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The Gang that Can't Compute Straight
November 5, 2012 permalink
British Columbia recently introduced the Integrated Case Management (ICM) computer system for its social services system. When social workers first turned it on they saw the spash screen for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The system went downhill from there as workers discovered many circumstances in which they were unable to locate vital records. Social Development Minister Stephanie Cadieux denies that the problems endanger children, hiding behind the universal excuse of confidentiality. The new ICM cost the taxpayers $182 million.
Glitchy $182 million computer system adds to B.C. social workers’ headaches
One day in September, social workers across B.C. turned on their computers and were surprised to see an unusual message.
It was a welcome to the home page of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security — just the latest bug in a problem-plagued new computer system that cost taxpayers $182 million. And counting.
The message was a leftover glitch from a system originally designed by Siebel Systems for other jurisdictions — including the U.S. government — and modified for use in B.C.
“It was an erroneous label,” explains Social Development Minister Stephanie Cadieux. “The coding hadn’t been changed. The system is safe and secure for use here.”
But the Homeland Security surprise is among the least worries of social workers struggling with the new system that has made their tough jobs even tougher.
iThe Integrated Case Management system was introduced in April. It was supposed to streamline management of computer files across ministries that care for poor children, disabled people and troubled families racked by addiction, mental illness and violence.
For many social workers I talked to, it hasn’t worked out that way.
“It freezes. It crashes. Data disappears or is extremely difficult to locate. It’s incredibly cumbersome and hard to use,” a child-protection worker tells me.
“The biggest fear we all have is a crucial piece of information will be lost or overlooked — and a child will die as a result.”
“The anxiety around this is incredible,” said Doug Kinna, a B.C. Government and Service Employees Union official who has spent months tracking the system’s problems.
Kinna has many frightening stories of “near misses” to tell — where social workers weren’t able to find crucial information in the ICM system, while a vulnerable child needed help.
His stories include a social worker who misses a computer alert about a sexual predator in a troubled home. Another social worker can’t locate a “supervision order” barring a new mother from taking her newborn baby home from hospital.
But Kinna says he can’t provide identifying details about the cases for privacy reasons. And the government says they can’t find any evidence the incidents even took place.
“I have never heard of these concerns,” Cadieux said. “It’s not something we’ve been able to confirm.”
But it’s not just a he-said-she-said between the union and the government.
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.’s respected watchdog for children, said her office has been “inundated” with calls and emails from desperate child-protection workers about ICM.
Turpel-Lafond has some stories of her own to tell, including a case where after-hours social workers could not locate an address requested by police on an emergency domestic call.
“The family was at risk while social workers were frantically trying to identify the family and obtain the address,” Turpel-Lafond’s office said in a news release.
“The ICM system did not meet the work requirements of the after-hours staff.”
But, again, the government said it can’t confirm the story and has not found any evidence that children were in danger.
“In these cases, no children were found to have been at risk because of the ICM system,” Cadieux’s office said in a statement.
At the same time, the government admits it does have a computer problem.
“There are always challenges when implementing complex new systems and procedures,” Cadieux’s office said.
“The extent of the issues has been more significant than expected, primarily in the child-protection components of the system. As a result of these concerns, the ministry has initiated an action plan.”
The plan includes hiring 150 additional staff (exempted from the government’s recent hiring freeze) to give social workers additional training on how to use the computer system. The ministry also “revamped” the ICM training manual.
And they removed another leftover “erroneous label” from the Homeland Security software — an e-form that included a field entitled “Co-Conspirator.”
“The Homeland Security element makes you wonder if the system is secure,” says NDP critic Claire Trevena.
“There is no privacy or security threat and no connection between ICM and Homeland Security databases,” the government counters.
And then there’s the money. The effort to fix the system has cost taxpayers an additional $12 million, boosting the bill to $194 million.
It comes after other new government computer systems have crashed and burned. Just last year, the education ministry said it will scrap an $89-million student information system — known as BCeSIS — after complaints it didn’t work properly.
Cadieux insists the government is sticking with ICM — “things will improve,” she promised — though Kinna said the government should cut its losses before there’s a tragedy.
“It doesn’t work, it’s causing havoc and it’s putting children at risk,” he said. “They should scrap it and start over.”
But with so much money already poured into the ICM system, the government says starting over simply isn’t an option.
Source: The Province