Chief Operation Officer Henning Steensig, Danish Enterprise and Construction Authority: "My best advice is to make do with doing what is doable. Stay with what you know and take it one step at the time from there."

 

A well-known subsidy system as a platform and an unconventional building technique carried the Renovation Pool successfully through a risky course of development.

Shortly before Easter 2009, when the Danish Enterprise and Construction Authority were given the task of managing the subsidy scheme, the Renovation Pool, time pressure was unprecedented. 

The construction industry was in crisis. The media, the trade industries and citizens were pushing. While politicians were fast-tracking the subsidy scheme, all renovation work for private house owners had come to a stand-still. And not until the last details of the law scheme were in place, were the requirement specifications available that were necessary for developing the IT solution to implement the Renovation Pool. On top of this, the politicians’ attitude was that subsidies were to be allocated according to a ‘first come, first served’ principle.

The technical challenges were many: It was the first time ever that a digital self-service solution was to be established in the subsidy area for private people. Nobody could forecast the number of applicants who wanted to be ‘first served’ at the same time. On top of this, the time for testing and developing the solution was limited (seven days in practice). Simultaneously with the application solution, the government agency also had to develop a payment system to administrate the payment of 1.5bn DKK of the Pool in a secure way.

In this situation, Danish Enterprise and Construction Authority chose to use the subsidy system TAS, which the government agency had already been using for a dozen years in 50-60 different subsidy schemes. The systems were set up to support the 120 case managers who were using the system during the day and to open 10,000 subsidy cases per night.

The first days were hectic. On the opening day alone 250,000 people visited the website. Danish Enterprise and Construction Authority received and registered around 81,000 applications in the first 24 hours. This enormous pressure was handled without a single breakdown of the system. The media focused on the ‘application storm’ and on the technical problems with queue time. The latter was caused by the flood of mails that was sent out to thousands of people, which meant that for safety reasons, some of the telephone operators reduced the speed of forwarding mails from the agency.

Apollo 13-scenario


Time pressure on this job caused the Danish Enterprise and Construction Authority to choose an unconventional building technique for a public enterprise.

“Basically, the system was built up via a long series of parallel projects. User and system interfaces were only locked at the very end,” Chief Operation Officer Henning Steensig explains to Computerworld after project launch.

”This was only possible by using systems with very flexible interfaces, which in their basic form are already tested, and at the same time building according to qualified assumptions. That is why we started out in existing systems within Danish Enterprise and Construction Authority, to limit the extent of unit tests and end-to-end tests of each of the solution’s elements.

The next challenge was to scale these systems to extremely high amounts of transactions and to set up a coherent infrastructure to support them. Apart from demanding documentation and physical inspection of all unit tests of the infrastructure, we used the same parallel building technique as we had used on the application module, combined with a test technique, which is often called ’worst case scenario test’.  Those who have seen the film ’Apollo 13’ will recognise the procedure.

Basically, you get the best experts to look at all the elements that are part of the solution. From a system blueprint and the experts’ knowledge, a list is completed of test scenarios, which can be carried out, if time allows for it, before you go live. Depending on how far you get down the list before running out of time you have an indication of how great a risk you are running when going on air.

Based on this, the end-to-end solution itself could be pushed forward to a maximum. This meant that we could carry out end-to-end user tests on traditional user-cases over Easter, Henning Steensig explained about the intensive course of events.

Start with what you can make do with

If you ask Henning Steensig today, the project has proven that “IT is an incredibly rational instrument for bulk administration. We could have automated even more and saved 120 temps if only we had had the preparation time for it. Previous subsidy schemes with paper and municipal case management are not even comparable to digital solutions.”

In your opinion, what does it take to succeed with governmental IT projects? ”Major IT acquisitions go wrong because you haven’t checked in advance and decided what you can make do with! Suppliers never say no and they rarely point out risks. Yet, they cover their backs afterwards. As a governmental organisation we are in a locked position as the state’s IT contracts are drawn in way that makes it impossible for us to get out of them.

My best advice is to make do with doing what you know is doable. Stay with what you know – and take it one step at the time from there. Avoid overly high levels of ambition in the beginning and try to get the suppliers to lay the cards on the table,” says Henning Steensig.