This year, as they do every year, public officials at the City of Port Coquitlam in British Columbia must juggle a wide range of projects on behalf of its 60,000 residents, while sticking closely to an annual budget, set at $75.2 million for 2015.
There’s the development of a new community recreation complex in the downtown area to fund and a new May Day float to purchase and decorate. Plus, the fight against an infestation of European Chafer beetles on city properties continues, with plans for a vigorous turf maintenance programme.
But allocating funds and keeping track of project costs will be a lot easier this year, thanks to the recent implementation of a new, cloud-based ERP system from Unit4.
The budgeting and general ledger applications that comprised Phase 1 of this roll-out have been live for some time now and a slew of other finance applications - accounts payable, accounts receivable, inventory and project costing - have come online this January.
Previously, finance staff were forced to do battle with an elderly Wang ERP system, first installed in 1989. A separate budgeting system, although far more modern, didn’t integrate at all well with this legacy technology, says Robin Wishart, City of Port Coquitlam’s director of corporate support:
We had to try to integrate the budgeting applications with our general ledger and we were finding that to be an extremely onerous task. It meant we couldn’t take advantage of some of the features of the budgeting system and it was making things extremely difficult. It was definitely time for a systems replacement.
Wishart had a hunch that the city might benefit by moving to a cloud-based system, but there was some important legislation to consider first, he says.
We saw cloud had great potential for cost savings, better support and improved access to delivery specialists beyond what we can resource internally - but jurisdictions in British Columbia are legislatively required to keep all personal information in a Canadian data centre, including employee data and taxpayer information.
A request for proposal two and a half years ago attracted responses from a wide range of software hopefuls, including SAP, Oracle, Microsoft Dynamics, Unit4 and a handful of more local, government-specific suppliers.
But Unit4 really stood out for Wishart, due in part to competitive pricing, but also because of its promise to host City of Port Coquitlam’s data in an IBM-hosted Canadian data centre. The supplier also scored highly in its ability to demonstrate a clear understanding of the cloud-based services and support it would be expected to provide to the city.
With all the finance applications now live, City of Port Coquitlam is forging ahead with Phase 3, which involves the roll out of payroll and human resources applications. This is expected to go live by the end of 2015. There may be a fourth or fifth phase later on, says Wishart, but they’re not scheduled or budgeted at this stage.
But already, he says, working life has changed for the better for many of the city’s public servants, himself included:
The new system is much easier to get data in and out of, so there’s a lot more clarity now around where we’re sitting with our budget and how our expenses are tracking. Personally, I can get a good feel, at a glance, for where we are financially - and identify those potential hotspots that require attention.
The project has also opened the doors to other modernisation projects - in particular, electronic invoicing - that would have been difficult, if not impossible, to achieve with the legacy ERP system. His advice to other public officials considering cloud-based ERP?
1. Test the [cloudy] waters
The City of Port Coquitlam had already implemented two other cloud systems previously, which gave it the experience and confidence to push through cloud-based ERP. These were a small fixed asset management app and a larger recreation management system that went live in November 2014.
2. Keep your resources close to you
One area that Wishart admits was a struggle was preventing staff working on the Unit4 rollout being commandeered to work on other city projects. He says:
If you let your guard down, you may find your resources will be snaffled away to work on something else. Don’t let that happen.
3. Stick to vanilla
From the start, Wishart has insisted that the Unit4 system be kept as close to its original state as possible - so while some configuration is acceptable, customisation isn’t. This, he says, would quickly eat away at the benefits of ‘going cloud’.
We figure that in three or so years, if there’s something missing from the system that we really can’t live without, we’ll talk to Unit4 and encourage them to incorporate it as a configuration option.
Disclosure - at time of writing, Unit4 is a premier partner of diginomica.