BCeSIS: A Modest Proposal

No, not “eat all the children” although that would be one way to solve the BCeSIS problem.

Rather, embrace the free market and the spirit of competition to reduce the risk of project failure.

The trouble with spending the entire student information system budget on a single system and vendor is that it is an unhedged bet. If it pans out, you win; if it doesn’t you lose 100% of your investment.

In reviewing the state of BCeSIS and recommending future options, the Gartner report had this to say about pursuing an open source option:

There is little evidence of a common, well-developed strategy to develop an Open Source solution in the K-12 software domain and it is anticipated that the development life cycle from defining requirements through deployment would be more than 5 years once a strategy was completed, thus introducing a high degree of risk to the BC education sector. Although some attempts have been initiated to develop K-12 Open Source SIS solutions, there does not appear to be any formal, structured funding mechanism and approach to designing and developing a solution which would meet the future needs of the BC education sector, nor to scale to the extent required to provide a single, province-wide student database.

Leaving aside the circularity of recommending against funding open source development because open source development lacks funding, the seeds of a great idea are actually lying in this paragraph.

  • The OpenStudent project actually got started two years ago, and seem to be more or less on Gartner’s five-year estimated schedule (my opinion of Gartner notches upwards fractionally), with three years to go on feature-complete delivery.
  • The OpenStudent project could benefit from incremental funding from the Ministry, a “formal, structured funding mechanism”, if you will.

Herewith, the modest proposal:

Rather than committing 100% to the Aspen/Fujitsu approach, commit 95% to it, and commit the other 5% to OpenStudent. If OpenStudent fails, only a relatively small investment will be lost. If Aspen/Fujitsu fails, the Ministry has a potential fall-back plan in place and ready to go with no additional capital required. In either event, the existence of active competitors will encourage each project to provide the best possible user experience and provide a baseline of comparison for improvement (“oh, OpenStudent is faster? we can beat that”, “oh, Aspen has this feature? we can add that”)

What do you say, Ministry of Education. You’ve got the brass balls to bet $100M on a single product and vendor. Do you have the balls to bet a couple million on the possibility your $100M bet might not pay off?

BCeSIS: Doing the Same Thing Over and Over and Expecting Different Results

So, the BC government is entering negotiations to replace the “COTS student information system” that they implemented/purchased five years ago at a cost of about $100M.

With another COTS system. Yay.

To be managed and run by the same vendor running the current COTS system. Yay.

I think that MLA Rob Fleming had a valid point when he asked the Minister of Education during Question Period (I assume with some edge in his voice):

Given this government’s wasteful track record on IT projects, how can the minister assure British Columbians that his government won’t be wasting $100 million more of their tax dollars before he signs a new 12-year deal?

But there’s a reason it’s called “Question Period” and not “Answer Period”. So the Minister chose not to detail a management regime which will guard taxpayers against another failed implementation, nor a multi-vendor strategy to hedge bets against the failure of one vendor, nor a collaboration with another province to share in implementation and customization costs, nor any assurance at all that the next round will come off any different from the previous..

Curiously, the tactic the Minister chose was to defend the current iteration of BCeSIS!

It’s “one of the most robust student information systems in the country”, “there were challenges with the new technology” but “we have learned from that”, and finally:

I’ll also remind the member that the ministry engaged an independent report. That report from Gartner, who did the report, said that we have a good, stable student information system that’s meeting the needs of the school districts in the province.

Oh, um, no. The Gartner report is pretty clear, right in the executive summary:

The alternative assessment concluded that BCeSIS, as currently deployed, is **not meeting the business, technical or operational needs of BC and is not a viable future alternative **

At a cost of $100M, that’s a “colossal failure” in my or any other thinking person’s books.

I fear that the Ministry of Education IT bureaucracy is entering into a death race with the BC openStudent project, which is a consortium of school districts building a student information system using collaborative “open source” principles. OpenStudent is promising usable technology at a much lower per student cost than the provincial system.

If openStudent can get an acceptable working system in place in their partner districts before the Ministry has their new system up and running, some senior IT poobahs will be very embarrassed, and we can’t have that. So we’re going to get a death race.

My advice to OpenStudent: stop using “comic sans” in your business case documents. And watch out because your first public delivery will be used to beat you over the head with. “Missing all these features that the COTS product has!” “I found a bug!” “It erased my laptop” “Comic sans!”

There no bunfight like an IT bureaucracy bunfight.

BC IT Outsourcing 2012/13

It’s hard to believe a whole year has gone by! And yet, it has. July is here, the BC 2012/2013 Public Accounts have come out, so it’s time to update my tracking of IT outsourcing spending with another year’s data points!

Last year the government’s “private sector partners” notched up 8% year-over-year growth to extract $393,603,233 from the treasury, setting another all-time record! While growth has slowed from last year’s 21% pace, IT spending growth is still above both the rate of inflation and the overall growth rate of the budget. Suck on that, children and sick people!

In the individual category, HP Advanced Solutions continues to rule the roost, posting 19% growth to notch a league-leading $130M in billings. At this point, nobody else is even close. Former champ IBM continues to shed billings, and now lags even Maximus with only $59M in billings.

My favourite systems integrator, Deloitte & Touch, has plateaued at $36M in billings, but with potential new builds in natural resources to add to the social services sector, they could surprise on the upside next season: get your bets in early.

Update: I figured out what last years mysterious entry for “Oracle Microsystems” is. Somehow, Sun Microsystems won a big services contract to build components of the eHealth systems (a pharmacy system and an electronic health record). So, the totals and growth rate numbers have been updated. And here I thought Sun was a hardware company (perhaps somebody knew somebody). Once Oracle bought Sun, we have a name change to “Oracle Microsystems”, but still a healthy $20M annual services spend. And a new seam of IT boondogglery to investigate: eHealth must be the grand-daddy of them all.

Natural Resource Sector goes Over the Waterfall

While plans in 2012 were still flirting with bringing the glories of Seibel to the natural resources sector, I have heard that (hallelujah) that is not on.

The big “IT systems transformation” however, that is very much on, baby! And it’s going to be a glorious, Niagara Falls style, waterfall.

The first RFP for the project is out, and it calls for spending $5.4 MILLION dollars to build absolutely NO software. All the deliverables of the first phase are documentation: requirements specifications, business process models, systems reviews, and project management effluvia.

Fortunately, the reporting relationships are clear and transparent!

BC taxpayers can rest assured though, the deliverables will be top quality. How do I know? Because the government won’t be getting suckered into taking a low quality, low price bid, since the evaluation criteria assign just 10% of the overall score to price.

The RFP also mentions a separate “system integrator team”, presumably staffed by the real high priced help from Deloitte or CGI, which will slurp down the majority of the $100M+ overall budget (still to-be-determined by treasury board). I assume this is because the end state is going to be a single “integrated system”, like ICM, that subsumes all the pre-existing systems being documented during this early phase.

So I guess the sad punchline is that this flawed RFP is actually going to be the high point of the natural resource sector modernization, since it does envision spreading the work across multiple independent teams, who will each gain specific domain knowledge of their working areas. Once the system integrator takes over the streams converge into one big river, heading for the drop-off…

Bringing ICM to the Natural Resources Sector

What could possibly go wrong?

Bringing the unalloyed success that is ICM to the rest of government is a no brainer! (Does that mean you need no brain to recommend it, or no brain to accept the recommendation? What an odd phrase.) The strategic plan for the BC natural resource sector includes a case (authored by whom, I wonder) for “re-using” the ICM technology in natural resource permitting.

The business case will go to Treasury Board some time this year, and we’ll soon be off to the races, with a huge capital allocation for systems development that can only be bid by a major multi-national. Thanks to cabinet secrecy and third party commercial exemptions to the BC FOI law, the taxpayers footing the bill for this extravaganza will get to see neither the full business case, nor the winning bid, nor the billing schedules of the winning bidder.

If we’re lucky we’ll get to see a redacted PowerPoint presentation given to Cabinet, which ironically enough will leave us just about as educated on the issues as the actual decision makers pulling the trigger on this new adventure. Ain’t technology decision making grand?