Government departments are expandng upon early initiatives and increasingly opting for centralized IT&T services to manage their interaction with customers. Will this lead to improvements in government services, or is it adding too much complexity to government departments?
IT&T service providers are seeing some light at the end of the government tunnel and it beckons like gold. As more and more government departments and operations heed the federal government’s call to modernize, cut costs and get their operations working online, vendors are rushing to ramp up their offerings in response.
As governments advance along the e-government maturity curve, the telecommunications industry has seen its chance and is working resolutely to take an active role in promoting solutions to meet the heightened role of IS services in delivering IS policy outcomes. But just how easy is it for government CIOs and their staff to unravel the complex offerings and to make the correct decisions today that they will have to live with tomorrow?
As governments’ commitments to making public services more responsive gather pace, there has been a wide scale increase in the deployment of telephony and IT applications across all sections of government. Telecommunications providers are keen to deliver government services that support the e-government drive to share services, consolidate activities and re-engineer processes through their back offices. The goal is to simplify the equation for government departments and agencies.
“These projects are delivering cost reductions, integration linkages between departments and the opportunity to provide their customers with IP-related applications,” AAPT’s CIO Bob Hennessy told the CIO Government conference Converge 2004 in May. “The increased uptake of enterprise-wide Web services and online projects in the government sector is providing telecommunications providers with the opportunity to provide a range of new broadband and IP services.”
Take the new Victorian Office Telephony Service (VOTS) contract won by NEC, which will see a large-scale overhaul of the Victorian government’s entire communications system.
NEC Business Solutions (NECBS) won the three-year contract aimed at migrating the state’s existing communications network to an IP-enabled solution, which in theory will mean not only a uniform communication system — rather than the several older systems previously operating across the state — but will also see cost savings because it is a more cost-effective IP system that allows inexpensive calls over the Internet.
The contract is in fact just the first phase in the Victorian government’s overarching Telecommunications Purchasing and Management Strategy (TPAMS), which will see an enterprise-wide solution that will eventually cover all Victorian government services. This is a major change for a government that has previously relied on a standard phone system. The Victorian government expects the new system to reduce annual communications expenditure by more than $1 million a year — hardly small beer by anyone’s standards.
NECBS will be providing an end-to-end solution that will incorporate infrastructure, service and support. The state’s current communications system — based on a traditional telephony network — will be migrated gradually to an IP-enabled solution over the coming months and then continuing on until the final stages of the project are rolled out by April 2005. As part of the solution, NEC IP handsets will also be supplied to 43 major government sites across Victoria, which equates to a massive 23,000 end users.
Victoria’s Minister for Information and Communication Technology, Marsha Thomson, says of the agreement: “The VOTS tender is the first step in helping to position Victoria at the forefront of government use of telecommunications.”
The minister makes a good point, and also a supportable one because this is clearly one of the most far-reaching government telecommunications deals yet, not just in terms of the technology used but also in terms of the cost-saving ramifications and the ability to build on the system. For the first time it puts a state government at the cutting edge of telecommunications technology.
“The government can strategically plan each department’s transition to a voice over Internet protocol [VoIP] in accordance with their business requirements and overall ICT strategies,” Thomson says.
The contract runs for three-years with two one-year extension options, and will provide government departments with cost savings of at least $3 million over three years and up to $5 million over five years.
Thomson says that the flexibility of the technology platform and the length of the contract should also ensure that the Victorian government is not locked in to one technology solution. “We can continue to take advantage of new and innovative technologies as they become available,” she says.
Interestingly, NECBS has been a major supplier of communications infrastructure and equipment to the Victorian government for the past 18 years, which certainly seems to suggest that long-term relationships work.
Hennessy believes the NEC win is definitely a sign of things to come right across government in all states and territories as the drive to cut costs and get solutions working online accelerates.
“The next wave of telecommunications solutions for government departments will include the creation of online communities of interest through the deployment of IP-VPN networks, the rise of desktop convergence through the application of voice over IP, online learning solutions, and security and authentication services.
“From a purely carriage perspective, service products are maturing to meet the demands imposed by new online services in the public sector,” Hennessy says. “These are demands for broadband, advanced monitoring, proactive management systems, even self-management systems through delivering as much service transparency as possible with today’s technologies.”
However, Hennessy’s views may be slightly premature. When the Computerworld editorial team sought the views of analysts and the industry about what to expect this year it found there was a buzz around the new IP telephony, but that many would-be customers remained wary of various hurdles and are delaying implementation beyond 2004.
Foremost amongst those hurdles was the lack of a solid cost justification for ditching a useful old switchboard yet to reach the end of its economic life. Other hurdles included the state of the in situ data network, application integration and personnel issues embedded in rival voice and data camps.
Bjarne Munch, senior research analyst, infrastructure strategies at Meta Group Australia, told Computerworld some large organizations are finding IP telephony “really hard” to justify on cost compared to a couple of years ago when there were clear savings in international and STD tariffs. He also believes people issues have the potential to trip managers of IP telephony projects, particularly for big organizations with separate in-house “voice support” and “data support” groups. And he says although many of the clients are looking to implement IP telephony in the next 12 to 24 months, he does not expect to see a significant change in the market over 2004.
Not all government and public organizations share his scepticism. Phil Tannenbaum is manager of the High Performance Computing and Communications Centre at the Bureau of Meteorology in Melbourne. With a speciality in super-computing, it is not surprising he knows a good deal about all manner of modern technologies. Tannenbaum says VoIP phone technology works and works well, has much more flexibility than a traditional phone system and ultimately, although costing more initially to install than a traditional system, can save a lot of money for the government departments that fit them.
“The Bureau of Meteorology is moving into a new building soon and it is being fitted out with all of the latest communications and hardware technologies, including VoIP,” Tannenbaum says. “This really is the way government organizations need to go because we are talking about money-saving opportunities here, certainly in the long run, and that’s a lot of what government is about, keeping costs down while, hopefully, increasing the services on offer.”
Last year the Bureau tested out another new technology, an ATA-based disk subsystem called BladeStore, which is claimed to offer higher storage capacity and density at a lower cost and performance than conventional enterprise disk arrays.
“This was about our plans to dramatically expand the volume of data immediately accessible on disk, so improving the quantity and quality of climate research without increasing storage budgets,” Tannenbaum says. “It’s this ‘without increasing budgets’ aspect that was particularly important to us,” he says, “and is particularly important, I’d say, right across government.
“By finding a more cost-effective solution we could keep data online longer and derive more value from it,” he says. “The more data our researchers can use, the better the results of their models, and the faster they can get their projects finished. That means cost savings as well as more efficiency.”
The Bureau purchased an 8-terabyte, 10-blade StorageTek BladeStore disk subsystem that was connected into their existing 10 terabytes of high-performance disk on the Bureau’s storage area network (SAN) and 2.5 terabytes of disk on the in-house super-computer.
“Failover support was key,” Tannenbaum continues. “You need to be able to replace a failed disk without losing any data. With BladeStore there is RAID protection and a hot spare blade so you can restore data while you keep working.”
The Bureau also maintains an extensive tape library, with 120 terabytes of Nearline storage available via automated tape libraries, and 120 terabytes kept as off-site copies. With the data-intensive nature of meteorological forecasting and research, data volumes are growing at around 50 per cent per year, highlighting the need for good backup and storage systems.
Tannenbaum adds though that while something like BladeStore can save his department money and make for more efficiency, government departments need to be careful about decisions they make now, simply because it is hard to see what is going to happen five years down the track.
This future gazing is something that all organizations and enterprises have to cope with and some are clearly better at it than others. Over the past year there have been some noticeable success stories where future planning looks to be on the ball. Here are some of the best:
• NSW Parliament’s adoption of a managed frame relay-based VPN service aimed at increasing network reliability, security and cost effectiveness is already leading to savings. In addition, the Parliament also uses a remote access service, DialPoint, which provides members and staff with a secure and private remote connection to the Parliament’s network.
• Victorian Department of Education and Training is already well known for its VicOne system but it has been upgraded recently with the replacement of networking routers previously used for traditional ISDN connections. This is a good example of fitting a robust system in the first place and then building on it as needs change — in this specific case the increasing move to broadband and its use across the department and facilities, which meant upgrades were necessary.
• A satellite access service has been introduced by Victoria Police for their 102 one-man police stations in remote parts of Victoria. The stations were serviced by PSTN dial-up access, which often made for slow communications and also meant that bandwidth was not good, leading to problems if pictures or diagrams had to be sent electronically. The solution arrived at is 1024K bps of satellite transponder bandwidth, which should be enough for quite some time.
• State-wide videoconferencing has been installed for the Victorian Department of Primary Industry (formerly DNRE), responsible for policy development and implementation across agriculture and fisheries, energy industries and resources. The department says the move has significantly reduced its travel costs and is also showing efficiency gains because staff do not need to travel so far and so often.
Cutting Edge Cuts Costs
These projects, and others like them, are good examples of how cutting edge technologies can keep costs low for government by offering e-enablement.
“The majority of these service offerings simply plug into a customer’s operations,” AAPT’s Hennessy says. “Typically we’re talking about offerings like VoIP and online learning here and they are increasingly able to be provided by carriers as the networks become much more intelligent in nature.”
Statistics show around 90 per cent of projects that were initially identified as being suitable for deployment as an e-government initiative are now successfully running as ‘online’ services. Hennessy claims the move by the Victorian government to undertake the tender of its voice, data and mobile network, was a sign that public agencies were now embracing a whole-of-government approach to their communications infrastructure.
Other government departments are actively pushing existing online projects into other agencies, or deeper down into other parts of their own operations.
“In addition, the public sector is recognizing the value and savings that can be achieved by lifting projects into an ‘enterprise’ or whole-of-government sphere, beyond the traditional departmental approach. And the deployment of Internet protocol-virtual private network [IP-VPN] technologies is making this theme a reality as a cost-effective means to have virtual user communities sharing common infrastructure,” Hennessy says.
As business and consumer use of services such as IP voice, broadband Internet, mobile content and MMS/SMS messaging increases, government departments will be under more pressure to deliver new channels in order to communicate with the wider community.
“Some services offered by government and their commercial bodies are already responding to these new channels by adapting online content for these devices,” Hennessy says. “An example of this is the ability of commuters to SMS requests for timetable information for train services, traffic conditions and weather reports.”
Clearly the pace of change can only continue to accelerate as forward-thinking governments, CIOs and department heads search for cutting edge technologies that not only save money but also work. That is really what is new — it seems that at last there are technologies out there that deliver what they promise.