Open Source and Government


[11:05 am Dec 26th: updated to reflect some clarifications given to me via other walled-garden social media]

The recent events with the Worker’s Party-led Aljunied Hougang Town Council‘s financial management system needs to be looked at from a far more holistic manner.

The system that AHTC has used for managing the financial and related activities was something that they inherited from the previous Aljunied Town Council. ATC was held by the People’s Action Party who lost it to the Worker’s Party in the May 2011 General Elections. And with the adjoining Hougang Constituency also held by the WP, it made sense for them to join forces and create AHTC.

From information that I have from the online and social media (and the MSM surprisingly), the software system was developed by the National Computer Systems under contract from the PAP-run town councils for an unspecified (say $X) amount. I can’t tell if the $X was for software only or did it include hardware as well. Probably not. Nor can I tell if it did include ongoing support, bug fixes and upgrades?

After acquiring the software, it seems that the software was then sold via a tender  to Action Information Management Pte Ltd (AIM) for an amount of S$140K (to be confirmed).  What that means is that the PAP-led TCs probably did have to absorb the $X-$140K difference and potentially it will come out of operating budget of the TCs which is funded by tax-payers.

AIM is interesting.

For a company that now owns a town council accounting package, it does not have a website. This is 2012 and unless AIM believed in the Mayan global destruction, there is no excuse at all to not have even a rudimentary, place-holder webpage. This is almost 2013, not 1993.  Is AIM a real software company? Do they really know how to manage and support software systems? ACRA records show it to be $2 company with a forwarding address – which is all halal.

Let’s grant AIM the benefit of doubt that they are indeed capable of managing what they bought. From some accounts, the system is apparently sophisticated.  It is possible that AIM could be sub-contracting this back out to NCS to manage and update. Who does one, in the town councils, call when there is an issue with the software? If you are reading this and work in a town council and know the answer, please post the answer anonymously (if you don’t want to be identified) in the comments below or email me directly at h dot pillay at ieee dot org.

With AIM now owning the software system, the town councils have to pay AIM a monthly fee (the quantum is not entirely clear – numbers below $1K per month per town council have been bandied around). Such leaseback schemes are all fine and dandy. It is disappointing that the PAP town councils saw this to recoup their investments because what ends up is that the tax payers will be paying over and over again for the same piece of software.

Whatever it is, the application is apparently now not available for the AHTC to use.

Solution

The solution to this mess is very simple. This is a situation where we have a public service organization – the town council – that is now beholden to a proprietary software vendor who has chosen to do as they please citing whatever that is in the contract between the parties.

What we need is to create a fully open source solution that is free from the archaic software licencing regime of proprietary software vendors. Town Councils are funded entirely by public funds – from the government as well as collections from service charges etc rendered to the residents under the purview of these town councils. Why should these residents have to pay over and over again for some piece of software that they have already paid to develop? Unless it turns out that the PAP town councils, in contracting NCS to build it, funded from some other sources not from the council funds, it has to be assumed that it was paid entirely by public funds.

I have said this for many years. What we need in this country is the sharing of resources built using open source software and tools especially in public sector services. The IDA can take lead in this but they haven’t. Services that are built using open source software and tools don’t have vendor lock-in. It helps spur innovation and collaboration and expansion of the software sector. We have seen this in many other economies but not in Singapore. Not yet.

I am sure I can pull in a group of interested individuals to give their time and energy to hack a solution for AHTC by putting together the rich set of applications already done in the FOSS world (Adempiere comes to mind) and with Joomla, Drupal, WordPress, and OpenShift and with the tools already built by Code For America and we can trivially, yes trivially, get AHTC up and going.

We will also need data from these town councils in a published open data format. I’d like to see AHTC take both the technical and thought leadership in this by publishing all of their accounting details in http://data.ahtc.org.sg (for example) so that anyone can see exactly what the council is doing and what areas need help, what is succeeding, what’s failing etc.

Questions that need answers:

  1. This statement: “In a letter, he explained that in 2010 they called an open tender to which AIM submitted the sole bid though five companies collected the tender agreement.” is really disappointing. Who were the four others and why did they choose not to bid. I would also want to see the tender document itself to see what it required. I cannot believe that the only respondent is a company that does not have even a website can submit a bid and win this. Something smells very fishy here.
  2. Why are the financial details of town councils not publicly available in an XML format by way of open data like data.gov.sg? Transparency is the watchword here.

So, the offer is out to the AHTC. I, as a member of the Singapore Free and Open Source Community, am able and willing to help you. What the community can help create will be a fully open source accounting and town council management software solution that anyone else can use. And yes, even the other town councils under the hegemony of AIM. There will be no vendor lock-in and usage license fees. I am making this offer not for politics per se, but because it is the Right Thing to do.

12 thoughts on “Open Source and Government

  1. BRAVO Harish! The PAP must walk its own talk on transparency, and open source can be a major enabler to this end.

    I hope the AHTC takes up Harish’s offer and create its own standards of transparency.

  2. Harish, nice article on the stupendous situation we’re facing in Singapore. Here’s some of my thoughts:

    a. Whether Open-Source or not, Software requires maintenance. That means some company needs to provide such services. NCS being the developer here should be the automatic favorite. Wonder why they turned down a such a deal …

    b. If the Town-Council had wanted a services-model, they should have gone straight out to tender for one, instead of owning the software, selling the software and having the new owners provide the services back to the Town-Council.

    c. Surely the tender documents would require bidders to provide references of similiar work done elsewhere?

    d. While I am a supporter of Open-Source (for many years), I’ve learned (the hard-way), that people and companies want and prefer to buy ‘reliability’. Not that Open-Source stuff isn’t reliable. People (and companies) don’t care if the underlying technology is Open-Source, Proprietary, etc. What they want is a liable system, with which they can take hold to mitigate issues and problems. Open-Source gives the engineers and developers, and the supplying company an innovative and low-cost means to enter the market; Linksys comes to mind, and so are the many ventures now build on Android OS.

    e. Perhaps what we need more is companies that provide IT Services (Maintenance, etc) based on Open-Source technologies, etc. That way, if AHTC takes on a Joomla, they know there are companies that they can rely on to help them.

    1. Francis, thanks for the comments. I do appreciate them.

      Yes, open source does not automatically mean reliable and trustworthy software. Exactly the same for proprietary software. At least with open source software, the opportunity to get it fixed by someone *other* than the original author(s) is available to the user. *THAT* is the significant advantage.

      No matter if you are using open source or proprietary software, you still need support. That’s the business I am intimately familiar with at Red Hat. You need accountability and reliability and “one neck to choke” as it were and Red Hat is in that business globally.

      I am not suggesting at all in this post that Red Hat is the entity to take this up. I am sure Red Hat has no interest in this as it is an application that needs to be built. But once built, Red Hat or any other entity can turn it into a commercially supported open source solution.

  3. I’ve read a few reports on this and I don’t understand one thing. If the company has two dollars, how can it buy a software for $140k?

    I mean, should it not have updated it ACRA details if it got more money from a 3rd party?

  4. Well Said !!! Its an issue of accountability and authority. The “real” people concerned should make amends, if NOT own up to this mess. Well Done !!!

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