I recently (March 27, 2014) spoke at the World Bank Land & Poverty Conference in Washington, D.C.
I presented on the role of private industry in assisting the public sector to modernize land and property information systems. In preparing my speech, my thoughts turned to our U.S. county government customers and their experiences in transforming internal processes to adjust to new digital information systems. Many of these governments rode the first wave of technology adoption in the 1980s and early 1990s, and many are just now replacing these systems.
From frequent conversations with U.S. government officials, I hear that what keeps them up at night is a concern that these operation-critical systems will one day fail on them due to an inability to continue working in a contemporary IT environment. That they will then be faced with a very real nightmare of lost information, missed property tax bills, or process failures, such as to record a land transfer. Citizen backlash and constituent criticisms would loudly be heard in very public County Commissioners meetings.
Operational challenges supporting such custom legacy systems are a daily reality for many of our County Officials. To start with, these legacy custom systems are not flexible nor standard, so keeping them operating smoothly in a fast changing IT environment is expensive and challenging; not even to mention the ability to adopt new technologies, such as mobile field editing tools which would require more custom development on top of old code – another expensive endeavor when dealing with legacy custom solutions. In some cases their staff are literally fixed on green screen terminals from systems built on technology platforms in the 1980s.
Additionally, annual budgets to maintain old systems often run in the millions of dollars, as there are fewer and fewer technicians who know the system. Many of the people who developed the systems in the 1980s have either retired or moved to different roles. It’s a classic problem of limited supply but constant demand. To make matters worse, it’s difficult or near impossible to recruit new people to work in a legacy technology environment, as those coming into the workforce have never touched such outdated code, nor are they interested in staying on a dead end technology path – they are understandably looking to make their mark in the future technology world.
I shared these lessons and observations at the Land & Poverty Conference, as I see so many developing nations’ governments debating a similar custom development path on platforms which, in many cases, are already dated. These governments in 10 or 15 years, likely even sooner, will face similar realities as U.S. counties today struggling with dated platforms.
The reason why governments chose a technology partner cannot simply be based on just a software license consideration, rather it must enable them to be part of a community of customers – an ecosystem – that the company supports far into the future. It is the community, of which the technology partner is a part, whose shared experiences provides the catalyst for new ideas and improvements and future advances that benefit the entire ecosystem.
I often say that the Aumentum platform is just one part Thomson Reuters, and many parts the sum of our government customers success. We commit more than US$ 30 million a year in research and development so that our customers will continue to trust in us that they are on an evergreen technology platform with Thomson Reuters and we direct this investment towards the insight that our customer community has provided to us.
I encourage governments worldwide to consider the sustainability of any technology platform they are considering, so that their technology doesn’t depreciate yearly to the point in which a complete system overhaul is necessary, or worse, an operational failure occurs. No more green screens!
About the World Bank Land & Poverty Conference:
This annual conference attracts more than a 1000 participants from government, civil society, industry, and academia to share best practices and policy dialogue concerning land rights and land management. The conference is largely dedicated to assisting developing nations as they look to improve their land administration and management practices. Secured land rights, and well recorded responsibilities to the land or restrictions on land use, is considered by many in policy circles, such as at the World Bank, a foundation for sustainable and equitable development.