After the previous week’s deluge, last week saw a return to a more “normal” number of reported IT-related malfunctions, errors and problems. The most significant involves British Columbia’s controversial CAD $182 million Integrated Case Management (ICM) system. It has been plagued with so many operational issues that government social workers using the system complain that it has been essentially unusable for over a week, the Vancouver Sunreported.
The ICM (pdf) is a new government IT system aimed at streamlining the management of computer files across the three British Columbia government ministries (Social Development and Social Innovation; Children and Family Development; and Technology, Innovation, and Citizens’ Services) that provide social services to “poor children, disabled people and troubled families racked by addiction, mental illness and violence.” The ICM system is being introduced in four phases. Phase 1 occurred in November 2010; Phase 4, which is the final phase, is scheduled for roll-out at the end of this year.
I previously noted that with the introduction of Phase 2 in April 2012, social workers bitterly complained that the ICM system kept freezing, data routinely disappeared, and the system was extremely cumbersome to use. Government officials at the time tried to play down the problems, characterizing them as just the routine “challenges” accompanying any new IT system introduction. But independent assessment reports later confirmed the validity of the complaints. The assessment also indicated a rather dysfunctional project development that needed immediate correcting.
Phase 3 of the ICM system was introduced a year ago March, and the complaints about the system started to subside. That is, until a couple of weeks ago, when all the old performance problems seemed to reappear with a vengeance. Social workers were livid that they were once more having to deal “with blank screens, and the inability to access to their clients’ addresses and warnings that may have been part of the file” which forced them to revert to paper and pencil methods. Exacerbating their anger was the B.C. government’s decision not to disclose publicly for almost a week that there were new problems occurring with the ICM system.
That information blackout also raised the ire of Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the province’s independent watchdog for children and youth, who said ICM's ongoing problems were placing vulnerable children and adults, especially those who might need protection, at risk. She also called for a new independent assessment of the ICM system's performance and development.
After the ICM problems became public early last week, British Columbia’s Technology Minister Andrew Wilkinson claimed they were nothing more than “intermittent slowdowns.” Further, despite all the warnings by Turpel-Lafond as well as the political opposition about vulnerable children, the problems encountered caused only minor impacts on the delivery of critical government services. B.C. Children’s Minister Stephanie Cadieux also strongly rejected the notion that children were being placed at risk, the Vancouver Sun reported.
On Wednesday, in a bit of delicious irony, the Times Colonist newspaper reported that Wilkinson confidently told reporters that all the issues with the system were now fixed, so, please would everyone just move along. However, within an hour of saying the ICM was up and smoothly running again, an opposition party official informed a very surprised Wilkenson (and apparently those same reporters) that the ICM had crashed and burned again.
Opposition party members had earlier in the week pointedly reminded Wilkenson that even while the ICM system was having its previously undisclosed troubles, he was boasting to the legislative assembly about the government’s “enviable record of deployment of top IT services.” The opposition members wanted to know whether Wilkinson was just out of touch with what was going on in his area of responsibility, or whether he had misled the assembly. Given the latest meltdown, opposition members were now inquisitive about his lack of up-to-date knowledge on ICM's status since they knew more about it than he did.
A highly chastened Wilkenson told the Times Colonist that he was “unhappy” about the latest ICM outage, and implied that he was misled about the system's true state. He added that, “This is clearly a system that’s unstable. We’re going to get to the bottom of this, we’re going to report back to the house and to the people of British Columbia what’s gone on, and we’re going to seek our remedies.”
Wilkenson didn’t offer a timetable as to when the ICM would indeed be fixed, or when he would report on what was really going on with the ICM, however.
It now looks like the Auditor General of British Columbia, who is currently conducting an IT audit of the ICM system, will have one more issue to investigate. He may also want to ask Wilkenson why the government is claiming that the ICM system has been “available and functioning for the benefit of British Columbians nearly 100 percent of the time” since April 2012, when it demonstrably has not.
In Other News…
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.