ULTRANET, the Victorian Education Department’s online everything system, was doomed to fail. It provides a perfect case study how large organisations engage with digital technology: because they do not trust it, they will pay anything … so long as it works. And, the irony: it invariably fails!
And was this system a failure? Mr Pearson, the Victorian auditor, couldn’t have been clearer. He reported that six years after its announcement as a government priority, the Ultranet had not delivered any of the main objectives, was significantly late and over budget and had limited functions compared with what was promised. You can read the full report.
With very little foresight and a wayward political ambition, the government planned to build a system that would ostensibly do everything for teachers students and parents. And this overblown intention was their biggest mistake.
Why, when there are robust and unique tools and systems out there already on the Internet being used and accessed by teachers and students, would you want to build a centralised system to do all this? The answer? Control. To build a walled space that is protected, insulated and controllable, segragating students and teachers from the real virtual world. And this desire emanates primarily from a fear of innovation and experimentation, and a lack of trust. Can’t have those teachers out there independently deciding on how to use the resources of the Internet for their own teaching purposes, can we?
So the basic idea was that everything a student and teacher does in class would be done through this uber-system: accessing class resources, developing lesson plans, keeping records, sharing documents, and communicating. And parents too would have access to this, to see what their kids were studying and how they were faring. One plan was for teachers to mark the student roll using the system, and if a child was absent, an automated SMS would be sent to their parents. It was never achieved. In fact, the 1 260 functions planned in the 2007 business case had shrunk to 131 functions in the 2008 request-for-tender specifications.
According tn the auditor’s report, the Ultranet Master Agreement was signed with the successful tenderer on 30 June 2009 for the contract price of $64.6 million. This included $47.5 million for the build and delivery, and $17.1 million for application hosting, software maintenance, disaster recovery and help desk support until 30 June 2013. But by the end of the project, this had to blown out to an estimated $187 million. How is this possible?
Because of a heritage of technology failures, governments go into a spin every time a new IT contract is touted, with a sense of impending panic and nervousness. It could fail! How then can we ensure success? Pay over the top for it.
On the other side of the ledger is the contractor – a large, ‘trustworthy’ IT business that is only too keen to exploit this government nervousness. To take on work of this scale, the contractor will not be a small agile firm capable of doing the work at a competitive rate: the government is buying the brand as much as the expertise. It’s top of the town only. So the contractor accordingly pumps up the price to assuage government fears, providing layers of very expensive project managers, ‘consultants’, researchers, IT security experts, etc, etc, and so the budget easily expands way above an actual and reasonable cost to build the system.
Try doing the sums in your own head.
The price for the alone hardware blew out to $47 million. The user requirement was reduced from 250 000 users to 78 000 users, and total storage was reduced from 330 terabytes (TB) to 160 TB. You can commercially buy a terabyte storage for about $300/terabyte/year (ie $100,000/year for the maximum Ultranet storage).
On 9 August 2010, government school principals and assistant principals attended the Ultranet ‘Big Day Out’, the day the system was launched. It crashed! So much for all those calculations regarding server loads and capacities, and the associated costs.
That still leaves about $140 million for software development and training. That’s about $42 million a year. How many programmers can you buy with that at a standard rate of about $80 / hour?
Looking closely at what was promised, it was not a difficult project to develop. The programming knowledge is out there; and there are many systems already using similar if not better technologies. Some have been build collaboratively for free (open source).
The managers of the project were also very reluctant to listen to outside advice at the time. This was reported by the auditor, where both the Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC) and Department of Treasury and Finance (DTF) advised against the system. I also had involvement with the project in its early stages when I was working on an independent project for the Education department, and had to integrate what we were doing into Ultranet. I reported at a meeting with system representatives that we found it very clunky and inflexible with a number of programming bugs. We encountered a very defensively aggressive response – that it was a first iteration, etc, etc. No listening to valuable user feedback here. If this was the mindset, no wonder the outcome.
It seemed to us at the time that the technology was already lagging behind the more innovative systems out there, and this was going to be a continuous problem requiring massive and expensive upgrades just to try to catch up. Good for the contractor; bad for the tax payer.
So what’s the usage of the system been like thus far? According to the auditors report, teachers have said that limited available class time for teaching lessons does not allow enough time for system crashes, multiple logins and generally slow Ultranet performance. It’s being used regularly by about 10 per cent of students and 27 per cent of teachers. The percentage of schools whose students do not access the Ultranet at all has also increased, from 15 per cent in 2010 to 21 per cent in 2012.
There’s a lesson in all this somewhere, if only large organisation IT managers and committees would care to listen.