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A hi-tech computer system aimed at improving the flow of information between the various departments at the National Insurance Institute (NII), simplifying the process by which benefits are distributed, has been scrapped after seven years of development and an investment of NIS 30 million.
"It was very difficult to close it down," Ilana Shriebman, NII deputy director-general, told The Jerusalem Post Thursday. "It would have been much easier to spend more money on it and wait a little longer to see if it would work. But the system was flawed and after its initial pilot [in Netanya since October] we found there were too many problems to fix."
However, a source inside the NII, who had been working on the project since the beginning, said most of the bugs had been fixed and that the new program was only a few months from completion.
The highly complex system was initially focused on improving the department that deals with benefits for the disabled, this source said. Had it been seen through to completion, it would have been expanded to unite and improve all areas of the institute's operations.
Shriebman described the original NII computer system - which the scrapped hi-tech project was intended to supersede - was antiquated. "It works, but it was set up in the 1970s and is very old," she said. "Forms are not filled out properly and clerks spend hours helping clients sign up for their benefits. There is no doubt the system has to be updated."
Ran Melamed, deputy director of social policy and communication for the community empowerment association Yedid, went further, however. "Half of the problems with the [welfare-to-work] Wisconsin plan would not have occurred if the NII computers had worked like they should." Because its computers were incapable of verifying the relevant personal details, the NII "placed people in the Wisconsin program who had no chance of succeeding," said Melamed.
Shriebman said the NII "knew we would face difficult questions about why we were canceling the [new computer] project" after so many years' work and so much money had been expended on it. "Many people in the institute are very angry over the decision to cancel it and people worked very hard on this project. But if something is not working then it can't be continued. We cannot get sentimental about it."
Shriebman said the new system had been piloted in the NII branch in Netanya back in October and that this was the final test to see if it was worthy. "We decided that December 31 would be the cutoff date: If it did not work by then it would be discontinued," she said. "[On the pilot], we saw there were 1001 problems. There was some progress, but still many problems remained. And even when we fixed or dropped those elements, it had many gaps. It was clearly, basically flawed."
But according to the NII source who was involved in overseeing the Netanya pilot, staff there welcomed the new system and recognized its benefits. He said he believed that cancelling the program was part of a larger effort by the institute's director-general, Yigal Ben-Shalom, to enforce cutbacks among technical staff in favor of outsourcing such computer projects.
A spokesman for the NII rejected that claim, saying that no decisions had been made regarding the downsizing of the staff.
Shriebman deflected the blame for the failure of the project and the millions in wasted funds squarely onto the shoulders of her predecessors in the institute.
She said she and Ben-Shalom were "fairly new in our positions" and were "not responsible for this." Both took over their offices less than three years ago - four years after the project was initiated. "It is very easy for critics to ask why we did not think of canceling the project sooner, but our professional people kept telling us it would not be much longer," she said.
As for plans to improve the existing system, Shriebman said the institute would look for more modern technology and that a new program would hopefully be up and running by 2008.