COUNCILS across Northern Ireland are being encouraged to join a co-operative software movement that has stood in defiance of the occupation of government computer departments by multinational suppliers in big-ticket deals.
The Northern Ireland Department of the Environment has advised the country's 26 councils to join the Local Authority Content Management System (LA CRM) partnership, which develops its system collaboratively with councils across the UK under the lead of Belfast City Council.
The government's endorsement of LA CRM will boost the UK's non-commercial software movement at a time when it has been long swimming against the tide. The open source community has become exasperated by an administration and policy framework that favours multinational software and services vendors, the quasi-privatisation of government IT and multi-million pound outsourcing deals.
The do-it-yourself approach has found found favour in Northern Ireland because it is cheap, can get quick results and has some resonance in a society that has just wrested its devolved government back from Westminster after it was confiscated 35 years ago.
John Price, modernisation lead in the local government policy division of Northern Ireland's Department of the Environment, said he had encouraged Northern Irish councils to adopt LA CRM as a "low-cost stepping stone" for their transformation into organisations rallied around a "customer services" ethos.
Customer Relationship Management systems are being introduced as part of the Review of Public Administration, a vast programme of local government reform outlined in 2006, the year before power was devolved back to Belfast, and which will see Northern Ireland's 26 small councils merged by 2011 into just 11 local authorities.
County Antrim, the one other council in Northern Ireland that has already implemented LA CRM, is being used to promote the software to other councils.
"We are showcasing it and trying to encourage other councils to use it," said Price. "We suggest it might be a good idea to at least do LA CRM on a pilot basis."
The government was attracted by the collaborative ethos embodied in LA CRM, said Price: "We can build a community with it, and the community keeps building it, developing it and keeping it alive."
This would allow councils to "influence more closely" the on-going development of their CRM systems so they were matched "more closely to their needs".
"People over here like to get their hands on and influence change. People here are used to having products brought in from outside, over which they have no influence. Is a big, international company interested in my little local needs?" he said.
This is a radically different approach to that funded by the UK government in England and Wales in the early noughties, when councils spent hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions of pounds on CRM systems designed to operate call centres for multinational corporations. But with the purse strings being tightened around the UK, the collaborative model might make a resurgence.
Alan Neilly, who runs LA CRM from Belfast City Council's IT section, said he hoped the NI government's support would at least see the software installed across Ireland.
"With the Comprehensive Spending Review, a lot of the funding for customer relations has dried up," he said. "Councils now have to find their own money. They are asking how to continue their CRM strategy and are thinking of what might be cost effective."
He is already in contract negotiations with Omar District and Newton Abbey Councils. But there is some resistance to the idea among the software industry's establishment.
Ian Graham, chief executive of Momentum NI, the country's software trade association that counts among its members the indigenous, commercial CRM vendor Lagan, said customised software caused too many problems for councils. Packaged, or "productised" software was more reliable, he said.
Roger Rawlinson, director of consulting at NCC Group, which brokered big-ticket Oracle and Siebol CRM deals with at least UK English councils, knew nothing of LA CRM. But he thought councils should be wary of the collaborative model and stick with the multinationals. He warned that the system might be cheap but its total cost of ownership might be high.
"You need to be confident that these developers have the capability of developing that solution in a robust and best-practice manner. What if these people wanted to leave and set-up their own company?"
In the ten years since LA CRM was implemented at the Newham London Borough Council, it has gone into another 17 councils around the UK, including Barnsley, Leicester, Sheffield and Wolverhampton. Neilly said the LA CRM licence set them back £44,000 and they pay ongoing support costs of £12,000 a year. The money supports a Belfast team of nine who work with LA CRM member councils to develop tailored modules that are then incorporated into the next general release of the software.
Price said that once NI Councils had got up and running with LA CRM and had gained some experience of running customer services then he wouldn't advise them against purchases of more sophisticated systems, particularly NI's own Lagan. µ