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BALDREY: Audit uncovers epic computer fail

Just what is it with the B.C. government when it comes to expensive computer problems? The latest sorry chapter in this seemingly never-ending story was recently uncovered by Carol Bellringer, B.C.’s crack new independent auditor-general.
Baldrey

Just what is it with the B.C. government when it comes to expensive computer problems?

The latest sorry chapter in this seemingly never-ending story was recently uncovered by Carol Bellringer, B.C.’s crack new independent auditor-general.

And this one is a doozy: a computer system that is five years late, 420 per cent over budget and is so inefficient and possibly even outdated that it requires an extra $14 million in annual maintenance.

Bellringer (isn’t that a good name for a watchdog?) and her team audited the Panorama computer system and uncovered a horror-show of cost overruns and errors. As well, they cited a lack of leadership within the ministry and a defensive mindset that shuts out criticism.

Operated within the health ministry, Panorama is supposed to manage infectious diseases across the country. The idea for it arose after the SARS epidemic in 2003 that killed 44 people.

B.C.’s stellar reputation when it came to public health care meant it was chosen to lead the program’s implementation. Five years after it began, the implementation is still not complete and B.C. taxpayers are on the hook so far for $113 million and that figure continues to rise.

Perhaps even more alarming is the fact that Bellringer discovered that when the IT company in question (IBM) failed to deliver on the terms of its original contract, it was renegotiated to transfer any financial risk from IBM onto taxpayers.

But this epic computer fail is far from unusual within the B.C. government.

There were huge startup problems with the electronic health initiative (although to be fair, this happened in other provinces as well, notably Ontario) and there have been serious problems with software in the K-12 education system.

And this past spring, Bellringer discovered the problem-plagued Integrated Case Management computer system, which is supposed to help social workers better serve vulnerable children and adults, was never completely implemented.

The ICM system was discovered to have numerous bugs almost since its inception in 2012. At one point last year, the entire system kept crashing and became a political embarrassment for the government.

The province’s child and youth watchdog, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, said the system’s many problems were putting the safety of children at serious risk. And then it was learned the government was spending about a million dollars a year in trouble-shooting for the beleaguered system and those costs are ongoing.

This is starting to become a very expensive kind of problem, because the government — like governments everywhere — is spending more and more money every day on computer systems purchased from various IT companies.

In the 1990s, total IT costs were less than $50 million a year. They’ve increased almost tenfold since then and now are nearing a half-billion dollars a year.

So when a problem develops with a particular computer system, the costs can be enormous because the government itself is a gigantic operation and its computer users are vast in number.

No one has come up with the reason why these computer problems are happening with mounting regularity.

But I suspect a big factor may be that the government doesn’t have the same resources when it comes to assessing IT programs as the companies that are offering them for sale. I’m sure these IT firms are promising efficient, seamless programs that will solve all kinds of problems but it may be there are few properly trained people in government to properly assess those promises.

In any event, you can bet there will be more expensive computer fails within government in the future. And you can bet that Bellringer — who has quickly established herself as one of the sharpest B.C. auditor-generals ever — will be all over them.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC. He can be reached via email at: Keith.Baldrey@globalnews.ca.

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