OTTAWA—The federal government is on the cusp of launching an overhaul of the computer systems running key social safety net programs, and hoping to avoid seeing another IT project become mired in problems.
Government documents show that officials are planning to take more than eight years to modernize the systems that oversee payments from employment insurance, old age security and the Canada Pension Plan.
The three programs were collectively worth more than $105 billion in the fiscal year ended in March 2016.
The long timeline for work looks to avoid the same pitfalls that have befallen other large-scale federal IT projects, such as the problem-plagued Phoenix pay system that resulted in thousands of civil servants waiting months to get paid.
The department overseeing the work is hoping to keep the updated system stable by taking breaks, or “plateaus,” and giving officials time to plan ensuing phases or decide whether to “conclude or pause the journey,” according to a departmental presentation from October.
A phased approach is “appropriate and prudent for large undertaking such as this,” and reduces risk, reads the document prepared for a meeting between Employment and Social Development Canada and Shared Services Canada.
ESDC is still finalizing an overall cost for the project.
The March federal budget provided the department with $12.1 million this year for work.
Despite a lengthy schedule, there is a sense of urgency.
There are multiple systems that handle employment insurance, Canada Pension Plan and old age security benefits. Some are more than 40 years old, have been stretched to their technological limits, and are on the verge of what the auditor general once called technological “rust out.”
The October presentation outlining the project noted that there are an “unsustainable number of custom built applications” that make it “virtually impossible to track a client’s interactions from end-to-end.”
What the department appeared interested in finding was a commercial product that it could adapt to fit its needs.
Once work is complete, ESDC expects to meet the ever-rising demands from Canadians for online services, speed up access to benefits, and free up staff to deal with more complex cases hitting the system.
The work is part of a larger strategy that ESDC has been working on for years, trying to digitize more of its operations.
It was top of mind for Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos when he travelled in late March to the U.K. The briefing binder for the trip lays out questions he should ask about how to effectively set up online services, and automatic enrolment for old age security pensions, which is scheduled to start this year.
The binder also suggested Duclos ask about “behavioural insights,” which includes finding ways to push people to make “better choices for themselves.”
The Canadian Press obtained a copy of the binder and October presentation under the Access to Information Act.
Part of the IT modernization for employment insurance, CPP and old age security will give the department more analytic capabilities to quickly catch fraud and payment errors, and support future changes to the online service.
“While ESDC has data analytic capabilities, our current capabilities are not sufficient to achieve the goals set out in (the modernization plan) to improve program delivery by applying a client-centric focus to service, and better understand the needs and preferences of our clients,” said ESDC spokeswoman Julia Sullivan.