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Custom-Built, If Not to Order?

Custom-Built, If Not to Order?

Customs' plan to modernize the movement of goods across Australia has seen its share of less-than-favourable press, but only one fact seems a dead cert: public IT projects are tougher to get off the ground than their private sector counterparts.

There is evident frustration in Murray Harrison's voice as he laments the spate of bad press that has dogged almost every step of the Australian Customs Services' (ACS) Cargo Management Re-engineering (CMR) system, now due to be phased in some time next year.

"As a general comment, I think the nature of the reporting around this particular project is tabloid stuff, which I find very disappointing," ACS CIO Harrison says, as he scans hazy mountains hugging the Canberra skyline from the windows of his city office as if looking for portents of better days to come. "It seems to be that the IT journalists are missing what I think is the real story. It's [been] 'the sky's falling in'-type journalism.

"I'm not trying to be defensive," Harrison insists. "My point is that this is the most important, and certainly most exciting, government-industry e-business development under way in Australia by miles. Literally by miles. It's real-time, online business, transacting cargo across the border, via the Internet. No one anywhere is doing that. The US is spending more than $1.5 billion on it, [and] they're some way off it. We started from a fairly advanced position, but we're going even further."

Particularly in light of the project's massive scope, Harrison takes exception to the media's apparent determination to gloss over the fact that from an IT professional's point of view, CMR is the most exciting game in Australia. Not only is the development huge, he says - it runs to 20,000 function points, will collect $6 billion worth of revenue each year and handle 150,000 messages a day between industry and business, real-time across the Internet - it comes with real benefits to the government, its citizens and developers alike. And at any rate, Harrison believes that the worst of the problems are behind them, and insists he is committed to working closely with industry to resolve problems as they arise.

Other observers - not just in the media - are considerably less sanguine, given the backdrop of major difficulties created by the size and complexity of the project, allegations of massive budgetary and cost blowouts, and a great deal of angst amongst traders and developers. Just listen to one of those software developers intimately involved with the project.

Eagle Datamation International's (EDI's) chief executive Richard White fears the project still faces serious problems and is calling for greater ownership of problems by Customs. "One of the great problems is that of holding someone accountable for a project which has really had an unknown scope," White says.

"A lot of people in Customs need to be held accountable because they said the scope was known, but I didn't think it was known. And they said the cost was fixed, but I didn't think it was fixed. And I think a wise person - someone who has done IT for a long time - would have told everybody this was just their rough estimate and that there would be various risk management processes and contingencies which they would rely upon when managing the project, so that they could be held accountable."

Or heed these words from a far harsher and more persistent critic, federal president of the Customs Officers Association (COA), Peter Bennett. "The bottom line is that the culture of this organization under its current management is one that looks for easy solutions and they won't accept criticism. They aren't interested in hearing what is hard and necessary and what is eventually going to be the best way to do it."

So as the development saga drags on, the protagonists can for now be viewed like partners locked in a troubled three-way marriage, with all sides proclaiming their innocence of wrongdoing and the wrong-headedness of a "significant other" - all very likely sincere in their belief that their own position is just and true. And as it so often does in such troubled marriages, most likely any objective truth lies somewhere in the middle.

In those circumstances, and given the inability of outsiders to gain meaningful insights into areas that Customs cannot or will not talk about, perhaps the most constructive approach to unravelling the threads of those conflicting views is to turn for clues to the analysts who have studied why major public sector projects seem so often to go so wrong.

In this regard we are fortunate that the redoubtable Cutter IT Journal , as recently as December 2003, provided one of the most cogent analyses yet released of the sorts of problems that can exclusively dog public sector projects, an analysis which might have been written with the CMR project in front of mind.

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