Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services

The following entry is a record in the “Catalogue of Catastrophe” – a list of failed or troubled projects from around the world.

Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services – Canada
Project type : Welfare management system
Project name : Social Assistance Management System (SAMS)
Date : Mar 2015  Cost : $214M

Synopsis :
It’s a narrative that journalists and popular opinion love to draw upon: government can’t run projects. While such journalists are often overlooking the many successes government have, the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services has put itself in the journalists crosshairs with the launch of its new SAMS system. Introduced in Nov 2014, the SAMS system allows municipalities to control welfare payments payable under the “Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program”.  Providing income support to those in need the program helps people with disabilities who are in financial need pay for living expenses, like food and housing.

A lifeline for many, the introduction of the new SAMS system has turned into a headache for the municipal staff who operate the system at the city level and for those receiving payments. Shortly after the system’s launch in Nov 2014, the system erroneously made overpayments totalling $20 million to 17,000 recipients. Requiring manual interventions and follow up directly with the recipients the province and its municipalities have yet to recover much of the over-payment. Other problems reported include: payment of incorrect amounts (either too much or too little), financial records being inaccurate (the database not reflecting the value of the cheques issued) and cheques being sent to incorrect addresses.

Requiring significant overtime from municipal staff, the cities already strained budgets have little room to absorb the additional overtime and training costs associated with the SAMS implementation. Five months after its initial launch cities report that the problems are ongoing and the Ontario government has been forced to pay millions in additional payments to the cities to accommodate the problems.

One of the things that makes the SAMS project stand out is that it is a good illustration of how some organizations don’t seem to learn from their past experiences.  While the 2014 SAMS rollout has been plagued with issues, the SAMS rollout was a repeat offence for the ministry. Back in 2004 the predecessor to SAMS was launched. The SDMT system (Service Delivery Model Technology) project suffered major issues as well. After a cost overrun that saw the project’s budget balloon from $284M to more than $500M the system suffered similar flaws when first launched. Incorrectly issued cheques, payments made to the wrong people, failure to maintain correct financial records, etc. Granted the details of the underlying issues are unlikely to be exactly the same, but you would think that having had their fingers burned with SDMT, the ministry would have been extremely cautious in deploying the revised SAMS system.

Updated – 2 May 2016: The SAMS project is back in the news – IBM wins $32M Ontario government contract despite delivering problem-riddled software

Contributing factors as reported in the press:
Lack of quality control. Launching the product before it was ready. Challenges in defining the requirements fully. Ineffectual training.

Reference links :

  1. Critics slam Premier over welfare payout ‘glitch’
  2. SAMS bill grows by another $5 million to pay for municipalities’ overtime, training
  3. Ontario’s new welfare computer system a costly failure, says city report
  4. Ontario’s welfare computer glitches are not the first