Computer woes just beginning
It appears the B.C. government's attempt to create a massive file-linking program is off to a rocky start. The computer system that drives the project is reducing employees to tears.
The idea sounds simple enough. Staff have long complained that they can't share client information with other areas of government. Some ministries use one-off software that can't be linked, others have unique data-coding systems. The result is that needy clients may fall through the cracks.
Three years ago, it was decided to build an integrated case management system to get around these difficulties. A computer program has been purchased that allows departments to share information more effectively. Initially, the project is focusing on social ministries such as Children and Family Development.
However, there is a complication. Many of the files held by these ministries contain sensitive information. They may cover such matters as child-abuse allegations, welfare payments and foster-care arrangements.
Watchdog agencies warned that collecting such material in one central database is an invitation to abuse. The B.C. privacy commissioner noted that "people will be tempted to peek, and that's part of human nature."
We are now learning that these fears have been realized. An instance has already come to light of government workers gaining improper access to medical files.
But that is just the tip of the iceberg. To prevent inappropriate "peeking," a number of safeguards were built in.
What part these firewalls play is not entirely clear. But staff say the program is virtually unusable. It takes more time than most of them have to enter data or call up dossiers. Far from making information easier to find, the system has brought file-sharing nearly to a halt.
As a result, social workers are carting around sensitive material in their briefcases or exchanging files by email - anything to avoid using the new system. Of course, that creates a different kind of privacy risk. Meanwhile, morale on the front lines is plummeting.
The government's response has been to promise $12 million for additional staff. In passing, that works out to an award of $1,400 for each of the 8,400 children currently in care of the government. Wouldn't that have been a better use for the money?
But there is a larger issue. The difficulties plaguing the new computer system may not be easily fixed. It's likely they arise, in part, from a design requirement - the need to preserve confidentiality while at the same time broadening access. There is no simple way to do this while ensuring a quick turnaround.
Put another way, the handful of staff who really need to see a dossier have to go through the same firewalls as the thousands who might not.
If this is indeed part of the problem, there are only two solutions. Live with it or take down some of the firewalls. But the latter option would compromise confidentiality.
Members of the official opposition have been careful to focus their attention on the immediate shortcomings of the system. Ex-NDP leader Carole James has complained that it is poorly designed for its purpose.
But the real issue here is whether the project makes sense in the first place. There are genuine threats to personal privacy in a system this broad, and they will only grow as the system grows broader.
As more ministries are brought in, it will become increasingly difficult to maintain adequate security and still keep things moving.
If that happens, whose interests will prevail? Will the needs of workers take priority, or will our privacy rights stand up?
If the government's behaviour to date is any guide, we will be the losers. Ministers have been deaf to privacy concerns from the start.
This is an issue that bears watching. When computer systems struggle this badly out of the gate, there's usually more trouble to follow.