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The Best Laid Plans

The Best Laid Plans

Local governments everywhere are striving to operate more like businesses while making themselves more accountable to their ratepayers. Brisbane City Council (BCC), one of the largest city administrations in the world, is no exception.

In July 1994 BCC published its first corporate plan and began developing key performance indicators (KPIs) to help it maintain and promote Brisbane as a liveable and progressive city.

But when Andrew Horwood was appointed executive officer of performance management in support of that first corporate plan, he had no idea just how difficult his job would become. Horwood was given just two tasks -- set up a framework for developing the Council's KPIs, and then to start reporting on them.

A veteran of the Federal Department of Social Security, where he developed expertise in performance management, Horwood knew business intelligence software was likely to prove the best means of delivering reports on the Council KPIs. He also knew the Council would have to start by warehousing its data. What he couldn't know -- despite his extensive research -- was just how difficult and drawn out a process that would prove to be.

Brisbane City Council is manager of a regional population of 800,000 people, assets valued at more than $4 billion, 7000 employees, and an annual budget of about $1 billion -- almost twice the combined total of all other Australian capital cities budgets. Until production of that first corporate plan in 1994, the Council was effectively a loose conglomeration of departments providing limited central reporting.

Its systems were heavily mainframe-based, with numerous corporate databases on Unisys and IBM systems. "Our human resources and financials are all held in CA-Datacom databases on the IBM mainframe and they didn't really provide the sort of reporting that we wanted. The research made clear we needed some other repository for the data that was easily accessible and on which we could do some sensible reporting," says Horwood. "We've logged turnaround times for reports from the IBM and they are not very user friendly.

"But I guess the main thing that came out in the research -- and I obviously failed to learn the lesson -- was that getting the data right is really significant and it is not an easy task. I don't know how to make it easier, it is just bloody difficult."Brisbane City Council is moving to a market-driven approach in all areas of its operations, via internationally benchmarked products and services as well as the adoption of "best practice" procedures, and has appointed a CEO to support those goals. "We've developed a range of KPIs relating to our customer service and customer satisfaction, through to employee involvement, development and financial performance, then to innovation and learning," Horwood says.

BCC is also looking to achieve bottom line benefits through KPIs that are being used to address budget efficiencies. The issue of city liveability is being addressed through another series of KPIs, including a requirement for specified amounts of parkland and bushland to be established by 2000. The KPIs follow the Balance Performance Scorecard framework which came from Harvard Business School and which has been adopted by AusIndustry.

BCC believes delivering corporate KPIs is making it more accountable to its ratepayers and is also providing significant indirect benefits. "This approach is giving us a much more focused organisation, which is not easy for ratepayers to see, but which is certainly a benefit for them," says Horwood.

Horwood began the quest for the right business intelligence software with extensive research and visits to government sites throughout Queensland. He then issued a request for information from a range of vendors, received 12 responses and conducted week-long feasibility studies on two product offerings.

But he says if he'd had the kind of 20/20 vision that hindsight makes available to us all, he would have conducted that feasibility study very differently, making it a much more intensive process.

"I guess the biggest problem for us was that we rushed the feasibility study without making sure we had our data right first. We had these two vendors come in and they did work with dummy databases, and then we made some assumptions about how difficult it would be to implement from there. In the end, though, it turned out to be significantly more difficult than we expected, simply because there was more work that needed to be done at our end before we could implement the product," says Horwood.

"The other problem was that because we didn't have the sort of data available that we wanted to report on, we couldn't really get a great feel for the products themselves. With a better feasibility study I'm sure we would have made the same decision, but we would have had a better understanding of how the product works."Eventually he selected CorVu's modular IBIS Business Intelligence software for a variety of reasons, including a high degree of flexibility. "Until now departments, all with fairly powerful managers, were held together by the Town Clerk and did their own internal reporting," says Horwood. "Apart from "all-of-Council" financial reporting, there was no consistency of reporting or total view of the Council. This gave us a proliferation of different decisions and different reports. What attracted us to IBIS was that we could put it on a range of different data sources if necessary. That was important to us."Another factor was the significant transformation BCC is undergoing as it tries to become more business-like in its operations in commercialising departments and business units. "We saw that there would be significant change in anything we did over the next two or three years," says Horwood. "Therefore we needed a flexible product that would be easy to change. We also didn't want to commit ourselves to a product that required extensive programming. We wanted people at the business level to be able to develop reports."BCC made the decision to purchase IBIS in September 1995, and contracted CorVu to do the data warehouse design, pulling financial and human resource information off the IBMs and incorporating it into Oracle databases. Oracle is the preferred platform for Council. The plan was to roll out the first set of applications by the end of that financial year, but once again, says Horwood, with the benefit of hindsight he never would have set such a rigorous timetable.

Indeed not only did BCC fail to meet that July 1996 deadline, it actually did not begin rolling out the application to the target group of 60 users included in its original plans until earlier this year. Even then, the Council did not have a significant amount of data in its warehouse, according to Horwood. A range of problems -- over the course of 12 months -- have left him feeling jinxed.

The trouble began when the person doing the data warehouse design developed health problems and couldn't finish the job. CorVu ended up sub-contracting Oracle to come in and finish the work, but that approach proved highly problematic. "At that point the person who was unable to complete the task was about seven or eight weeks into the warehouse design. We should have redesigned. We should have started again, but we didn't. We tried to continue," says Horwood.

"Oracle came in and just basically finished off what they thought was right. In hindsight, at that point we should have cut our losses and started again, instead of trying to continue on with a project when documentation wasn't there and a lot of assumptions had to be made."As if that wasn't causing difficulties enough, major problems with bugs in a version of Oracle then delayed the Council for a considerably longer time. "And it took us quite some time to figure them out too," says Horwood. "To cut a long story short, in March 1996 I thought we were actually ready to roll out the first set to an original group of 15 users.

"Then in the first week of April 1996, the queries that I was running weekly to update the reports suddenly failed to run. And queries that we'd previously run quite successfully were just disappearing off into limbo. They were just timing out on Oracle. It took something like 12 weeks to figure out that there was actually a bug in the version of Oracle that we had that was causing the problem, because Oracle were prepared to blame CorVu for any problems we were having."Finally, about July 1996 -- the original roll-out date -- BCC started to have some success with report production, according to Horwood.

By April this year, the Council was at last rolling out systems to allow departmental managers and directors to report on their success in meeting those KPIs. Horwood says users now have easy access to reports on a range of data from a simple menu tree. The flexible system will also be easy to change as business needs evolve.

The first phase includes a set of human resource and finance reports plus data from other sources such as a call centre. "We have tried to simplify the application so that most users will simply access pre-defined or canned reports with a range of drill-down scenarios," Horwood says. "You put a graph on your desktop and then you can drill into it and slice and dice it.

"Basically the managers start CorVu and they get a single button menu underneath which they can access a whole menu tree of different reports and menus, structured under our corporate outcomes. It is point and click for most users," he says.

The next stage will be to start to educate the departmental and divisional business staff on ways to use CorVu to develop their own reports.

Wages next

As part of the Council's second enterprise bargaining agreement, signed last year, work units in Council must develop a set of key performance indicators to be linked to the next wage rise. Horwood says those users will be the next significant group to do sensible business intelligence reporting. Business analysts will also be encouraged to use the tool.

"This type of reporting is quite new to council, given that most of our systems were mainframe-based two years ago," says Horwood. "There's not a lot of this type of application around. Various people in the organisation have looked at some of the EIS tools but nobody has really tried to implement any.

"Once the first 50 get their hands on the reporting tool, I expect there to be a fairly strong push to get their own people familiar with the product and to use it," he says.

So in retrospect, what would Horwood have done differently, knowing what he knows now about the difficulties he would have to face along the way? "I wouldn't have had a team of one working on this end, for a start," he says.

"I definitely would have spent more time up front working on the warehouse design and implementation before worrying about the reporting tool. When we start to look at other information that we want to bring into this organisation, I'll do it differently.

"The main thing is to get the data right first. We definitely did do it the wrong way around. Having said that, I still think we'd have ended up with the same product but there would have been a lot less pain involved along the way," he says.

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More about AusIndustryAusIndustryBrisbane City CouncilCorVuDatacomEvolveHarvard Business SchoolIBM AustraliaOracleUnisys Australia

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