September 3, 2012Doug Hadden
It started innocently enough with a tweet…
Doug Hadden, VP Products
There I was on a business trip consulting with one our customers when we received a request to advertise in a Timor-Leste-based weekly paper, on twitter. We don’t advertise because advertising doesn’t have returns for our business. And, we’d have to charge developing nation government customers more if we did. Cost control is an ethical issue for us because we need sustainable customers to have a sustainable business. (Hence the focus of this blog.)
At any rate, the Timor civil society organization began a series of tweets that gained some momentum. First thing to note is that we don’t have interns handling tweets, it’s mostly me. I did attempt to provide some answers via twitter, but there seems to be an underlying distrust of Western companies. You’re basically guilty until proven innocent.
I started to collect material for a blog entry on the impact of Government Resource Planning (GRP) on corruption because the NGO asked. (Finished today).
How much activity is there in the Timor-Leste transparency portal?
FreeBalance provided three of the portals and Development Gateway one of the portals. See: www.transparency.gov.tl The requirements were adapted to meet Government stated requirements. The Government of Timor-Leste (RDTL) hosts these portals. FreeBalance has no right to know basic usage information. (In the same way that Toyota has no right to know the mileage of the government fleet or Oracle to know how many transactions are hitting the back-end database. Or, WordPress, for that matter, to know the usage on this blog.) I know that it is fashionable for social media providers to own this data. That’s dubious from an ethical standpoint – but at least they own the servers.
Did FreeBalance just deliver software and leave?
That’s a problem in the ICT industry as a whole. All manufacturers of COTS software used for GRP at the national level in developing countries sell via a systems integration channel, except for FreeBalance. (And one other exception that isn’t going well, so I won’t mention it.) We take part in the implementation so that we can improve the chances for success. There’s enough evidence that this is working, even in more underdeveloped countries with low capacity and weak institutions. (Our competitors have deniability when something goes wrong – blame the victim. We don’t.)
FreeBalance also sets up a local office and hires local staff in order to build capacity. Mentoring is critical to capacity building. There are some minor exceptions to the rule like when we already have an office in an adjacent country or when hiring local would take people away from the government. We also want to use local people at local rates in order to keep costs down – so that we don’t have to pass expensive foreign consulting rates to the government.
It should be noted that customers get regular engagement visits and set our product roadmap through the FreeBalance International Steering Committee. It’s a level of engagement that is unique in our industry. None of the big ERP vendors, who are orders of magnitude larger than FreeBalance, bother with this kind of engagement.
Did FreeBalance train civil society?
Yes, there were training courses for civil society. The Transparency Portal was translated to Tetun and Portuguese. The NGO suggested that the portal was too “fancy” to be intuitive. Then they used information from the portal to continue the “discussion”. Hmm.
We have people in Timor-Leste. Let’s see if we can facilitate more training.
Did FreeBalance get all that money just for a portal?
That’s one of the disadvantages of transparency, I suppose. Civil society can find out how much you’ve made and leap to conclusions like it was MM$$ for the portal. I’m not sure if this is an exhaustive list, but the two contracts for 2010 and 2011 (look it up on the portal) covers:
- Budget transparency portal
- E-procurement portal
- E-results portal
- Data warehousing
- ETL for 3rd party data
- Back-office procurement (the whole tendering process, creation of procurement documents, commitments, purchase orders, contract management)
- Assets and Inventory modules
- Minister’s and Manager’s dashboards (performance data including integration with Sharepoint)
- Human Resources including full payroll for all RTDL employees and human resource functions like workforce management
- Additional users for the core financial management applications
- User training across 2 years
- Custom report development
- Product support and maintenance
So, this was what we call “back-office” and “front-office” functionality. Frankly, this is a lot of software delivered for the price, based on evidence from the ERP world.
Why does the portal run slowly?
The portal was optimized to run with a low bandwidth, but the bandwidth is poor in Timor-Leste. We recommended mirroring to handle requests from outside Timor, but the government was not comfortable with financial data hosted on foreign servers.
Of course, we’re not a telco provider. I hope that the bandwidth problem is temporary, given the introduction of new telcos in Timor.
It’s a challenge to build a social enterprise focused on good governance. We’re neither “fish nor foul” by being treated by some as a typical private sector company with dubious intentions in the developing world. By others: as some bleeding heart do-gooders and part of the “aid industry” with dubious incentives.
It’s hard to stick handle (as we say in Canada) through the narrative. Hopefully this clarification is adequate. If not, please add some comments – and make use of more than 140 characters!
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