As long as the public sector does not change the principles of IT procurement nor adopts the private sector's software development outsourcing model, new disasters on the scale of the construction register debacle will continue to happen, writes Andres Aavik, head of software company Flowit.
No government-commissioned IT development project has before caused the kind of outcry seen after the construction register was revamped on the last day of May. Builders, developers, architects, municipalities, civil servants and building contractors are all furious.
Even before the new version (was released), the building register was already legendary. It was joked that in order to upload files to the register, it was necessary to hire a special person who could figure out a file name that the system accepts. The joke was not far from the truth.
Expectations for the new construction register were therefore high. However, instead of improving the file naming process and user friendliness, (the changes) created more problems, which completely paralyze the process. For example, the overview of procedural processes disappeared and no one could understand the status of incomplete procedures.
Thousands of the register's users have faced disruptions. The issuing of construction permits has essentially come to a standstill. According to press reports, Tallinn city officials have been holding crisis meetings with representatives of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications for days. The flawed register is already creating extra costs for construction projects. As a result, one company is considering taking the state to court, having already suffered tens of thousands of euros in financial losses due to problems with the construction register.
What has emerged is that the modernization of the register was destined to fail because the basic materials provided to the developer were of poor quality and previous developments were not documented. Taavi Jakobson, head of the building register department at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, admitted to Äripäev, that when he took up his post, he soon realized that "the earlier development of the construction register was based on folklore."
The application needs continuous development
A solution to these critical problems will probably be found and the construction register will be up and running again, but does the state now have the will to improve it brick by brick? Or will the application be taken out of active development once the problems have been solved, put into administrative mode with a minimum budget, and no more improvements made? The logic of public procurement prevents any improvement of public sector IT applications.
The Estonian state excels in the world when it comes to advanced e-services, but the conditions and framework for their development date back to the pre-internet era. The public sector has not grasped that e-services need to constantly evolve, as consumer needs, the environment, technology and even cyber threats change very rapidly. Even in the procurement process, there is a need to make changes over time to improve the reliability and user-friendliness of the service in order to achieve better results. Unfortunately, public procurement rules create a headache for e-development and that's how these problems occur.
The principles of e-procurement for a ministry cannot be the same as those applied for the construction of a new building. Unfortunately, when we put up a building, it stands there until it collapses and a new one is built. Checks are made to ensure that the windows and doors are still there, but nothing more is done in the meantime.
Because the public sector neglects e-services once they are completed, the life cycle of their software is often shorter than for those in the private sector.
The private sector develops differently
Public officials should take the lead from the private sector when designing procurement (processes), with e-services continuously adapted according to user needs and changes in the environment. Doing things that better achieve their objectives rather than just following what is written in the tender document. If new information comes to light during the development process, or if better plans emerge, the project should be revised accordingly. In this way, a better solution, one that works, is always found.
After the initial software release, statistics and user feedback are collected so that things can be improved on an ongoing basis. New functionalities are also added to better meet business objectives. As a result, the application stays up-to-date and the software does not need to be replaced as quickly.
What is said about business plans also holds true for software - neither can withstand the first meeting with a real customer. It cannot be assumed that the procurement officer knows which e-solution will work best for users. But in the public sector, after years of development, this is the vision that citizens encounter.
Editor: Michael Cole