When is an IT project just an IT project?

And when is it something more?

Every year, I report on the progress of IT outsourcing in BC (news flash: it keeps going up, 2011, 2012, 2013) and marvel at the sums we lavish on international consultancies, fees that largely march offshore, generating no local innovation or economic growth.

Last fall, I came across a news release from the Ministry of Health, describing a $842 MILLION “Clinical and Systems Transformation Project”. I now realize, I’ve not been tracking a significant seam of IT spending: the systems being commissioned by the five regional health authorities and their central services arm, the Provincial Health Services Authority.

Indeed, a quick perusal of the 2012/13 PHSA suppliers list shows a $50M spend on IBM, and an $11M spend on HP in just one year. That’s enough to change my annual spending tracker quite a bit!

So, IBM won the new “Clinical and Systems Transformation Project”, worth $842 MILLION over 10 years, I wonder what that RFP looked like? I asked for it, and was refused, so I FOI’ed it, and it came back. It’s 500 pages long. Have a look.

Fun sidebar: On page 186, in the “economic model” of the RFP, they direct that “proponents are to include 4% growth per year in infrastructure (e.g. storage capacity, network bandwidth, processing capacity, etc.) needs over the Term.” Any readers see a problem modelling IT capacity requirements at 4% growth per year over 10 years? Hint: A 2003 iMac shipped with 256Mb RAM; a 2013 iMac ships with 8Gb RAM: that’s 32 times more capacity. 4% compounding over 10 years generates only a 50% increase in capacity over a decade. Think those terms will need to be renegotiated?

It’s a long read, but fortunately there’s a really interesting bit right away, in the Mandatory Requirements:

Proponent is willing and able to transition any Public Sector union agreements relevant to the Managed Services to their organization, if required

Whoa! This isn’t just an IT systems agreement after all, it’s an outsourcing deal.

The government seems to have learned little from the experience of BC Hydro outsourcing to Accenture or Medical Services Plan to Maximus, or from reports by the Auditor General, or even their own consultants who reviewed outsourcing from 2001-2010 and noted that:

  • Contracts were structured towards a specific solution or specific outputs rather than a desired outcome
  • Contracts were negotiated in isolation gave the same scope of services to multiple vendors
  • The procurement process resulted in contracts that while defined, are no longer what is required
  • Risk transfer objectives were not met
  • There was no consolidated vendor management
  • There was no central management of the deals or the benefits achieved

The “Alternative Service Delivery Secretariat” wound down in 2010, but the government is still hard at it, now quietly preparing to outsource the clinical systems of three health authorities to IBM, for $84M a year over 10 years. Significant portions of critical government operations are being transferred beyond direct government control for very long periods of time.

Perhaps the managers who pushed this solution didn’t trust their own staff, or themselves, to successfully bring an ambitious project to conclusion. They didn’t want to “take the risk” so they took the “safe” option. They need to spend some time behind the velvet curtain in organizations like IBM or Accenture: the only results that matter to those organizations are the quarterly results.

There will be some good people in them, and some bad ones, but the level of competence or capability won’t be orders of magnitude better than you could build yourself in-house. And as organization, as corporations, they have only one bottom line, and it’s theirs, not ours.

Examples are not Normative

Once, when I still had the energy, I was reading an Open Geospatial Consortium specification document, and found an inconsistency between a directive stated in the text, and the examples provided to illustrate the directive. This seemed pretty important, since most “Humans” use the examples and ignore the text, so I raised it with the author, who replied to me:

“Examples are not normative”

To me, this seemed to summarize in four words everything there was to dislike about the standards community: dismissive, self-referential (“normative”? really?), and unconcerned with real-world practice. One of the reasons I no longer have the energy.

Cheap, Open and Innovative

Here’s a talk I gave on innovation and components at the National Association of Broadcasters this spring.

Download MP4.

Open Source and the Spatial Web

Just to balance out the politics, here’s a nice intro talk I did for GIS folks at URISA earlier this spring. What’s open source, how does it work on the web, who is using it? In 20 easy minutes.

Government & Broadcast Media vs BCTF & Facebook

British Columbia is currently in the midst of its every-five-years labour relations tilt-up between provincial government and the teachers union, the BCTF.

Leaving aside the merits of any particular side’s arguments, I’ve been struck recently between the quite different messages I’m receiving about the dispute via different communications paths.

Via the broadcast media (TV, radio, newspapers, all the organs with a single publisher) I’ve been getting a pretty standard he-said-she-said message, in which the official spokespeople of both sides give their say, and the focus tends on dry talk of fiscal matters. Pundits talk about the political interests of each side, and about who is “winning”, the sides themselves engage in rhetoric that tends towards the abstract and rhetorically overblown.

If they are looking only at the broadcast media, the government can probably tell themselves they are winning, mostly. The conversation tends towards “affordability” and wages, with a lot less focus on working conditions, class size, class room composition, the kinds of things your kids actually experience when you drop them off every day.

Now, look at Facebook.

Let me start this off by noting that I am not a big Facebooker. I got an account some time ago, added a few dozen high-school and college friends, a handful of current acquaintances: I have just 41 “friends”. But even that small pool includes two school teachers, and probably quite a few friends-of-school-teachers.

And so I have gotten,

Pictures of friendly teachers on the picket line,

Sandwich board preparation,

Event information.

I’ve also had the opportunity to read longer-form descriptions of what teachers feel about the dispute and the state of the classroom, written by teachers themselves, not by the press officers of the BCTF. (Due to the “walled garden” nature of Facebook, these deep links into Facebook content may not work for everyone, apologies in advance.)

There’s really no comparison. The teachers are getting personal, moving messages delivered directly to me in real time via my social media feeds. The government is getting dry, numeric messages delivered to me if I happen to have my radio or TV on.

Traditionally teachers have always gone into these disputes with a bit of an advantage – people know and have personal connections to their children’s teachers. With social media, that traditional person-to-person advantage is magnified ten-fold and more. Now even citizens without children in the system can get direct, personal messages from the teachers that they know, directly or indirectly. Even if you don’t know a teacher, you surely know several people who do.

The government picked a fight with teachers assuming they could win a wedge issue by smacking down a public sector union long typecast as “troublesome” and “militant”. I think they could end up getting a worse black eye than they ever imagined, via the social media feeds of the thousands of teachers they’ve made enemies of.

Postscript: This isn’t just about message, it’s about messengers and population size. There’s 41K BCTF members, that’s a lot of people in a province of just 4M. BCTF members can create a lot of social media signal, compared to the professional communicators in government. I’m sure the government would like to have a great social media presence on this issue, but there aren’t 41K government communicators spread out nice and uniformly through every community in the province. They just don’t stand a chance.

Postscript 2: As if to hammer home the point, this post, which yesterday received a couple hundred views after I posted it to twitter, has received 3 times the traffic today after a teacher shared it on Facebook.