Exposed: inside the Free State site

Nicola Mawson
By Nicola Mawson, Contributor.
Johannesburg, 12 Jun 2013
The ceiling price for the Free State's Web sites project is more than double what it said it paid for the first two years of the three-year project.
The ceiling price for the Free State's Web sites project is more than double what it said it paid for the first two years of the three-year project.

The Cherry Online-Ikamva-Jugganaut consortium's winning bid for the controversial Free State Web sites shows the province was set to be charged a ceiling total of R117 million.

ITWeb obtained a copy of the winning proposal and tender through an application made under the Promotion of Access to Information Act.

The total bid price, contained in the completed request for proposal, comes in at R39.1 million each year for three years, subject to inflation of 7.5%, and includes an amount of R14.2 million for travel costs, even though the consortium claimed bonus points for residing in the province.

The amount is more than twice as much as the province has said it has forked out so far, for what it claims is a 38 Web site-wide project. The winning bid came in at more than R30 million for each of its three phases, while the estimated project duration is 4 410 "man" days, which equates to 12 years working every day of the year.

Overheads come in at another more than R4 million a phase, but these are not specified, despite the province's documentation requiring an explanation.

Ridiculous costing

The request for proposals for the redesign/relaunch of a comprehensive and integrated Web site was issued in June 2011 and closed a month later, attracting 11 bids, which was whittled down to three after eight were disqualified.

It was awarded last February. Mondli Mvambi, director of media strategy and liaison in the Department of the Premier, has said the cost during the 2011/12 financial year amounted to about R24 million, while the current financial year cost is around R23.8 million, a total of R47.8 million.

Costs are shared between the Department of the Premier and the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, said Mvambi.

Yet, Swift Consulting CEO and tech blogger Liron Segev points out that, based on the tender documents that ITWeb made available to him for input, the current online presence is a far cry from what it was meant to be, and is littered with security holes, broken links and bad code.

Segev says the province did not get value for money and he cannot work out how the winning bid could be so high, as he could not get to those figures even if he bought a server farm. He also points out that the travel costs are ludicrous, as only provincial travel would be required and not first-class tickets to multiple global destinations.

The province has declined to comment as the issue is currently the subject to an audit, which includes a probe to determine whether it received value for money. "Until the audit process is complete, we cannot comment," says Mvambi.

In the accepted proposal, which was signed on each page by nine parties, seven design phases are listed, starting with conceptualisation and information-gathering, through to planning, design, development and creation, testing, implementation, and finally maintenance and content management.

Segev notes the costing is not that clear, as the winning bid lists three phases, but seven are cited in the documentation.

According to the award document, published last February, six phases were budgeted for in the 2011/12 financial year, which ended last March. Based on the award document, World Wide Worx MD Arthur Goldstuck has pegged the total cost of the sites over the period at R97.8 million.

Missing in action

According to the proposal, the home page of Free State Online "will be the entry point to the bigger portal" and was agreed to include aspects such as a profile of the province, an overview of public entities, composition of the local government sector, and career and business opportunities.

In addition, the site is meant to be accessible on smartphones, although a check on a few different devices shows there is no specific mobile site. The province was also meant to have links to Facebook, Twitter, RSS and YouTube as part of its social media campaign.

"Leaders of the provincial government, including MECs, mayors, HODs and municipal managers, will have a blog and use Facebook and Twitter to keep in touch with the general public regarding service delivery issues, key government programmes and other priorities."

Only a Twitter and Facebook button are visible, and those go to premier Ace Magashule's profiles. Segev says the Twitter account has 1 309 fake followers.

Not how it is done

Other aspects that were agreed would be on the home page include an 'about the Web site', a site map, and terms and conditions of use. None of these are visible. Of the more than 13 state entities that should have links on the site, only 10 are apparent.

Segev says the site has been worked on since the initial public outcry after it was reported that it cost R140 million, which the province denied. He says that, at first look, much of what should have been present was not.

However, Segev says technically, the $40 Wordpress theme complies with the scope, but the bidders did an "amazing sales job" and threw in a lot of technical jargon.

During the design phase, software from the Adobe suite was set to be used, while the database, to be set up during development and creation, would be created using Microsoft SQL. Software such as ASP.NET, PHP and DHTML was set to be used during Web development, and no mention of Wordpress is made at all.

Segev says PHP can run on a Microsoft server, but this is like trying to shove a square peg into a round hole.

Incomplete pages

Some 11 provincial departments are listed in the proposal, the bulk of which require a review of content to comply with "minimum norms and standards". In addition, there was set to be a "sub home page" for municipalities, which was to be organised by district with links to either existing sites, or newly-created portals.

Of the municipalities, of which there are 24, five did not have a site at the time the proposal was signed, and the bulk needed content updates and redevelopment in identified areas. There were also four public entities, which required updating and redevelopment.

Segev says many of the links to other entities do not work and, in at least one instance, a link opens a page that requests a password, when the usual practice would be to have a landing page while content is being developed.

According to the proposal, monitoring and usability testing were to take place at "regular intervals". Segev says there are 58 holes on the first page alone.

During testing, the site was meant to have been set up in a beta folder, which would "help ensure there are no problems when the Web site goes live". Testing would include browser functionality and potential vulnerabilities in security, as well as validating code.

The province has said the deal includes hosting and security from the State IT Agency (SITA). No mention of SITA is made in the tender documents obtained by ITWeb.