Behind the scenes – expense@work at IPSA

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I’ve just returned to Prague from London, where I and my colleagues played a very minor role on the fringes of the UK’s General Election, helping to prepare expense@work, our expense management software, for the new intake of MPs and for the management of Winding Up expenses for those who were defeated or are standing down.

parliament

This was a good test of the design we implemented five years ago for the then new statutory body, IPSA (Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority), which was set up to prevent any repetition of the scandalous abuse of the House of Commons’ former expenses regime. We had to come up with a design capable of expansion, extension and modification of the rules.

We originally implemented expense@work in just six weeks, following publication of the new MPs’ Expenses Scheme. It was the most intense and exciting system implementation project I have ever worked on. and we went live just in time for the new Parliament in May 2010.

expense@work has worked well over the last five years, tracking MPs’ expenses against budgets for staffing, office costs, accommodation and travel expenses, capturing and storing images of invoices and receipts.

The rules are complex, taking account of each MP’s family circumstances, the location of their constituency and their choice of main residence (London or constituency). And expense@work must work with payment cards, stationery retailers, travel websites (such as Trainline) and enable automatic validation against the rules at every point of entry. Workflow must ensure multi-level authorisation procedures where appropriate, and must enable export to IPSA’s public website:

IPSA’s Publication Website

Every year the rules change a little, so the last few days have been about simplification as well as managing the election process. We closed down the system on Wednesday at lunchtime and were ready for the MPs on Friday morning, however bleary-eyed they might have been after a long night of victory or defeat.

ITQs, ITTs, RFPs – how we love them!

Few things are more lowering to the mood of a software salesman than an ITQ, RFP or ITT. They’re all versions of the same horror. An Invitation to Quote, a Request for Proposal, an Invitation to Tender, they are all long lists of statements you must comment on, or of questions you must answer, about the software features a potential client requires.

Usually there’s a prescribed and very limited way of answering: A (your system wholly complies), B (it partially complies), C (it does not comply). You should avoid C if you can, but you must also be careful to pepper your answers with a few of them otherwise you won’t be taken seriously. And watch out for the trick question to which C is the right answer.

RFP

The problem is not only that these documents take far too long to respond to conscientiously, it’s also often unclear what the requirements mean. To answer usefully you often have to second-guess what the author is thinking, or, if you have time, seek clarification (though usually you’re completing the document at the last possible moment so you probably won’t have time). You also know that you must sometimes craft a truthful but slightly misleading note to justify an A.

The fact is (a fact that these documents ignore), what matters in software implementations is not just that software complies with a requirement, but how it complies.

The horror of the ITQ, RFP or ITT, is compounded when you’ve got to do one just to qualify for future ITQs, RFPs or ITTs. This is often the way with Government contracts, where the Government wants to compile a shortlist of qualified software systems for its institutions. These will then go on to issue their own ITQ, RFP or ITT when they’re ready to make a selection. So then you have to start again.

But even so, we’re vey pleased to announce that expense@work has been selected as an eligible expense management system for the New South Wales Government in Australia. Working over the last few months with our Sydney-based reseller, Professional Advantage, we’ve filled in a lot of forms, responded to a number of requests for further clarification, and finally established our compliance with the procedural and technical requirements of the NSW Government.

So now we just have to wait for some more ITQs, RFPs and ITTs to win some real software implementation projects.

Our credentials in the state sector are good. systems@work software is already used by a growing number of government and public sector institutions:

  • IPSA (Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority) – controlling MPs’ expenses
  • Arts Council of Wales
  • Central Bank of Ireland
  • Design Council
  • Independent Police Complaints Commission
  • Learning and Skills Development Agency
  • National Weights and Measures Laboratory
  • National Foundation for Educational Research
  • OFWAT
  • Police Federation of England and Wales
  • Seafish
  • Security Industry Authority
  • Skillset
  • South West Tourism
  • UK Film Council
  • United Kingdom Accreditation Service
  • Veterinary Medical Directorate

So we wait in hope.