Transforming the public sector part 1: Alaska, New York & Canada

26 Aug 2003

Public sector IT initiatives are always plagued by problems and get bogged down in red tape. Right? Wrong. From smart ID cards to single view systems, technology is winning the battle against bureaucracy and starting to make e-government a reality.

Alaska, US: Oracle goes fishing for information

The Alaskan economy depends to a very large extent on the fishing industry, of which salmon fishing is a significant component. Managing fish stocks is, therefore, one of the most important tasks of the Commercial Fisheries Division of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The division’s mission is to increase fishing yields but in a sustainable manner so that fish species are guaranteed a future.

Accordingly it will decide on a daily basis which districts are to be opened to commercial fishing and which are to be closed. To do so, however, it requires up-to-date information — specifically daily fish counts — from as many locations as possible. This is compounded by the fact that much of the data has to be collected in what would be classified as wilderness areas, remote from centres of civilisation. Nevertheless, the data must be collated quickly as inaccurate counts can have severe repercussions. For instance, allowing too many salmon to be caught before they swim upstream to spawn will have an impact on future fish population, while allowing too few to be caught will deprive fishermen of their livelihoods.

The other constraint is money. The Commercial Fisheries Division provides its data free of charge to fishermen on the basis that it is gathered using taxpayer dollars. This means it has to operate on a shoestring. In the mid-Nineties, the division decided to improve the quality of its information. At that time, it was emailing spreadsheets from station to station without any central data set. This was resulting in information not synchronising and out-of-date data being used in the decision-making process. The division looked at a number of systems but, in the end, identified Oracle as best suited to its needs.

“The main thing that drew us to the Oracle Database was stability — stability of the product and the company,” said Carmine DiCostanzo, the division’s chief of computer services. “We also need to run our system on local Windows-based servers. Unlike the competing products, Oracle is committed to a variety of platforms. While Oracle’s competitors pushed their own proprietary products, we preferred Oracle’s agnostic approach.”

Information entered into the database comes from a variety of sources. Each catch landed at a processing plant is weighed and details of species, weight and quantity are keyed into a networked system running on a single Oracle Standard Edition Database. In areas without network connectivity, this information is captured using Oracle Lite running on laptops. In remote area, field workers scan rivers to visibly count fish.

All of this data is entered by 10am the following morning and within an hour the data is available. The division then announces by radio, web and fax, whether or not fishermen can fish that day. Since installation, the Oracle database has never failed. “When we picked Oracle, we knew it would be better than what we had,” said DiCostanzo, “but we didn’t realise it would be as good as it turned out to be.”

New York, US: Making more permits possible with IBM

Analysts always said that B2B (business-to-business) was the space to watch for early online success stories. Few, however, would have expected New York’s Governor’s Office of Regulatory Reform (GORR) to have had quite the impact that it has had with a pioneering inter-agency project. As early as 1995, the office was set up to simplify the quagmire of bureaucracy that hampered the business permit application process in New York State.

As a sign of the times, the decision was taken to move away from procedures dependent on call centres to a web-based approach using a host of IBM solutions including its Lotus OPAL (online permitting and application) service delivery platform. The success of the project has doubled the number of permit applications, helped create some 4,500 new jobs in the private sector and delivered savings to GORR of US$3bn.

Other key benefits of OPAL include a dramatic drop in training times — from six months to two weeks — for staff working as permit assistance representatives. And the web’s 24×7 availability has also reduced the time it takes for an application to be made.

The GORR project is particularly worth singling out because it exemplifies some classic global objectives of e-government. The challenge was to improve administrative efficiency across 36 agencies responsible for issuing over 1,100 different permits to business start-ups and existing business owners. The objective was to create a system that took a single fee payment from an end user and allocate it to the various state agencies in proper proportion.

Completing a single form, as opposed to multiple documents, was of paramount importance to New York Governor George Pataki when the system was first mooted. “If someone is going to invest in New York City, we shouldn’t punish him by forcing him to fill out the same information 10 times on 10 different forms for 10 different bureaucracies,” he said.

Working from the single form, OPAL goes on to automatically deconstruct the single payment, aggregating and allocating the fees to the different departments. Agency personnel are notified by email when there is a new application to process, which they download using a secure name and password. After submitting their forms, applicants can track their progress using a designated ID number through an interface on the GORR site. “Very quietly, this small agency in New York State has pulled out the first true enterprise application that spans multiple agencies, invisible to the user, fully transactional and fully real-time,” says IBM’s system architect, Mark Hoesl. “It’s a vision of the future.”

The project is also proof that human resource problems can be overcome through careful planning. Because GORR involves so many different agencies an inclusive approach to employees was crucial if the project was going to be able to streamline workflow. “We needed the agencies to buy into our plan,” says GORR’s IT manager, Mike Hartigan. “This was a team-building exercise in every sense.”

The project is ongoing as the GORR team looks to expand the number of agencies hooked up to OPAL as well as the breadth and depth of services on offer.

Canada: Delivering a visible postal solution with SAP

The postal service is probably the government body that citizens interact with the most. However, all over the world postal monopolies are being eroded as markets are liberalised. Canada is no exception. Faced with competition from all sides, the Canada Post Corporate has invested heavily in supply chain management (SCM) software, specifically MySAP SCM from SAP.

Canada Post Corporation is a publicly owned agency worth CAN$5.9m. It collects, processes and delivers more than 10 billion postal items per year and serves a customer base of 30 million people. It operates in three areas: consumer-to-consumer, business-to-consumer and business-to-business where it competes with well-established companies such as Fed-Ex, DHL, Deutsche Post and TransForce.

The new MySAP system will support the company’s efforts to compete more effectively. It replaces a 15-year-old manual track-and-trace system that was unable to support new services such as the ability to manage admail, validate the status of parcels and mail throughout the deliver process as well as facilitate billing.

By enhancing its admail services, for instance, to its service portfolio, Canada Post will be able to open new streams of revenue. According to Cal Hart, the company’s vice-president of product management and business transformation, greater predictability in delivery of such mail will allow advertisers to combine print and phone promotions more effectively.

Similarly, the company envisages greater effectiveness in tracking vital and restricted documents, another growth opportunity. Under the old system, says Gail Ryan, public sector sales, Canada Post, business-critical documents issued by the Canadian Government — covering such areas as birth, death and immigration — could not be tracked very well. The supply chain event management with MySAP SCM enables performance improvements in this area.

The enhanced visibility provided by MySAP SCM allows Canada Post to enforce its business process. Rules governing service standard and delivery options are built into the system and these rules let the company measure service delivery commitments, manage quality levels in real-time and generate alerts if the rules are breached.

Canada Post already had a SAP R/3 backbone and MySAP customer relationship management (CRM) software. MySAP SCM integrates fully with these products to allow timely and accurate billing and the provision of new logistics functions. Furthermore, information about mail items will flow directly from MySAP SCM to MySAP CRM so that customer queries can be handled more quickly when they call.

With the new system in place, Canada Post will be able to position itself as the last-mile carrier in Canada. Other companies have been reluctant to entrust their business to Canada Post in the past because of a lack of visibility. The new MySAP SCM solution removes this obstacle.

The company also plans to allow customers to view the delivery status of mail items online, reducing customer calls and complaints. The company also envisages providing services to online retailers. Merchants would take orders over the internet as normal. However, products would be stored at Canada Post warehouses where they can be picked, packed and shipped.

By David Stewart