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Review of the Information Technology Strategy for the Social Welfare Sector Background

数码共融 – 专题探讨      2012/12/06

1. In 2001, the Social Welfare Department (SWD) formulated the IT Strategy for the Social Welfare Sector (the Strategy). Since then, a number of initiatives have been proposed and implemented to help NGOs set up basic IT infrastructure, develop system applications, acquire humanware, etc., through different channels.

2. Over the last ten years, NGOs have made various attempts to integrate a wide range of IT systems in their services and supporting functions. Some have achieved desired results, but some have failed. In the course of the development, some critical success and failure factors have been identified. With the rapid evolution of information technology, it is high time to revisit the Strategy.

3. The review of the Strategy has been commissioned to the Department of Social Work and Social Administration, the University of Hong Kong. A number of focus groups and in-depth case studies have been conducted and questionnaires have been sent for collecting the views from the social welfare sector. In this Paper, we would like to express the stance of HKCSS in this connection.

Findings from Recent Studies

4. Information technology is an indispensable component in the operation of agencies. In two similar surveys conducted by the HKU Public Opinion Program (HKUPOP) in 2009 and 2011 respectively, the findings showed that the average number of computers in agencies has increased by 36% in two years. Practically, all PCs in NGOs have Internet access and the basic IT infrastructure in NGOs has been in place. In another study conducted by HKUPOP in 2012, among 93 NGOs interviewed, almost all of them currently use some IT applications such as “email” and “accounting/financial management” programs.

5. Though most of the NGOs have achieved a certain degree of office automation, they NGOs did not fully utilize IT software application systems. In the same study, when the NGOs were asked what was the biggest challenge in their IT development process, “no IT specialist and knowledge” was suggested. Nevertheless, most of the NGOs interviewed still regarded software and system development as very important.

6. IT development among NGOs relied heavily on government’s funding. Almost two-third of the respondents expressed that government’s subsidy played the most important role when the NGOs were asked what was the most conducive mode(s) of subsidy for IT development in the social welfare sector. In fact, while the large NGOs could make use of their sizable subventions to develop more IT applications, for the smaller and medium-sized NGOs, their subventions were relatively inadequate for supporting major IT development projects. As a result, there is a disparity on the degree of using IT in services and management among NGOs in the welfare sector.

7. Most of the NGOs have no long-term planning for IT development. The survey conducted by HKUPOP in 2011 indicated that 83% of the large NGOs had reserved some budget for IT development, but only 50% of the medium-sized NGOs and 25% of the small NGOs had similar provisions. If an NGO does not have a budget for IT development, it is most likely that it would not have an IT plan in support of its service development. The findings are compatible with our observations obtained in providing consultation services to NGOs. Many NGOs did not have IT planning to tie in with their business goals. Most of the IT projects relied heavily on the availability of funding, and most of the time, they were developed on an ad hoc basis.

Strategy Recommendations

8. Strategies are means to achieve a vision. The review of the Strategy should also go with a revisit of the visions of the Strategy would like to reach. Though IT evolvement is so rapid that few can predict the technology environment in the future, a vision should be in place for the sector to check against how far we have reached, and how far we are away from the vision. SWD should work with NGOs and all stakeholders to build the vision of IT development so that the sector could assess what would be the required effort to realize the vision.

9. The review should cover non-subvented NGOs as well. The scope of the current review has been limited to the NGOs under SWD subvention. Yet, non-subvented NGOs have also played a very important role in social service provision in Hong Kong. Excluding them from this review probably would lead to ignoring a large part of the sector. Besides, non-subvented agencies would probably be encountering problems similar to the subvented NGOs, but their situations could be even worse because of limited funding and support. As this review does not cover the non-subvented NGOs, it could induce a widening digital gap between non-subvented NGOs and subvented NGOs. For any e-services implemented in the near future, it will be more difficult for non-subvented NGOs to get involved properly. As a result, e-services will be affected, and it will cause negative social impact to the service users and the society.

10. After setting the visions, SWD should establish levels of standard for NGOs to observe. In the survey in 2011, almost half of the NGOs interviewed would like to install a membership management system. Besides, about 26% to 36% of NGOs wished to have human resources management, donor management, and volunteer management systems. To reduce the digital disparity between large NGOs and small NGOs, SWD could suggest some standards which state explicitly what IT systems should an NGO install to improve their operational and administrative efficiency, and what standards and features such systems should have so that NGOs could observe and follow easily.

11. The upcoming IT Strategy should take into consideration of NGOs’ ICT capacity. Adequate resources should be made available to NGOs so that they could afford relevant ICT systems. For example, SWD has carried out a pilot test on cyber youth counseling. If the system is to be pursued, SWD should help NGOs acquire the appropriate ICT components in delivering the services. In addition to setup costs, adequate resources should be provided for NGOs to build up the required ICT knowledge and skills in delivering services via the new ICT systems. Workers without proper knowledge and skills would be unable to make full use of the ICT systems to benefit service recipients. Obviously, the support should not be one-off. Recurrent subvention should be made available to allow NGOs keeping their ICT systems up-to-date and to allow adapting the functionalities of the systems following the evolving operating environment to the benefits of clients.

12. IT systems should be more client-oriented. In the past, NGOs were focusing on IT systems for administration purposes. In BIP, a large portion of the IT projects were for the development of HRM and FM systems. As these systems have been operating for some time and they are managed in quite a stable condition, future IT developments could be directed to the benefits of service recipients. The development of membership management system or volunteer management system, for example, should consider not only the needs of the management and staff users but also those of the service recipients.

13. In the last decade, other sectors have been striving to set up various electronic platforms for streamlining processes and service improvement. The Health sector has made effort to develop an e-heath platform which links up public health with private practitioners and social services to the benefits of patients. E-government has been gradually pushing out a wide variety of e-services which provide much convenience to citizens.

Regrettably, there has been no comparable development in the social welfare sector. It would then be very difficult for the welfare sector to tap the benefits from other e-platforms, which very likely will have a negative impact on the effectiveness in service provision. We strongly urge SWD to set up corresponding e-platforms to link to similar establishments in other sectors to facilitate service improvement.

Role of SWD

14. As mentioned in the preceding sections, NGOs are relying heavily on government funding in IT development. The subsidy from SWD for IT development/deployment should take into account of the operation costs of IT systems. Very often, system upgrade or enhancement is a must to accommodate software evolution and changing user requirements due to a developing operating environment. SWD should provide recurrent funding to help NGOs maintain their IT systems in a good and stable condition. Recently, cloud computing has become one of the major developments in the IT sector. Most of the cloud applications are on subscription basis. Government funding should be flexible to allow subsidy for operational expenses.

15. As IT specialists and IT skills are lacking in the sector, NGOs often encounter difficulties in the course of developing IT systems. Very often, IT projects were poorly managed and the resultant IT systems did not meet expectations. It would be very helpful if government subsidy or funding could support fees for IT planning. During project inception, NGOs should involve IT specialists to conduct a feasibility study which helps identifying risk areas and reduces the chance of system failure.

16. Currently, most of the IT projects in NGOs are managed by social workers or colleagues who have little project management skills. Consequently, the projects could not be managed properly and it resulted in delay, over-spending, not meeting system requirements, etc. It is recommended that once an IT project has exceeded its budget by a certain limit, SWD should provide the NGO with extra resources to involve qualified project managers to oversee the progress and development of the IT project. This extra expense could ensure that IT projects are under better monitoring and control, reduce the project risks and help minimize waste of resources.

17. For medium and small NGOs, commonly they lack the resources and expertise to develop IT systems on their own. On the other hand, some NGOs might have already developed effective and useful IT applications. To avoid reinventing-the-wheel, these systems could serve as prototypes or common applications for other NGOs to adopt. SWD could invest in establishing a platform which NGOs could share these IT tools/applications and their experiences. This platform could act as a knowledge hub which would be able to foster sharing and mutual support among NGOs in IT development and adoption.

18. SWD should be watchful of development trends in the sector that might impact on the ICT needs of NGOs. For example, the upcoming Community Care Service Voucher for the Elderly might need a more sophisticated ICT system to support its functioning, and yet that would also provide a golden opportunity for service quality enhancement. SWD should collaborate with the sector to embrace such opportunity in a timely manner. In the meantime, the need of NGOs in using databases to manage their client data has for long been overlooked. It is recommended to revisit the decision of stalling CIS development in NGOs and to address that need in the Strategy Review. NGOs should be allowed to build their own membership systems, provided that such systems are equipped with the necessary tools for data exchange and the data observes a common format to make possible the exchange.

19. Most NGOs do not have budgets to conduct research and development in IT applications. As new technologies develop, NGOs do not have resources to assess if such new technologies would have great impact to their service provisioning. For example, the application of RFID in preventing clients with dementia from wandering out of a home would worth further exploration. SWD should consider to allocate resources for the sector to conduct testing and demos to investigate and explore how the new technology could benefit NGOs in service delivery.

Evaluation

20. As the Strategy would help the sector achieve better IT capability, it is suggested that SWD should establish benchmarks to help NGOs monitor their progress. SWD could help NGOs to lay out a roadmap of IT development. For example, an NGO should start with the basic IT infrastructure and communication tools. Gradually, it should go for the IT applications for management and administration. Further down the road, the IT applications should be more client-oriented. These benchmarks or milestones would be very useful for NGOs (including non-subvented NGOs) to monitor their status of IT development and strive for continuous improvement.

21. Regular collection of opinions from the sector and service users could further provide invaluable information for the Strategy to achieve its goals. Technology advancement and the change of NGO expectation would influence the course of IT development. The opinions and views of different stakeholders should be collected regularly to ensure that the Strategy is followed to meet the needs and expectations of the social welfare sector properly.

22. The Joint Committee on Information Technology (JCIT) has the responsibility to formulate relevant strategy and oversee the implementation plan for IT investment and development in the sector, including infrastructure, communication, system applications, accessibility and humanware. We recommend that SWD could submit an annual report for JCIT to keep its committee members informed of the progress of the implementation of the IT Strategy. Any slippage or discrepancies can then be detected as early as possible, and the direction or vision could be fine-tuned promptly to meet the rapidly changing technology and societal changes.

 

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