With little more than a year to set up computer systems for the Auckland Super City, a local government information systems specialist rates the likelihood of everything working by D-Day as pretty slight.

Jim Higgins, former chief executive of Local Government Online, thinks the Super City's computing team face a "fearful" challenge. Their chance of having everything ready by the 2011 deadline, he says, is about "point two out of 10".

Would he relish the opportunity? "I suspect you would age visibly," says Higgins, who cut his teeth at Palmerston North City Council in the 1970s, helping computerise its billing. Given enough leeway, though, he thinks it could be "quite fun".

But the job is already taken. Mike Foley, information chief at Watercare Services, has been put in charge of "business processes and systems" at the Auckland Transition Agency.

Foley, whose boss at Watercare Services, Mark Ford, also heads the transition agency, said in an email that the agency is in the "discovery" phase of the computer systems project, after which a strategy and design will be worked out, before the first "delivery" phase.

Sounds simple. But Higgins says there are three ways they could approach the task. They could start with a clean slate; pick the best systems from the existing seven local councils and one regional council; or use the biggest council's systems.

There's a lot riding on the outcome. Part of the Super City rationale is that cost savings of 2.5 to 3.5 per cent a year from a total budget of $3.2 billion can be gained by sharing services, a key one of which is computing. If the savings don't materialise, the pain of amalgamation will hardly have been worth it.

The royal commission that dreamed up the new council studied a similar amalgamation in Toronto, where it took 10 years to unify IT systems. A piece of wisdom from the Toronto transition team was the advisability of using one of the merging organisations as the core entity into which the others are absorbed.

That could be an argument to take the best of existing IT systems and use them as a base for the new city. For core systems, such as those for managing rates collection, payroll, geographic information and licensing and permits, that probably makes sense, so long as they can cope with the Super City's size.

But for a couple of other important systems, a clean-slate approach could pay big dividends. One is desktop systems - the thousands of machines used by council staff.

Using open source alternatives to Microsoft Windows and Office, the proprietary operating system and application suite in use in most large organisations, would save millions of dollars.

The objection is often raised that such a switch would come at the cost of productivity, through lack of staff familiarity and inability to access files.

But Don Christie, who leads the Open Source Society, says the experience of the Electoral Enrolment Centre suggests otherwise. When the centre moved to Linux-based desktops, it budgeted half a day's training for each user. "But after a day they cut that back to an hour," Christie says.

As for opening Microsoft Office-created files, Christie considers that is a bigger issue between different versions of Office than it is for OpenOffice, the open source suite. He thinks open source could extend even further into the Super City, potentially being used for document and web content management, and to access the council's geographic information system as well.

Higgins' biggest hope is that the new council will do a good job of e-government. He will judge success on that score by the ability for ratepayers to carry out processes such as lodging building consents via the internet.

"If they just provide all that stuff online and let people deal with the council without having to go in to see them, then in those areas they will make real gains."

The trouble is, Higgins says, IT people tend to design systems that suit the organisation they work for rather than its customers. "I've talked to God knows how many councils about this stuff and I've had people say to me, 'Yeah, but our customers like coming in'." At which he clutches his head.

It's too late now but perhaps there was a simpler way to get the shared services gains the royal commission is eager for. Since 2000, two Auckland district health boards, Waitemata and Counties Manukau, have been cheerfully getting their computer services from healthAlliance, a company they jointly own.

Who knows what other good ideas the much-maligned health sector might hold?

IT Tangle

"There is a high level of ICT duplication in Auckland local government with at least 10 call centres, eight or more data centres, and over 20 separate major local government related websites across the region. Each stand-alone website has different ways of presenting and making available public information. There are no common IT standards for the councils in the region."

- Royal Commission on Auckland Governance