FOI Software: “Off The Shelf” or Custom Built?

“Off The Shelf”: The FOI Assist software

vs.

?

Right now, most Freedom of Information (FOI) professionals are still using a combination of manual processes and generic office productivity software to track and respond to FOI requests. Deadlines might be calculated using a paper calendar, tracked in a spreadsheet (e.g., Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets) or with paper notes, and correspondence created from scratch or using templates in a word processor (e.g., Microsoft Word or Google Docs). But after a while doing things the traditional way, it’s reasonable to think about how the work can be done faster, and in a manner that is up to date with the latest guidance and legislation, with fewer mistakes and missed deadlines.

Software created specifically for tracking and responding to FOI requests (such as the FOI Assist software) is an obvious answer. However, this still leaves the question of whether it is better to purchase “Off The Shelf” software, that is, existing FOI-specific software that is ready-to-go; or, “Custom Built” software, meaning software that is either built from scratch or significantly customized based on the individual requirements of an institution.

Off The Shelf Software: Advantages

Refined Product Design

One of the most important advantages to off the shelf software is its careful attention to design. Off the shelf software is often created by a person or team with significant domain knowledge and experience; contrast this with custom built software which is usually developed “for hire” by a software consulting company with little to no sector-specific expertise.

With off the shelf software, frequent use and feedback from multiple clients can lead to improvements that are enjoyed by every user; with custom built software, users must personally confront all of the software’s potentially unique issues.

If “off the shelf” software is like following a well-travelled footpath, “custom built” software can be like having to cut and maintain a fresh trail through the woods on your own.

Costs

This is perhaps the best known difference between off the shelf software and custom built software, but it’s worth elaborating. Off the shelf business software may cost anywhere from the low hundreds of dollars up to perhaps ten thousand dollars for an annual license. With custom built software, on the other hand, initial development costs generally begin in the multiple tens of thousands and frequently in the hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars. And the costs for custom built software almost never end there.

With off the shelf software, costs are easy to quantify and quite predictable — generally, for a fixed monthly or annual fee, the institution can use the software, receive technical support, and also be assured that the software will be patched and kept up-to-date in response to both issue reports and legislative or process changes.

With custom built software, on the other hand, the institution usually winds up as the “owner” of the software, similar to owning a car or a house, and therefore is on the hook for all of the maintenance and improvements that the software may require in the future. The company that created the software may be in the best position to maintain it, but this can put the institution at the mercy of a sole vendor for any custom improvements or bug fixes that may be required.

Work Involved

With off the shelf software, the product has already been designed and implemented and it can be activated and ready to use as soon as the institution has purchased it. This is a significant difference from custom software, which by definition implies a significant amount of “project work” by the institution needed in order to bring the software into a useable state. And just as the costs for custom software have the potential to spiral out of control, the work involved in creating and tailoring custom built software can wind up weeks, months or years behind schedule.

For software that must be kept up to date in response to changing processes, guidance or legislation, the “custom built” software lifecycle can take a life of its own, as internal stakeholders wind up in frequent consultation with the software vendor to hash out how to best keep the software up-to-date to ensure it remains relevant.

Commitment

With off the shelf software, the institution’s commitment is generally limited to the investment that staff have made in getting familiar with the software, and the license fees paid thus far. And off the shelf software solutions frequently include a satisfaction guarantee, where an institution may receive a full or pro-rated refund of fees paid.

Custom built software, on the other hand generally includes a very signficant up-front cost, followed by ongoing maintenance work and development fees that can make it psychologically and reputationally hard to walk away from, even when the software is not delivering the promising value. And the significant costs sunk into custom built software are generally unrecoverable.

Strength In Numbers

Finally, one of the most underrated advantages of using off-the-shelf software is the fact that you automatically become part of a group of users who all use the same software. The creator of an off-the-shelf solution is often very keen to receive feedback and suggestions for improvement, because any such improvements will be shared by all the users of the software and therefore lead to much happier clients across the board. The experience of an organization that has purchased custom built software, in contrast, may be one of relative isolation. The attention of a vendor supporting custom built software may divided across many clients with differing needs, each using their own unique product.

Custom Built Software

The main advantage of custom built software is that the institution theoretically has the freedom to create anything it believes might be useful.

An institution might start their software search process by creating a “wish list” of features, and when no “off the shelf” software if identified that implements every feature on the institution’s list, custom software can seem like the answer.

In some cases, custom build software really might be the answer: for example, when an organization has its own mandatory process that it is confident no other institution requires; or when an organization is seeking a “competitive advantage” over other institutions, that is, it is seeking to automate a process or create business intelligence that has value specifically because its competitors will not have access to the software and therefore will not receive the same advantage.

However, in the vast majority of cases, institutions that begin with a detailed “wish list” of features are putting the cart before the horse. In a field like Freedom of Information, for example, the requirements, deadlines, correspondence and even potential exemptions are nearly identical for every provincial and municipal institution across the same jurisdiction; rather than create a list of features the institution thinks would help, it can be far more beneficial to simply “free ride” off of the design work and expertise underpinning an existing off-the-shelf solution. For example, an institution may think it requires a feature that tracks specific information with respect to each request received, so that the institution can create an annual statistical report at the end of the year; the institution may not realize that the right off-the-shelf solution will take care of the entire annual statistical report with the click of a button. An institution that creates its own requirements from scratch before considering existing solutions is generally duplicating work unnecessarily, limiting choice, and often significantly increasing the cost and complexity of the solution eventually adopted.

In summary, my advice to institutions would be, you wouldn’t want to try to create your own word processor or spreadsheet from scratch, especially if you had never used a word processor or spreadsheet before; similarly, you shouldn’t try to create your own FOI software, or even spend valuable institutional time in customizing existing software, when there is already an off-the-shelf solution available.

The FOI Assist Software

The FOI Assist software has been carefully designed for Ontario’s provincial and municipal institutions for the purpose of tracking and processing FOI requests, including generating correspondence, tracking fees, applying exemptions, managing the affected person process, issuing decision letters, and generating the year-end statistical report. The FOI Assist software is very much “off the shelf” software. No design work or customization is required; the software is ready for activation as soon as it is purchased. And the FOI Assist software includes detailed documentation as well as ample support by email and videoconference.

Creating a decision letter with the FOI Assist software

See It For Yourself!

If you are a provincial or municipal institution in Ontario, rather than try to create your own FOI software from scratch, I suggest you find out more about what the FOI Assist software can do for you. You can start by visiting the FOI Assist software main page, or reading the release announcement.

Better yet, request a demonstration, and I will be happy to show you how the system works and what it can do, as well as to answer any questions you may have.

I look forward to hearing from you!

Published by Justin Petrillo

I have created the FOI Assist™ software to help Ontario’s provincial and municipal government institutions of all sizes track and respond to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. For most of my career I have been a lawyer, advising clients on commercial, intellectual property and FOI/privacy issues. From 2013 to 2015, I managed the FOI program for the Toronto 2015 Pan/Parapan Am Games Organizing Committee while serving as Legal Counsel to the Games. Prior to becoming a lawyer, I obtained a computer science degree and worked as a software developer at several well-known technology companies.

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