Software satisfaction — how can councils get it?

Habour Software
By Michael Craig, Harbour Software
Monday, 30 October, 2023

Software satisfaction — how can councils get it?

In the 1970s, when much of the business world was introducing computers to free up employees from tedious routine tasks so they could pursue more strategic work, Australian local councils were quietly joining the fledgling IT revolution.

Not that much has changed today, with streamlining processes in the aim of efficiency still very much the goal. Councils are implementing software suites that continually improve productivity by automating a range of tasks from collecting rates to offering self-service dog registrations. The difference now is that all these time-saving applications are expected to seamlessly work with each other, through the use of application programming interfaces (APIs).

Any disruption to the applications that run most council services is keenly felt, by council staff, residents and ratepayers. IT managers are at the coalface when it comes to disgruntled stakeholders. They, in turn, rely on their software vendors to respond quickly and effectively when operations are disrupted. But what happens when the vendor’s help desk doesn’t work properly and your customer service level agreement (SLA) doesn’t materialise? SLAs vary depending on the arrangement between vendor and council. Adherence can be patchy and many questions remain unanswered: How much downtime is acceptable? How long can an outstanding ticket be left without a resolution?

To help understand better, three seasoned local government IT leaders shared their experiences and collective wisdom. They not only provide insight into why they believe some councils choose to stick it out with poor performing software vendors, but also offer a simple solution to one of the most frustrating parts of an IT manager’s job.

What does good customer service look like?

We all experience customer service every day — whether receiving or providing it. It is an area that is studied and promoted as a foundational element in retaining customers, with business gurus pushing terms like “customer centric focus” as must-have organisational attributes. Despite this, our understanding of what good customer service looks like — and what drives it — seems to vary wildly.

IT managers also have differing ideas when it comes to customer service, especially when it comes to vendor help desks, which they rely on heavily to keep mission-critical software running 24/7. With no best practice framework or standard to determine what lays outside the realm of ‘reasonable’, local councils are often in a vulnerable position.

AJ Jack is IT and GIS Coordinator at Oberon Council. With over 30 years’ experience in IT, including managing a help desk in a previous role, he understands the importance of keeping on top of tickets and ensuring resolve times are minimised.

“My frustration with a previous software solution we used was endless,” he said.

“I’d log a call and nothing would happen. Then I’d complain to my account manager, but he couldn’t help either. New help desk managers would come and go and nothing would change in the help desk queue. One job remained active for two and half years, so I gave it a Happy Birthday greeting in the comments section when it turned two — thinking a comment like that would get people moving — but still, nothing.”

Jack said his experience is not unusual, with a peer from another LGA once telling him about a four-year-old outstanding ticket of his own.

“I don’t understand why some councils tolerate substandard customer service such as the council with the four-year-old outstanding ticket,” he said.

“And what’s even stranger, that same council re-signed with that vendor. I’m only half joking when I say this, but could it be some type of Stockholm Syndrome is keeping them from moving on?”

Sunk cost fallacy

The more likely reason is a condition known as “sunk cost fallacy”, where individuals and organisations feel they’ve invested too much to quit, justifying further investment and ongoing commitment.

Garry X has been working in IT for 25 years — including 15 as an IT leader in local government in Queensland — and has seen sunk cost fallacy in action.

“I’ve seen this scenario many a time. You invest in a project for, say, a million dollars. It starts to go pear-shaped but — because it will cost two million dollars to start again — the organisation takes the risk and invests an additional $500,000 the vendor says will fix the issue. The money doesn’t help, the project is still pear-shaped and even more investment is required — and it keeps going on and on.”

He believes other factors influence this outcome, including a lack of binding SLA targets, along with what Gartner has termed the “Gartner Hype Cycle”, a methodology that provides an objective map of risks and opportunities associated with emerging technologies.

“Predictably, at the beginning everyone is looking at the bright side looking forward to all the benefits a new technology will bring, so binding SLAs are not at the top of the list,” he said.

“Then you get to the top, where the technology is at its peak. According to the Gartner Hype Cycle — which I think is accurate — it then swoops down to the ‘Trough of Disillusionment’, where you begin to discover problems with the technology. At this point, if the product is not well supported, there will be little help at hand to fix the issues. In my experience, some councils literally hit rock bottom and stay there until they look for another technology,” he said.

Procurement processes

Some state governments have attempted to introduce more rigour around large investments, creating LG procurement processes designed to avoid the pitfalls associated with unresponsive software vendors, and, if implemented properly, taking them out of the equation altogether.

One such initiative is the Victorian Government’s Rural Councils Transformation Project (RCTP), which aims to improve council services for rural communities by providing a framework for groups of councils to share procurement processes and services. RCTP already has several projects underway ranging from a couple of councils to collaborations of up to four or five.

These RCTP implementations provide a high level of transparency into how and why a particular software application is selected by a group within a fit-for-purpose framework. When working through the procurement process, councils are able to openly discuss the merits of different software solutions, including customer service.

Our last IT professional is Vaughan Williams, Director Corporate and Community Services at North Grampians Shire Council (NGSC). NGSC is part of an RCTP initiative involving Northern Grampians, Southern Grampians and Queenscliff Shire Councils. Williams has another take on the issue.

“The problem starts when councils see themselves as unique and become resistant to any change in their entrenched processes,” he said.

“In reality, all councils fulfil very similar functions for their local communities. We don’t ask for Excel to be customised — we all have the same version and it works really well just as it is, regardless of your business processes.”

When it comes to software in general, Williams has some sage advice.

“Councils need to stop being afraid of change — if we don’t change our software when it’s not working properly, how else are we going to encourage innovation and keep them (software vendors) honest?” he said.

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