Victoria finally kills $180m Ultranet disaster

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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.

opinion/analysis
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

11 COMMENTS

  1. There is a thread that runs through HealthSmart, UltraNet and the DHS solution. It’s Oracle and it is ridiculous that Larry Ellison can buy more yachts and islands because VIC is being flogged software that doesn’t seem to work in the real world. Where is the accountability by the vendors?

  2. I agree with you Hubi, I use Oracle financial services products which are at least 20 years behind other systems, yet, they are able to sell them to significant financial intuitions who then struggle to integrate and run them.

    As a parent of a Vic student, I never understood what Ultranet was for, I tried in vein to get access (but never could), so I am glad we are saving money on this product !

  3. HAHA – perhaps Victoria would like to purchase QLD’s ONE School system given QLD Government is going to an IT as a services model and they don’t want to own it anymore.

  4. I worked in DEECD IT for over a year and it was beyond hopeless. Appauling management, no morale, half the team on YouTube all day. The same problems they got done for back in the ombudsman report a few years back are still rampant. Utterly depressing.

  5. Where to from here for Gov IT projects? Has any state implemented any successfully? What are some solutions?

  6. “the State Government has delivered a concrete, detailed ICT strategy containing containing hard deadlines for goals to be met.”

    Please tell me the related quantitative measures of success and transparency of the ICT goals….the best thing that could have happened was to start publishing the progress of ICT initiatives like the US Federal Govt.

    This would have and will solve IT project woes in all Australian Governments.

  7. More rigour in the requirements analysis and business case/s would make for more effective outcomes. A number schools, public and private, jumped on the Learning Platform bandwagon without sufficient forethought to needs and outcomes. Some did it well, other not so well.

  8. It’s a tragic amount of money to be blown on a product that it’s clear is absolutely required to modernize our education environment. Cloud based learning platforms are a no-brainer for encouraging self directed learning, sharing resources and helping parents to get more involved in the child’s progress.

    From my perspective internal IT decisions in DEECD seem to be self serving and extremely slow to adapt to changing environments. Many schools have pushed ahead themselves and implemented many different isolated and in some cases very successful learning platforms with no assistance from DEECD ITD.

    Enterprise collaboration environments for school administrators is non-existent and DEECD continues to use the expensive Microsoft Exchange communication platform while many states have moved to cloud based offerings from Google or Open Source solutions with large reductions in cost and improvements in functionality.

    It seems to me a certain amount of school autonomy can yield a selection fitness that quite tangible. An example is a popular product being offered from a private company – JDLF International called Compass which is popping up all over the place. Schools are buying this to implement in their Administration centers with no input from DEECD and it’s having a real impact on efficiency. It is web based and has a great focus on UI and simplicity of operation. I suspect we will see this company broaden it’s offerings into the curriculum, which will be nice to see.

  9. What is also important to note about these projects in education is that they represented a particular understanding and paradigm of learning which emphasized a centralised model of learning within an enterprise walled garden (on premise or off site in the cloud).

    What matters is that increasingly these projects and product do not reflect how learning is conducted.

    Learning is increasingly distributed /blended and using BYOD and personal cloud based tools (often not owned by the education institution). Learning, business and the world has moved on since these projects were started.

  10. What you will find is that every government tender requires the company building/supplying the service to be able to show financials i.e. if you don’t turn over a million bazillion dollars every year then you may as well forget it.

    What this does is quickly eliminate most of the smaller Australian companies from ever being granted a tender and then the usual suspects (who no one ever gets fired for selecting) get the work, it ends up costing the tax payer a million bazillion dollars, doesn’t work because they shoe horn the problem into their solution and then the project usually gets so large and unsuccessful that it eventually suffers from white elephant-itis.

    Federal and state governments need to allow their tenders to be granted to *real* Australian companies – I don’t mean the ones that are an Australian based consulting fronts for the large multinationals. Of course this would be much better for the Australian IT industry but because it would put people’s noses out of joint and for various other agenda based reasons it will never happen.

  11. A sad and sorry tale of woe indeed. The problem was that when this project was initiated the world was a different place. Realistically, a centralised project like this was the only practical way to roll out a standard ‘education ERP’ environment across all 1500+ schools.

    Unfortunately the project was the usual shipwreck for all the usual reasons. These boil down to the underlying complexity of DEECD’s organisational context and a lack of managerial wit and accountability … further compounded by the fact that there are many competing and continually changing ideas about (a) how to teach kids and (b) how to use technology in schools and the classroom.

    Looking forward, the way this should be tackled is to embrace a more emergent bottom-up approach which leverages the rapidly evolving solutions available in the diverse and decentralised world of cloud services.

    My view is that we need to regard this problem as one that can only be solved by creating an environment that accelerates what I call “compounding organisational learning”. Find things that work and do more of them. Learn quickly what doesn’t work and do less of it. Small successes and lessons learned compound over time. A project like Ultranet was a tragedy of waste on many levels, but the worst aspect was the waste of TIME. DEECD has taken the better part of a decade to go through one cycle of organisational learning. This is no longer acceptable … and to perpetuate this approach should be viewed as negligence in public administration.

    Compounding organisational learning is an approach where decentralised innovation is encouraged within an environment that facilitates collaboration and knowledge sharing. Schools would be encouraged to adopt cloud services that met their needs – individually or in clusters. Information about successes and failures, good services and bad services, would be made transparent via a school-wide collaboration platform. Adoption of good services would grow and they would become de facto standards. Bad services would fade from memory quickly. Skills and confidence in the solutions would compound over time as staff learned what worked and what did not. Centralised resources would be applied to create enablers and resolve bottlenecks. This approach embraces the fast competitive pace of the global digital economy and the cloud services market. The goal is to accelerate the pace of innovation.

    Because cloud services are shared services that work (as I say, “cloudy is as cloudy does”) the services that proved themselves to be successful over time would scale and become platforms that are shared by many schools – in Victoria and other states. This would happen in a low risk, emergent, way driven by schools meeting their individual needs with solutions that actually work … in parallel with staff in schools learning the new skills required to apply and manage these solutions.

    Ultranet attempted to create a closed centrally planned socialist economy for IT solutions within the Victorian education system. The outcome was that schools were, metaphorically, ‘forced to drive around in a smoky old Trabant’. Let’s just scrap this whole approach and learn how to drive innovation in an open capitalist cloud services economy for IT solutions.

    OK … OK … yes … I know … 1000 flowers … chaos … fragmentation … yadda yadda. The first step in moving forward, however, is to wave the surrender flag on failed IT strategy thinking and to embrace the new art of the possible. Let’s face facts – the top-down socialist model has been an utter utter failure.

    What if all of the money wasted on Ultranet had been invested wisely at school level within an environment of good internet connectivity, collaboration and knowledge sharing? What if the goal was to accelerate compounding organisational learning in schools … rather than forcing staff and teachers to drive around in broken down smoky old Trabants?

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