PAL: $9 million over budget and three years late

It could be 2007 before the public can access Public Access to Legislation

The Public Access to Legislation project is three years behind schedule and will cost almost $9 million more than originally budgeted. Now the Government has decided to restart development with the aim of rolling out the system late next year.

Public Access to Legislation (PAL) is intended to make New Zealand statutes, bills, regulations and other documents available online to the public free of charge. It was originally scheduled to go live in early 2003, but technical difficulties and protracted commercial negotiations between the Parliamentary Counsel’s Office (PCO) and supplier Unisys have put it more than three years behind schedule.

The complete functioning of the PAL system came “tantalisingly close” at later stages of its four-year evolution, says Parliamentary Counsel George Tanner, “but there were always a few impediments” keeping it to about 95% of its full functionality, which meant it could not be deployed.

Agreement has been reached to relaunch the development process, but PAL won't now be ready until the last quarter of 2006. The actual introduction will probably be some months beyond that, “to take into account the Parliamentary sitting programme and the impact of introduction of the new systems and processes,” say the PCO and Unisys in an information bulletin.

The restarting of development will involve the redrafting of a specification “that will identify every feature of New Zealand legislation that should be expressed [in textual form]”, Tanner says. This includes various kinds of brackets for inserted and deleted paragraphs, struck-through text, tables, Maori macrons and line numbering.

"We're putting together the Mother of All Bills," he says. It will be a 2,000-page test document that will include every possible permutation of formatting.

This exhaustive exploration of every feature that may turn up in a document should have been done in the initial specification, Tanner acknowledges, “and it was done to a degree, but not as well as it should have been”.

The PCO and Unisys will also have to amend the original specifications to deal with the new rendering engine which will be at the heart of the system. This is the component that turns the accumulated content into a format ready for printing or website display. The engine has been upgraded from the originally planned Arbortext Print Composer to a top-of-the-range Arbortext E3 model.

Slow rendering was one of the most serious problems with the original system. Others were correct formatting of the successive revisions of a Bill and the generation and maintenance of line numbers.

PCO staff and technical adviser Timothy Arnold-Moore denies, however, the suggestion of a source the complexity of the SGML specification was a factor and that the current use of XML represents a change. SGML (Standard Generalised Mark-up Language) is the base language in which XML is written, and can be used to express more complex features not included in XML; but it had never been the intention to use any facilities beyond those enshrined in XML, Arnold-Moore says.

Line-numbering is a more complex problem than is generally realised, especially when line-spacing is varied and insertions and deletions made, says Arnold-Moore, who wrote a midstream technical re-evaluation of PAL. "Even [Microsoft] Word doesn't do it perfectly every time."

The capital cost of the PAL project has steadily mounted. From an original $5.19 million, it was revised at the end of the first stage, in February 2002, to $8.174 million.

The PCO will now pay Unisys an additional $3.037 million and Unisys will itself contribute roughly the same amount to get the project finished. This brings the total capital cost of PAL to around $14 million.

The delay to the project has meant spending another $6.27 million for the provision of an interim legislation website, run by legal publisher Brookers, and pre-publication services provided by Legislation Direct. Tanner rejects the suggestion that this brings costs to a neat $20 million and quadruples the initial estimate; the $6.27 million, he says, is operating cost, not a capital expense.

Running PAL (at Unisys’ Kapiti datacentre) will naturally entail ongoing operating expenditure, which will amount to $9.104m over the next three financial years.

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