It never fails. A government agency–like a department or ministry of education, whether at the local, state, or federal level–introduces a new software system that is supposed to streamline the workload, make instant access to information possible, and increase efficiency. Just like all the other titles that have come across the desktop computers of frustrated employees for years. And typically, the new software has the same results: endless training sessions to learn the new system, frustration at constant glitches, and a general inability to make the new system work any better than any of the dozen previous versions.
That is certainly the case for many school districts in British Columbia, who introduced a new software system for all schools in its districts. The complaints began within days of the software’s unveiling, and the problems haven’t let up. In fact, one school district has written a formal letter to the Minister to demand something be done about the software. The chairman of the Powell River School Board has been understanding to date of the problems that could be expected in any new system, but the same problems that plagued the launch of the school year are still impeding functional use of the government-mandated system. Moreover, the education minister has stated from the beginning that the government will not be seeking any refunds from the software’s developer, Fujitsu, who has already issued a formal apology for the problems in its title, despite the fact that a provision for the payment of penalties was written into the original contract.
This is just one example out of a possible hundreds, or even thousands. Whether it’s in schools, driver’s licednse authorities, police stations, or any other government office, it seems that we just can’t get it right the first time when it comes to new software. The first culprit may be in the very method with which we choose operating systems and technology. Contracts are typically doled out to the lowest bidder, except in cases where corruption leads to the contract being awarded to the entity who paid the most in campaign contributions, or to the politician’s nephew who writes code and owns a startup. Without a better system of selection in place–one that includes submitting proven track records of satisfied customer-users–this cycle of replacing bad software with even worse software is just going to continue.
Another issue at hand is the fact that contracts aren’t just awarded to tech companies who have the best product, but to the companies that have enough insurance. When putting students’ data into the hands of a software developer, there has to be liability insurance to cover glitches that lead to children being put in danger. Whether the product works well or not isn’t the only issue at hand, but how capable the company is at funding the cleanup from an incident. This is why small startups and even open-source titles are facing obstacles when it comes to supplying affordable software for some of the most cash-strapped agencies in government.