IBM blamed for social security “meltdown”

Canada’s largest province has said that a software error breached the privacy of hundreds of people.

In a statement released to local media, officials in Ontario said that 720 benefits forms, which included details such as social security numbers, were mailed to the wrong recipients. The error, they claimed, was due to an IBM-built interface that pulled data from the province’s Social Assistance Management System (SAMS).

Amber Anderson, a spokesperson at the Social Services ministry, told the Toronto Star newspaper that the error was “not an issue with SAMS data or its functionality” but was caused by the interface “pulling old data from SAMS instead of up-to-date information”. Opposition politicians said the error jeopardised the benefits and tax rebates of hundreds of families.

This was not the first problem encountered by SAMS, which is based on IBM’s off-the-shelf Cúram platform and took four years to develop. In November the system distributed overpayments worth C$20 million to 17,000 people, in what officials termed a “glitch”. Social Services minister Helena Jaczek subsequently announced that external consultants would be brought in to assess the implementation of SAMS.

This did little to appease her critics, who argued that SAMS was rolled out before it had been adequately tested. Warren “Smokey” Thomas, the president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, said that Jaczek had “ignored” the advice of frontline employees who said the system was unfit for operation at launch. Thousands of unionised public officials are now receiving overtime payments to overcome its alleged deficiencies.

“I find it odd and misguided that they’re bringing in a private-sector third party to clean up a mess created by outsourcing the job to IBM in the first place,” Thomas said. “In fact I would go one step further and file a lawsuit against IBM for its gross incompetence in developing the SAMS program.” The union described the system problems as a “meltdown”.

It should be noted that SAMS’ predecessor also had teething problems. The Toronto Star reported that the previous Accenture-built SDMT system encountered major cost overruns and attracted criticism in 2002 for making over- and under-payments. The paper quoted John Stapleton, Innovations Fellow at the Metcalf Foundation and a former social assistance specialist with the Ontario government, who said that software development processes themselves were out of kilter with the needs of the ministry.

“If you’re a code jockey and you’re trying to write code for a new system, you need a yes or no answer,” Stapleton said. “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.”