Government departments at the cutting edge

7 Apr 2008

The reality is that public sector IT projects have performed well despite over-ambitious targets having been set.

Bad news sells whereas good news is, unfortunately, often ignored. The Government is usually castigated for non-delivery or under-performance, especially in the area of e-government.

The reality is that, compared to the commercial sector, it has not performed that badly, especially considering the over-ambitious targets set in March 2002.

According to the e-government report prepared by the Comptroller and Auditor General in October 2007, 53pc of projects were “completed and fully live as planned” and only 16pc were “not progressed/abandoned”.

The overrun on completion time was about 25pc and again this compares favourably with experience in the commercial sector.

The main objectives of e-government were twofold. The first was to allow citizens to have easier access to services and information and the second was to transform internal efficiencies in government departments.

The latter is often referred to as business re-engineering in the commercial sphere and depends on similar solutions and the need for cultural changes. While much remains to be done, some lessons have been learnt and a more realistic approach has been adopted to ensure past mistakes are not repeated.

John Farrelly, SAS client director for public sector, said that projects need to be well- thought out, backed up by the appropriate level of sponsorship, have clearly identified ownership, can be followed through to complete implementation and are defined as deliverable, clearly identified and measurable units.

While the EU tendering process is cumbersome, it does help to ensure a proper business case is defined and a tight structure is built-in, resulting in an even playing field.

At the recent Irish Software Association (ISA) conference, there were some complaints about government departments interpreting the EU regulations too strictly to the disadvantage of some of the smaller indigenous players.

Farrelly does not accept the validity of these claims, saying the financial security of suppliers must demonstrate the appropriate level of fiduciary comfort to ensure the tax payer is appropriately protected.

PTools Software has been providing content management tools for more than 10 years, serving mainly the Irish and UK marketplaces and more recently expanding into the US market. Tom Skinner, managing director, says there have been many smaller government projects which were rolled out successfully.

The public perception has become distorted by a few high-profile large projects which have not met expectations. Some of these larger projects have been successful at the technical level, even if they have not been successful at the ‘citizens’ adoption level’.

Skinner says there has been a tendency to go for global change solutions, rather than point solutions that are more manageable and are much more likely to be successful.

However, the failure of big projects is not confined to Government, as there have also been many failures in the commercial sector. Management in both the public and private sectors are implementing more point solutions, which have much higher adoption levels.

Pointing to some of the successes, Skinner mentioned the Land Registry system that was developed over a period of five to seven years and is now known as the Property Registration Authority.

PTools continues to work in the area of content management with the Health Service Executive (HSE) on both internet and intranet projects. This is a national scheme that will cover all the HSE regions. Another major project is with the Health and Safety Authority, where the interface and document management features have been put together as a complete, end-to-end system for the Authority.

The system developed has enabled considerable improvements in both the interface and documentation availability, especially for the building and pharmaceutical industries.

On the educational front, progressive initiatives such as Dublin South County Council’s Connect are leading the way both for education and community projects. The object of the Connect initiative is to bring technology to the people through a range of projects that deliver free, easy-to-use, online services to help individuals achieve their learning, social development, personal and leisure goals.

One specific project is Connect School, which strives to improve school attendance, participation in class and educational outcomes for the students at St Aidan’s Community School by developing an innovative learning culture. Another project is Connect Web, which provides free websites to community groups, enabling them to collaborate and promote services.

Dublin South County Council has worked with Enovation Solutions for a number of years and asked the company to investigate the most suitable open source software solution. Enovation recommended Mambo for Connect Web and Moodle for the Connect School project. Moodle is a learning management system that supports easily uploaded content, quiz features, chat features and allows teachers to monitor students’ progress.

Apart from the two projects, Enovation provides a number of services, which include secure external hosting services and managed internal services; ongoing support and maintenance and full training to core users; and customisation and ongoing consultancy.

With over 100 community websites established and all first-year students at St Aidan’s Community School deploying their own laptops to access Moodle on a daily basis, the projects have been very successful and have won two awards.

Gary Mahon, Enovation sales director, said: “South Dublin County Council is at the forefront of e-government initiatives in Ireland and we are delighted to be up there supporting them. It has helped us bring open source technology to a much wider audience, particularly among the local authorities.”

The theoretical benefits available by implementing large IT projects are difficult to realise unless there is very strong buy-in and strong recognition of the need for significant cultural change. Unfortunately, a number of high-profile government projects have illustrated that this is not the case, whereas many smaller projects that involve smaller step changes have been implemented successfully.

Key to the successful implementation of any IT system is a strong structured approach, with ownership and responsibility clearly identified.

By Napier Williams