Feature: Integrating the supercity

A huge, and risky, IT project will be required to support the new-look Auckland

Seven territorial authorities and one regional council are about to be smashed into one Auckland Council, dubbed the “supercity” by the media and the “big little city” by the marketers.

For that consolidation to succeed, the IT systems of up to 10 entities need to be amalgamated, setting up a huge clash of data formats, technology standards and ICT infrastructure plans — and sparking one of the largest ICT integration projects ever seen in this country.

Most Aucklanders agree there are serious problems with local government. The Royal Commission on Auckland Governance identified, in broad terms, poor community engagement and weak and fragmented regional governance as key issues.

“Auckland’s regional council and seven territorial authorities lack the collective sense of purpose, constitutional ability and momentum to address issues effectively for the overall good of Auckland,” the commission reported in March.

That is the problem. Alongside massive structural amalgamation, the commission identified technology as a vital part of the solution. It devoted the best part of two chapters of the report to the role of technology in delivering unified services to the new Auckland.

“It is up to Auckland to ensure it utilises the potential that technology and a changing world offer. It is the commission’s hope that Auckland chooses not to ‘muddle along’ but rather to grasp the nettle of opportunity, and make decisions with vision and bold intent,” it said.

The commission pointed to the development of improved broadband infrastructure driven by a unified council, the delivery of online services and the adoption of new teleconferencing technologies as examples of what could be achieved.

However, on a more mundane level, the integration of financial, billing, customer contact, dog control, pest control, water delivery, sewage and many other systems, will be required for the vision of a supercity to be achieved.

Auckland’s chief information officers are reticent to comment on the task ahead, saying they await the foundation of the establishment group that will guide the city into a unified future. But the broad outline is clear – there will be one central ICT delivery organisation for the new city.

Those spoken to last week recognised the scale of what now has to be done. Some were positive about that, despite an inevitable lack of detail in the commission’s report and differences between that and what is now planned by the government.

“It’s going to happen. I’m quite positive and upbeat, but there’s a lot of work to do,” said one of several, who did not wished to be named.

CIOs point out that it isn’t just an issue of different technology and standards – there’s plenty of that – but also of different processes that have to be expressed by that technology. All of this has to be standardised and then the technology can either be standardised too or at least integrated.

The creation of one district plan across all councils will also be a big part of the process, the CIOs spoken to say.

One described it as a “huge task”, adding that people are underestimating the complexity. Right now there isn’t even a common chart of accounts. Integrating HR, financials, email and internet access will only provide the bare bones.

Each system represents a major integration project that has to be completed while maintaining business as usual capabilities, one warns.

Then there are the functions of the Auckland Regional Council and Auckland Regional Transport Authority, which are not comparable to to those of the councils. Records management promises more headaches, as council are already grappling with the requirements of the Public Records Act — each implementing their own systems to do so.

Auckland’s CIOs already get together quarterly. Until clear direction is given, Computerworld understands it is a matter of keeping their respective houses in order at a time when there is a strict lid on hiring.

Councils and other affected organisations can only guess at the future direction and budgets for such a massive project.

Early indications are the establishment board, which should be in place soon, will have a wide range of powers to cajole, encourage and even order things to happen across four key areas identified by the commission, one of which is ICT.

There has clearly been a lack of coordination on some vital systems. The commission gives as an example the fact that three Auckland councils have put in place different tsunami warning systems.

“It seems to the commission that having three different warning systems raises the public education costs inordinately. Warning systems can be effective only if they are intelligible to the people who need to heed the warning,” it comments.

Efficiency gains are expected from unified services in areas such as procurement and back-office systems including information technology. Estimated total integration costs total between $120 million and $240 million over a four-year time frame. A serious IT project failure however, could cost all of that and more.

In addition to central management of ICT, the commission recommends the development of a “single information technology infrastructure and communications platform and common standards”.

It says all transactional processing should be through a single, standard process.

The process for the production of the rates bill, accounts payable and receivable, along with consent and licence applications, should all be undertaken using the same systems platform, borrowing from the “best of the best” systems in current use.

There will be a move away from paper-based service delivery towards electronic delivery, through a common payment gateway. One phone number will reach any council person in Auckland.

The new council’s unified service delivery framework will include, the commission says: “a single information technology governance framework; a consolidated ICT infrastructure platform (including a single contact and datacentre facility); the unification of the back office administrative services including functions such as finance and administration, human resources, and asset management, and; a strategic procurement function undertaking management of major suppliers.”

Right now, most councils operate their own ICT shops. Some cooperate over using SAP’s software for managing council business. One, North Shore City, outsources its ICT entirely, saying it neither owns nor operates any ICT systems at all.

Auckland City is the largest ICT shop of the eight, with more than 3,000 computer screens to manage, according to the 2008 MIS 100 special edition of CIO magazine. It, along with Waitakere and the Auckland Regional Council, is an SAP user.

North Shore City has just over 2,000 screens under management by Revera. That outsourcing contract was signed in December 2006 for a three-year term.

Manukau City had 1,733 screens, according to the MIS 100, and is a PeopleSoft user.

Adoption of central government’s interoperability framework and e-GIF common ICT standards is poor, but these are essential to achieve cost-effective online delivery, the commission argues.

Then there is amalgamation to take place at the service level, such as in water services. Here, the services and assets of all the councils, including the trading companies Manukau Water and Metrowater, are to be amalgamated under Watercare Services, which is charged with delivering uniform charges across the region.

There are some rare existing examples of shared services projects across the Auckland councils. The commission highlights eLGAR, the library management system, which unified the library services across five councils.

The commission says the new Auckland council should prepare an e-government strategy as an intrinsic part of a new unified service delivery and information systems plan.

“The Commission expects that Auckland local government will be able to provide people with access to services whether it be by telephone, internet, mobile phone, or face to face,” it says in the report.

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