it was clear that the problems were beyond these typical challenges,” she said.

Lysyk found there were problems that had not been resolved when the system went live, and more continued to pile up. As of July, there were 771 serious defects outstanding and not all had been identified, she said. There was a backlog of about 11,500 calls from the help desk and it was taking the ministry an average of 40 days to fix a serious defect.

Since then the ministry has said most of the issues have been fixed, including all of the priority ones.

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The executive committee knew that pilot testing with data from the old system was never conducted, “so it was not known if SAMS would work as fully intended when launched,” the auditor found. Sixteen per cent of SAMS’ functions were not tested and of the functions that were tested, the failure rate was one in eight, Lysyk added.

In addition to what Jaczek’s deputy and assistant deputy ministers knew about the SAMS issues and the memo noting “significant challenges,” the union representing the front-line caseworkers warned the minister for months that the system would cause problems for staff and clients.

Included in that same email containing Thumm’s memo, an Ontario Public Service Employees Union representative sent a warning to Jaczek and other ministry officials.

“You have implemented and rolled out SAMS knowing that there are a lot of concerns with the system and our members being ready,” Roxanne Barnes wrote.

“Will we see another failure of another system in MCSS (Ministry of Community and Social Services), costing the tax payers millions of dollars?”

SAMS was to cost about $240 million, but the government has had to spend an extra $52 million on fixes, bringing the total cost close to $300 million.

Three days after receiving that email, Jaczek told a legislative committee, “I feel fairly confident that the new system will have a pretty seamless roll-out next week.”


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