Legislation system still in limbo

A project to put government legislation online is still in limbo 16 months after it was due to be completed.

The Parliamentary Counsel Office is still in negotiation with vendor Unisys Corp. over the terms for "completion" of the Public Access to Legislation (PAL) project, even to a stage where it is functional enough for ministers to judge whether it is worth developing further.

Neither party will give a time estimate even for this temporary stabilization of the database and application, which was originally planned to be the definitive expression of New Zealand statute law. PAL was originally scheduled to be complete in February last year.

In the face of problems, reported over several months by Computerworld last year, PCO engaged a team from Australian consultancy InQuirion to perform a technical evaluation of the project.

This, PCO has now confirmed, raised doubts about the choice of the rendering engine -- the part of the system which takes input from the authoring tool and turns it into a file from which a printed document can be produced.

"InQuirion expressed strong reservations about the ability of the current rendering engine (Arbortext Epic Print Composer) to support the PCO's current rendering needs, let alone future needs," says the PCO's latest progress report on the project.

"(The evaluation team concluded) that the formatting requirements of the New Zealand Parliament appear to be stretching the rendering engine beyond its limits. InQuirion therefore recommended that the PCO explore alternative print rendering solutions." A source last year said there were also problems with implementing the chosen mark-up language.

On this front, PCO says the InQuirion team "confirmed" its intention to use XML "The report concluded that using XML rather than SGML (the generalized markup language of which XML is a particular expression) should ensure the availability of quality tools for the lifetime of the current PAL system and beyond." The InQuirion report also included recommendations relating to:

-- the content management system (Documentum). InQuirion suggested that consideration be given to upgrading to the latest version in order to take advantage of performance and other improvements.

-- software changes to support the ability to display Maori macrons correctly on the PAL Web site.

-- the use of larger monitors to prepare and edit legislative documents, so as to make text on the screen easier to read among the large number of tags (element names and associated technical information) in the editing environment.

-- ongoing development of the new PAL Web site, including the future introduction of an XML repository to facilitate greater search capabilities.

"In late December 2003, the PCO requested Unisys to provide a proposal to complete the project so as to provide the basis on which ministers could make further decisions on the future of the project," says the PCO progress report.

"Unisys is in the process of completing its proposal, which will include Unisys's assessment of how long it might take to complete the project, and the likely cost."

Work so far has confirmed "that Unisys is able to deliver a technology solution that will meet the PCO's requirements, and will be robust, supportable and maintainable by the PCO in the long term, and on a cost-effective basis," says the report.

"This work has involved close collaboration between Unisys, PCO, Unisys' subcontractors and the PCO's technical adviser, and regular briefings have been provided to Treasury and State Services Commission officials."

Five months have been devoted to evaluation of alternative rendering engine solutions, and the preferred course is to upgrade to the latest (E3) version of the Arbortext engine, which InQuirion considers adequate for the PCO's needs.

"Once the current phase of work, which is very much focused on technical matters, is completed, it is intended that the discussions between the PCO and Unisys will focus on the commercial issues relating to the completion of the project.

The outcome of these discussions will then form the basis on which officials will report back to Ministers," the progress report concludes.

The full text of the report can be read here.

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