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Thursday
Sep262013

Our Entrepreneurial Council

Many will be aware that I have been somewhat critical over recent months of Council’s involvement with software companies here in Thames, ostensibly under the banner of establishing “centres”, “hubs”, or “clusters” of excellence. All this is claimed to be the pollen needed to get smart “start-ups” looking at Thames as a logical centre for highly paid staff to operate within cooee of main centres, and with all the attractions of the Coromandel at their doorstep.

All very commendable and tying in nicely with the Thames Development Strategy which gave a deal of prominence to such in planning for a town centre based around the Wintec (RSA) Building, shifting the library and development of the Civic Centre, though detail is scant.

But these proposals concern me on a number of levels, not the least of which involves the financial commitment by Council through the TYP to assisting such “start-ups” to re-locate here and “do the business”. It is totally wrong in my view for Council to financially commit to any such process, but it is of even greater concern if Council employees are busy promoting this by way of making purchasing decisions based solely on the need to support local enterprise. Under this scenario, normal tendering processes tend to be overlooked, and we often end up with purchasing decisions that involve re-inventing the wheel, or we pay through the nose on “cost-plus” projects.

One of those decisions concerned work provided to Track24 in relation to project accounting that led the Council into such difficulty with the Whitianga Sports-complex. Then Track24 was apparently encouraged to develop building consent software – software that was said to be “unique,” “original,” and able to be flogged off to other councils here and overseas. See the claims made in regard to this software here at http://www.tcdc.govt.nz/business/Software-Development-Programme/ Since then the promotional trailer mentioned on the website appears to have been pulled – I wonder why? There is no mention of any successful sales of this building consent software – dead silence in fact!

Then there is another piece of software carrying similar expansive claims that was developed to enable online submissions during the consultation process – all very laudable. But only two other councils –Hutt City and Waikato District appear to have followed through by purchasing the submission software for use in their systems - advised in a presser dated 12 November 2012. Again, not a word since, leading one to speculate that all is not as it should be in this wonderful new world of software development. I don’t wish to be seen as a Jeremiah on this score, but equally I wish that we could get some honesty out of our Council PR department for a change, instead of spin.

Then there is another matter surrounding what appears to fall into the "wheel re-invention" category. The same website now claims that another company here in Thames with which TCDC is associated – Guru, is in the process of developing intranet software, presumably to enable more efficient handling of TCDC documents and internal communication. Here is the relevant presser dated 22 August 2013 -  http://www.tcdc.govt.nz/Your-Council/News-and-Media/News-and-Public-Notices/News-Articles/Thames-IT-Company-doubles-staff-in-a-year-to-17/

This is very interesting because intranet software is commonly available from a number of reputable sources, and it begs the question – why it is necessary to develop specific software for TCDC?. Note that founder Sean Cutriss states that TCDC moved its web and digital services from a firm in Wellington “enabling them (Guru) to develop a solid base for local government solutions”.

A panegyric of epic proportions follows that firmly places TCDC in the vanguard of Guru’s amazing success in selling its products to variety of top-drawer companies up and down the land. These include Fisher and Paykel, and Fonterra amongst many others, and an increase in staff from 8 to 17 in one year says it all. But software is a fickle mistress, and as many fail as succeed – it represents the vagaries of capitalism at its best – but is not a field where councils should be playing favourites. In fact, it is either pure naivety for our Council to be involved with a private firm to this extent, or else it is being led by the nose, and the Audit Committee should be taking a very close interest.

For example, the presser has our Council falling over itself to provide work for Guru without the merest mention of the T (tender) word. It should not be undertaking work outside of the normal tender requirements whether the potential supplier happens to be resident in this town or otherwise. It is not for Mr Ben Day, or any other official to be making these decisions for the very good reason that it constitutes the beginning of the slippery slope. Further, it indicates a very limited understanding of the SOP’s Councils are meant to follow, though it is no reflection whatsoever on the company concerned that is simply following its opportunities while providing praise for the manner in which TCDC has eased it way into the town.

Finally, just how much has been spent to date on the development of this intranet software? And what could have been obtained “off the shelf” elsewhere that may have served our Council’s purposes perfectly well without it becoming involved in the dubious (for a council!) task of developing “unique” software either on its own, or in association with a freindly local purveyor?

In several decades of involvement with government and local government I have been in a position to observe many examples of this type of behaviour. They are invariably well-intentioned, but often result where overpowering egos prevent a clear understanding of appropriate limits where initiatives involve public monies. It is often common in ‘economic development’ areas where councils are competing for investment and where these limits are deliberately left ill-defined. Hubris however is inevitable in the absence of tight controls, and others are left to pick up the pieces.

It is time that the Chief Executive of the Thames Coromandel District Council took control - the website content alone should be providing sufficient warning signals - loud and clear!

 

 

 

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Reader Comments (1)

Bill
It might be time for the TCDC elected representatives to establish some clear policy around this issue, in addition to existing protocols and SOPs, to make the point that this behaviour is inappropriate and dangerous. Such behaviour as you are commenting on probably takes its lead from recent central Government initiatives and might be characterised as business-like rather than democratic. It might also be that this private sector encouragement is yet another instance of the hollowing out of democratic 'best practise' so that the encumbrance of democracy might be circumvented. Perhaps I go to far?

September 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRussell

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