news The Victorian Government has reportedly terminated its disastrous Ultranet schools portal, which ballooned in cost to $180 million over the past seven years but ended up being barely used by the education stakeholders it was supposed to serve.
The Age newspaper reported this week that the project had been finally switched off. The newspaper reported (we recommend you click here for the full article):
“The state government has confirmed the IT experiment known as the Ultranet has officially ceased … Computer giant NEC has taken over the program, rebadged it under the name of GenED and is giving schools the chance to keep it – provided they pay for it out of their own budgets.”
The project was first mooted in the middle of the last decade, with its 2007 business case (following an earlier trial) promoting it as having the capacity to deliver an “intuitive, student-centred electronic learning environment” that would allow teachers, students and staff to access curriculum content, records, student reports and community features. After an initial pilot in 2006, when the project was dubbed ‘Student@Centre’, the system was then deployed to all Victorian Government schools throughout 2010, on the back of a contract announced in June 2009 with IT services group CSG, which in 2008 bought CingleVue, another local firm specialising in implementing Oracle solutions in the education sector. The project was based on Oracle technology.
In 2009, CSG said at the time that the Ultranet solution would be “truly world class”. Then-CSG chief executive Denis Mackenzie commented “This will be the first true enterprise solution deployed in P-12 education in Australia, and is one of the first systems in the world to offer such a high level of functionality to students, teachers, parents and administrators.”
However, a report published in late December 2012 by the Victorian Auditor-General found that the project had suffered myriad problems. For starters, the auditor wrote, the project as a whole was “poorly planned and implemented”. “None of its three business cases had a well thought out needs analysis or gave considered options to deliver the project. The various business cases did not answer the ‘Why invest?’ question for the Ultranet, nor did they provide a sound basis for the project’s approval,” the report states, noting that six years after its announcement, the Ultranet project had not delivered its main objectives.
Furthermore, the project continues, the report wrote, “despite advice from central agencies that it should cease or be delayed”, with Victoria’s education department apparently ignoring advice on the subject by the departments of the Premier and Treasury.
“It is difficult to understand why the Ultranet procurement was able to proceed to contract execution, given the significant concerns raised by DPC and DTF, as well as the many adverse ratings that DEECD had received from various Gateway reviews since the project first commenced,” the report stated. “Further, this audit detected a number of serious process and probity issues in relation to tendering and procurement for the Ultranet. DEECD has advised that it has commenced a number of actions and further detailed investigations in response to these matters.”
The auditor wrote that they had little confidence that financial management practices relating to the project were sound. The project appeared likely to have blown out in total cost to about $180 million — triple what it was initially expected to cost — and use of the project is declining, with on average, only 10 percent of students and 27 percent of teachers in Victoria logging on to the platform on a monthly basis from July 2011 through May 2012.
The auditor-general recommended the state’s education department urgently develop a comprehensive strategy to deal with the implementation of learning technologies in schools, as well as urgently reviewing its investment in Ultranet — and considering whether to pursue legal action against CSG. One option is to scrap the project as a whole, while another is to continue to fund it and fix the issues.
The news comes as the Victorian Government is struggling with almost all of its major IT projects at the moment. In November 2011, the Victorian Ombudsman handed down one of the most damning assessments of public sector IT project governance in Australia’s history, noting total cost over-runs of $1.44 billion, extensive delays and a general failure to actually deliver on stated aims in 10 major IT projects carried out by the state over the past half-decade. Ultranet was one of the projects cited.
In May 2012, the Victorian State Government similarly decided to walk away from its troubled central electronic health project HealthSMART, which has reached only a limited number of its goals over the past decade since it was initiated, despite soaking up several hundred million dollars worth of government funding.
In late March the Victorian Auditor-General told the state’s Department of Human Services to treat the need for a better client information system to store details about children under its care as a “priority”, with revelations that the department’s existing system was difficult to use and not being used correctly, as well as the fact that staff are still using cumbersome fax-based technology to report abuse.
And in mid-February Victoria Police laid part of the blame for an 11-year-old boy’s death at the time at the doorstep of its ailing IT systems, which failed to provide officers with sufficient information to apprehend an offender in a timely manner.
To address the systemic problems, the State Government has appointed a new chief technology advocate, Grantly Mailes, and has delivered a concrete, detailed ICT strategy containing containing hard deadlines for goals to be met.
Nothing surprising here. Ultranet has been on the rocks for some time, and was only awaiting the appropriate ministerial decision to be axed. Victoria is probably Australia’s most problematic jurisdiction when it comes to major IT problem failures, and Ultranet has been one of the worst.
Image credit: Still from Gladiator