A local tech company is crying foul at the Government of Montserrat’s refusal to pay for the use of the Executive Document Management software they developed, after they were forced to give access to their system following a court order.
Rovika is a tech startup founded by Dennison Daley and Manish Valechha in 2012. They shared with Discover Montserrat that they have been attempting to get the government to agree to a new license agreement for the better part of 2018 and despite their best efforts to reach a compromise, it has resorted in court action.
Rovika developed a software system called ExcoTrack, which is a document management system specifically designed for senior government operations. It has been in use by the Government of Montserrat since 2012. An earlier version designed by Daley in 2005 was scrapped in favour of a web-based solution in 2012. The developers are currently working on version 4.0 and said the new contract will include free upgrades. In the past, government only paid for features that were not part of the original development.
According to emails viewed by Discover Montserrat from senior officials, the government believes that as they assisted with the initial funding for the software they were within their rights to receive breakdowns of development and maintenance costs to prove value for money. Rovika said they had moved to a Software as a Service licence structure which requires clients to purchase a licence as per industry practices. The entrepreneurs said that over the past seven years, the government’s contribution to include the initial grant, feature request charges, hosting, maintenance and fees amount to approximately $31,000.00 USD with 24/7 service.
According to Daley, when the government adopted a new Constitution in 2011, it was felt that the old system was no longer viable for the expanded needs of the Cabinet. Daley advised that he would improve his original programme and with a verbal agreement, the government would provide him with a grant, through a new ICT fund to speed up development. Part of the process required Daley to set up a company in order to access the grant, to which he invited Valechha to be a partner.
“This grant funding enabled a verbal agreement with the Government that ExcoTrack would not be given at a per-user rate and no limits would have been placed on the number of users on the system. Additionally, a minimum standard charge which at the time covered hosting and training with basic maintenance was set out. This at the time was in excess of $6000.00 XCD per year. It was also agreed that any future changes required would be charged to the Government once it was outside of the original development or scheduled updates,” explained the entrepreneur.
At no time were terms of references put in place with all decisions taken via verbal agreements and emails. A version 2.0 was built and provided to the government following recommendations by senior officials. Rovika says it billed government at a fraction of the cost of developing the upgrade.
While government has been paying for maintenance and hosting since 2013, they were not billed for 2016 and 2017 for the use of the service. This, the entrepreneurs said was because they were behind on releasing a new version, based on assessments from the government’s auditing department. “We saw the need to improve the security of the software, which is housed on our servers and accessed by GOM via the cloud.”
Hon. Minister of Communications, Paul Lewis said recently at Montserrat Innovations Days that he has championed the software with regional colleagues, especially as he can continue to do government business while abroad. In 2015, Lewis’ ministry awarded grants to several local firms including Rovika to develop new ICT projects. Rovika successfully developed a new web-based vehicle and drivers licensing system with the ICT grant. However, the government has not implemented its use awaiting legislative changes.
Rovika on Monday, launched ExcoTrack in the British Virgin Islands as part of their Greening the Cabinet process as they move towards improving their eGovernment services.
In February of this year, Rovika submitted a new agreement with an increased license fee. The government immediately requested a breakdown of the costs, which the developers declined to give stating it was not their policy to do so. Attempts to gain an agreement on whether the government wanted to continue using the software began in earnest, with multiple emails, meetings and phone calls. However, no decision was reached. Rovika then told the government they would no longer be able to access the software after June 8, 2018 without a signed agreement.
Rovika said the increased fees would allow the company to be able to deliver the service, which now required increased resources to manage and secure.
Despite bringing in outside negotiators, the government’s refusal to sign an agreement forced the company to shift the software to read-only mode. The duo was then called to an urgent meeting to discuss how government could have full use of the system while the new contract was negotiated. In good faith, the developers brought the software back online, which allowed the government to create new documents, while they awaited an acceptance of the interim agreement via email. The interim agreement, would give the government an additional two months to finalise negotiations.
They neither accepted or raised any issues with the extension offer.
The Government of Montserrat’s Auditor General Report of the public accounts for the fiscal year 2016, flags several issues with the use and delivery of IT-related services. It notes that their review revealed “weaknesses in the MOVA control environment as policy documents to guide outsourcing is non-existent.” MOVA is an online visa system developed by the island’s first IT company Lavabits, which is now solely owned by Valechha. This system allowed government to collect fees on visa applications, which it did not previously do.
The auditor’s report went on to say that “the management of MOVA services is being provided without a signed contractual arrangement which is contrary to existing procurement regulations and there is no document service management agreement. The ramifications of an unsigned contract could present litigation risks.” It recommended that DITES, the government’s IT department, get “an updated/new service level agreement or contract … drafted and signed which gives DITES sole ownership of the data collected and stored on MOVA overseas servers.”
A 2006 IT Audit review also flagged the lack of policy and procurement processes for acquiring IT services and products. “There is no standard IT policy or strategy or even a published IT procurement policy in place and, as a result, procurement is often done on an ad-hoc basis.”
According to the 2018 Budget Estimates, DITES spent $311,000 USD on professional services and fees in 2016. These fees include coverage of license fees for several critical software that GOM uses daily. These include SmartStream, which back in 2006, GOM used at a cost of US$60,000 per year, according to the IT Audit.
The entrepreneurs said as they waited to hear from government, they received word, which was verified by Discover Montserrat, that a senior government official had inquired of another local software company to reverse engineer ExcoTrack and deliver the same to government.
Following another urgent meeting that included the acting Honourable Attorney General on August 2, 2018, Rovika was served with a court order on August 3, 2018 requesting them “to provide the Government of Montserrat with access to ExcoTrack so they can access their data in a user-friendly format,” Valechha said.
Rovika’s request to quash the injunction was denied on Monday.
In 2015, Rovika Inc was named one of SiliconCaribe.com’s Top Caribbean Startups to Watch for having successfully delivering ExcoTrack and Talypso, a judging software which is used annually for calypso competitions, pageants and any event requiring multiple judges.