The South Australian Department of Education has botched its rollout of a new education management system (EMS) which is forecast to go $47 million over the original budget and be delivered three years late.

On Wednesday, the state’s Auditor-General’s Department released a scathing report into the IT project, pointing out “a range of issues” – including the COVID-19 pandemic – that contributed to the delays and overspending.

In 2018, SA started its new digitised EMS to fully modernise the administrative functions of all the state’s roughly 900 public schools.

The new system was intended to help the department remove legacy and on-premises technology at its schools; replace the need for paper-based administrative processes; give parents a streamlined communications channel for updates and filling out consent forms; and make it easier to track the progress of students through their learning journey in public schools.

Its purpose was clear and necessary: a way of bringing all SA’s schools into the digitally connected world together.

The project was first given a $130 million budget that was later cut to $122 million. It was due to be completed by June 2022.

“Subsequent budget increases have now raised the total budget to $169 million, and implementation is not expected to be completed until the end of 2025-26,” the SA Auditor-General’s Department wrote.

“Around 70 per cent of the revised EMS project budget has been used in rolling out EMS to about half of the total number of sites.”

What went wrong?

The audit report tells a story no doubt familiar to many organisations of different shapes and sizes around the country.

Initially, the SA education department thought it would be able to buy a product – in this case from US-based public sector software company Civica – and gradually bring everyone at its schools onboard.

A pilot program at 10 sites in 2019 tested if the off-the-shelf product would work, with the full rollout aiming to start in April 2020, but it was pushed back to July due in part to COVID-19.

But when the rollout started, the product didn’t easily plug into the state’s schools and “the initial assumption that most site business processes would be altered to meet the ‘out of the box’ EMS requirements has not eventuated”.

Teachers and administrators appeared resistant to the top-down change being imposed upon them, instead they were “generally seeking to maintain the workflows and processes they use in their existing systems rather than adapting to EMS workflows”.

But, laments the audit report, “the EMS is not flexible enough to support each unique site customisation” and the project has incurred “significant costs” from trying to fix the “business process issues identified after the original system testing, site system change requests” and other requirements that have appeared.

None of this was helped by the team behind this hundred-million-dollar project not having a “documented change management framework and clear communication strategy”.

The department also failed to decide which EMS functions were mandatory and which were optional, leading to “challenging and time consuming” negotiations with schools.

Even where some of the EMS modules have been set up, schools are still having to “implement workarounds, with some manual, repetitive tasks being conducted” to maintain functionality with their other systems.

Integrating data necessary to the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) and Vocational Education and Training (VET) – fell out of the project’s original scope, for example.

Now, the department has spun up a separate project to integrate NAPLAN and VET information into its system using a third-party application.

The hope that existing data would be easily moved into the Civica product didn’t pan out either, with a survey of SA education staff finding 80 per cent had issues with data migration to the new system.

As the auditor noted, all the schools “have many different existing systems, functions, configurations and templates, and they maintain vastly different datasets”.

Project out of control

The auditor-general found serious control issues with how the IT upgrade has been managed, including an absence of “date driven measures of project milestones and deliverables” being reported to the board.

There were also “no project post-implementation reviews following key milestones”, and a bunch of documentation left unfinalised “for an extended period” including final budget forecasting, schedules, a vendor management plan, and a risk management strategy.

An internal audit last year slammed the board for running meetings that “were informative rather than decision-making”.

“There was not enough focus on scrutinising key aspects of the project, such as realising EMS project benefits, the project budget, and emerging issues and risks”.

By the end of 2023, only 454 out of 900 schools (most of which were preschools) had the new system, despite having burnt through 70 per cent of the project’s budget.

The state education department said it “accepts the findings of the Auditor-General’s review and has implemented an uplift to project governance with many of the key controls relating to project oversight, risk management and forecast controls now in place.”

“Further work will be undertaken to complete all actions related to the Auditor-Generals’ findings over the next 6 months with an external assurance partner in place to validate effectiveness and align to best practice.”