IBM wins $32M Ontario government contract to 'fix' its own problem-riddled software

Despite 18 months of problems associated with the software responsible for tracking Ontarians on social assistance, the Ontario government has awarded a two-year $32-million IT contract aimed at servicing the software to the same company that created it.

The union representing workers using SAMS — short for "social assistance management system" — is not happy that the contract has been awarded to IBM.

"It should be fixed under warranty," said Smokey Thomas, the president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, which represents caseworkers who deliver services to social assistance recipients across the province.

'It should be fixed under warranty.' - Smokey Thomas, OPSEU president

"So they hire IBM, and pay them even more money to fix the problems that they created with the system they sold." 

The government of Ontario implemented the new technology platform on Nov. 11, 2014, across the province.

It manages case files, including benefit payments for hundreds of Ottawa recipients of Ontario Disability Support Programs and Ontario Works.

The original tab for the problem-plagued computer system developed by IBM was $242 million, but it has continued to grow as problems have arisen with overpayments and underpayments sent to clients.

By October 2015 its cost had soared to $294 million.

Latest contract 'routine'

The latest IT contract to IBM is "routine," according to a spokesperson with the Ministry of Community and Social Services.

"We have now fixed 100 per cent of the priority issues identified by our front-line staff working group," the spokesperson said in an email to CBC News.

Nevertheless, Thomas said, the contract is designed to "fix a flawed system."

"I would invite the minister to tour a SAMS workplace with me," Thomas said.

"All evidence we have gathered proves the system is still a mess."

Ottawa, Toronto, Hamilton all waiting for SAMS compensation

OPSEU is not alone in voicing ongoing concern over SAMS.

Municipalities responsible for managing the province's social assistance program across Ontario continue to log problems with SAMS and are reaching out to the province for millions to offset costs.

The City of Ottawa, for example, sent a request for the province last week to pay for a regional training centre and has asked for a total of $1.2 million in additional funding since 2015, said Aaron Burry, general manager of community and social services.

It has received about a third of that funding request, Burry said.

Ottawa committee responsible for Social Services

The City of Ottawa's Community and Protective Services Committee has sent a letter to the province requesting regional training for SAMS. (CBC)

Toronto city council, meanwhile, voted unanimously earlier this year to press the province to provide funding to offset SAMS costs for 2015 and 2016 — costs that are currently estimated at $7.25 million annually.

The City of Hamilton has also been vocal about ongoing costs amounting to more than $800,000 to deal with the software — including half a million dollars for the re-allocation of staff, according to Coun. Sam Merulla.

'I'm disillusioned.' - Sam Merulla, Hamilton city councillor

In an email, Merulla said he was "disillusioned" that the province has not offered any compensation for Hamilton's SAMS woes.

Recipients still experiencing problems with SAMS

Meanwhile, the problems continue to affect people who receive social assistance, like Ottawa resident Lauren Seward-Munday.

Seward-Munday and her family received an overpayment a few months ago that is still wreaking havoc on their lives, she told CBC News.

Because Seward-Munday works sometimes, her social assistance cheques fluctuate — and that caused her to miss an overpayment of a few hundred dollars, she said, until a letter came demanding she pay it back. 

Lauren Seward-Munday

Lauren Seward-Munday says her $50-a-month clawback, due to an overpayment issued by SAMS, is equal to a week's worth of groceries. (CBC)

Her caseworker was unsurprised by the error, she said.

"He said, 'Oh yeah, that's SAMS," Seward-Munday said.

She was able to arrange an installment plan to pay back the money, but at $50 a month — the equivalent of a week's worth of groceries — it will take another several months to rectify the error, she said.

"We're going to have a lot of rice, I'll put it that way," said Seward-Munday. "But [at least] I work. There are people that this would cause them to lose their home."

OPSEU is expecting its own independent report tracking continuing problems with SAMS, now being undertaken by Wayne Lewchuk at Hamilton's McMaster University.

Lewchuk will be visiting job sites next month, but a sneak peek at the results of a survey undertaken in February and March suggests 95 per cent of caseworkers reported that they felt the software change made the job harder.

Approximately one out of four workers took part in the survey.

$32M contract awarded April 1

SAMS came in almost three years behind schedule, riddled with errors and grossly over budget, according to the Ontario auditor general in her report in late 2015. 

The province tendered the $32.2-million IT contract earlier this year, awarding it April 1 to IBM, the company that bought Curam, the software behind SAMS.

According to the Ministry of Community and Social Services, the $32.2 million is aimed at "assisting the ongoing operations" of SAMS and will be spent over two years. The dollar value represents a cap, not necessarily the final cost, the ministry said.

The contract should cost "$5 million less than it cost to maintain SAMS' predecessor, SDMT," the ministry said in its statement.

"We used an open, fair, competitive process for this contract, working with the Ministry of Government and Consumer Services to ensure all rules were followed," said the ministry.

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