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When Victoria’s Department of Planning and Community Development set out to create a grants management application, its chosen supplier saw a chance to commercialise the results … and so did the department. Simon Sharwood explores the evolving partnership.
Managing grants is a tricky business. A whiff of political interference can mean a well-meaning program becomes a political football, a fate that befell the federal Regional Partnerships Program. If it goes wrong, as those with long political memories will recall, a simple whiteboard can become a symbol of incompetence. Ros Kelly, the Hawke/Keating Minister, fell foul of just such an implement when doling out money to sporting groups in the early 1990s.
Some government agencies haven’t moved much further than whiteboards since, according to Michael Coates, a Product Manager at Object Consulting.
“Grants management is still widely done through bespoke development, Access databases or Excel spreadsheets,” Coates says. “The Gershon Review identified that in Federal Government alone there were 124 different systems and most of those were paper-based.”
Paul Virgo, Chief Information Officer and Director of Corporate Operations and Technology at Victoria’s Department of Planning and Community Development (DPCD) says his organisation once lacked a robust grants management tool of its own, and in 2004 recognised the need for a dedicated application.
“Grants is an internal customer,” Virgo explains. “DPCD has traditionally administered a number of grants, including community support funds for other portfolios. The volume of money issued is very substantial,” and can reach hundreds of millions of dollars.
For reasons of transparency, the Department therefore saw the need for an application to track grants. “We wanted accountability to track who approved what,” Virgo says. “And efficiency through consistent processes was very desirable,” so that anyone charged with administering grants used the same tool and standards as any other DPCD worker.
In 2005, DPCD therefore engaged Object Consulting to build a grants management application that became known as e-grants. As the project progressed and Object learned more about grants management, it occurred to the company that if one agency needed such an application, surely others did too.
As the project neared completion, Object asked DPCD if it could licence the code it was creating for the department, and received a swift affirmation. “We said it is in line with government policy,” Virgo says, as the Victorian government recognised the benefits of projects for government being allowed to be re-used by other agencies, or commercialised. The former scenario is said to lower government development costs, by allowing for one project to be re-used in other agencies. Such arrangements recently became federal government policy. (Editor’s note: See page 10 for a contribution from the Federal IT Supplier Advocate, whose role touches on these issues).
Victoria already had polices in place to facilitate such arrangements at the time Object and DPCD discussed the issue, making Virgo’s decision easy. Adding to his enthusiasm was the fact that Victoria’s arrangements mean the original commissioning agency issues a license for re-use, and can make money.“So we went through the appropriate steps. One of the benefits we were hoping for is that there would be revenue for government. We felt it would increase uptake across the Victorian government and elsewhere.”
At this point the relationship between service provider and client became rather different. Object was close to finishing its engagement as developer-for-hire, and was moving into a new engagement as maintainer of the application.
But because Object was now also trying to create a product, it wanted deeper engagement with DPCD so that it could learn more about how to build an application others would want to buy. The company also needed the best-possible reference site.
Object’s Coates says this combination of needs meant the company found itself in new territory.
“On a traditional bespoke development you finish the job and then go into support and maintenance. It becomes a case of raise a ticket, fix a bug, do a deployment. That’s not a proactive relationship.”
It’s also not the relationship Object needed as it worked to productise e-grants into its own product, ’Object Grants’.
“We want to build a better product and DPCD has experts in the domain. That makes for a different conversation: instead of talking about bugs, you ask what does the business need to get a better interaction with recipients and applicants? That makes for a very different conversation from what we have had in the past.
“That’s not to suggest that the relationship has become adversarial,” Coates says. “We’re now working towards a common goal and I quite enjoy that to be honest.”
Coates enjoys it even though he admits “we do eat a bit of cost along the way,” but insists “DPCD gets a better product through the investment we make.”
Virgo is in broad agreement, but feels slow sales – only one other agency, Victoria’s WorkSafe, has acquired Object Grants – mean the ongoing development effort is not sustained.
Nonetheless, Virgo says DPCD was initially over-serviced.
“Object had resources we were not paying for because they really wanted to get it over the line,” he recalls. “But we feel they need a sale. They are still taking it seriously and it is a good scenario because now it is commercial Object has incentive to continue developing the software. But I don’t think they will sink money into it until they get a sale.”
Object’s Coates is a little more upbeat.
“The sales cycle is a slow process,” he says. “We have one other customer in WorkSafe Victoria. In a lot of cases we are still in the stage of building market awareness. A lot of departments are still happy with Excel and the like. But you don’t get an audit trail in Excel, so the market is hotting up.”
One of the sources of heat is a rival application in another department, which in a further twist to the relationship has reached DPCD’s radar. The new application will be coded using the latest technologies and will be more modern than e-grants and Object Grants.
“We need to keep an eye on the Department of Human Services, which is looking at its own system,” Virgo says. “Maybe they’ll deliver a better product. Ours is a thick client and that causes problems with deployment. This was an appropriate technology decision five years ago, but if Human Services builds does a beautiful thin client, we don’t know …
“We are waiting for Object to get that sale and have some money to sink into it. It’s a waiting game.”
Virgo is also considering other enhancements that may help to modernise e-grants. “Since we had it built it’s been all about functionality,” he says, leaving an infrastructure refresh perhaps overdue. “We would like to move to CenITex and to SQL Server 2008.”