Making government ICT projects a success

By Bruce Nixon, CEO, Holocentric
Friday, 31 March, 2017

Making government ICT projects a success

Projects such as Western Australia’s GovNext provide a formidable challenge due to agency-centric silos and many other factors.

Budget blowouts, delays and failures have plagued many government departments as they struggle to achieve digital transformation. For instance, the implementation of Queensland Health’s payroll system in 2010 exceeded deadlines, caused incorrect payments and ran over budget by $1.25 billion.

That’s why when the Western Australian Government announced its $3 billion GovNext ICT plan, I started to think about the things that can go wrong with all such projects.

The WA Government is no stranger to IT horror stories. Its failed Office of Shared Services experiment in 2013 was unceremoniously scrapped after costing tens of millions of dollars instead of saving an estimated $56 million.

What could hold GovNext back is not the technology that will be implemented, but rather the operational complexity that comes from having agency-centric silos.

Large, complex systems upgrades are notoriously difficult to implement. They are hard enough when the applications are reasonably new and well understood. But when you also have a high level of complexity due to silos, they provide a formidable challenge.

Not just a systems overhaul

While many may acknowledge that systems upgrades are more than just IT projects, and that the transformation affects the entire organisation, the reality is they are still carried out in isolation.

As a result we end up with new systems that are not understood, with staff not trained in their use, and which do not deliver the benefits expected. In some circumstances, success is defined as “the system is implemented and operational”, even if it is not integrated into operations… and perhaps costing money rather than saving it, delivering lower service levels and introducing additional risks.

This is something well understood by John Murphy, Deputy Secretary for the Department of Human Services, in relation to the overhaul of its welfare payments systems. Murphy has publicly stated that the technology was likely to be easiest part of the journey, and the biggest challenge will be engaging the department’s 35,000 employees.

Many would argue that a new system can be designed without a detailed understanding of the current environment. This sounds like a great theory and provides a compelling proposition for reducing project costs, but ultimately ends up being penny-wise and pound-foolish. Any savings from not fully understanding the current state will come back to bite during the project, or, worse still, after implementation.

The requirements for ICT systems must be based on the business processes, responsibilities and accountabilities of the organisation, and there must be explicit linkages between business processes and the capability and functionality requirements. Too often, information is lost between the different phases of the system, and what is delivered is not fit for purpose.

Have a ‘business GPS’

As with any major business transformation, there needs to be some guidance on what you’re working towards. Otherwise how do you make sure that everybody is working to the same agenda?

A ‘business GPS’, or a single source of truth, should outline the processes people need to follow, the roles they will play, system design, decisions made and the impact on the end user.

This can be achieved through an operating model that links all of these elements and provides clarity on how any changes will affect operations. This also minimises the risk of time and budget blowouts.

A coherent, consistent and integrated model will help to bring together the information locked up in thousands of documents into one, reliable source, in a way that can cater to various stakeholders who will require different snippets of information at different times, in varying forms.

It can help you to understand the scope of the upgrade and be more strategic in decisions and can also help project managers align requirements with specific roles, processes and systems.

The model should also be used to simulate the expected operating environment, capture all knowledge, communicate to all parties concerned, incorporate changes that are discovered, drive the development of ICT systems, deliver an operating model and allow future changes to operations. Hence, the business GPS guides the entire transformation journey.

Yet while a business model is great for planning and helping management make strategic decisions, implementing the model requires an intuitive operating approach.

An operating model is a component of a business management system (BMS). A BMS links operational processes, responsibilities, controls, risk and compliance obligations through one integrated system. It is used to guide operations and simulate how new ICT systems will impact the department. Most importantly, the BMS can capture and manage know-how in a manner that is relevant to people throughout the department, not just the ICT staff.

A BMS can assist in validating the business case, by enabling a comparison of service levels and performance between the old and the new models. It will be instrumental in the implementation phase as it will generate the standard operating procedures and training guides and include the compliance obligations. It will be the blueprint for operations and allow the agile adoption of further technological improvements.

Taking staff on the journey

What people resent most is being kept in the dark about new processes and systems, and then being ordered to use them. Communication throughout the project is the key. Providing clarity in how new ICT will affect staff roles and responsibilities is critical.

The trap many fall into is blowing most of the budget on the technology and investing very little or no budget in the people side.

The success of any new system ultimately falls on the staff who will need to use it. If they can’t see the value, or don’t understand how to operate the new systems, implementation will be unsuccessful and the likely gains for your investment will be minimal.

Technology does not operate in a vacuum — it needs to be embedded in business processes, and it needs staff to clearly understand how the technology will be used to deliver against their responsibilities. This represents a challenge for government departments and agencies that are bogged down in silos and drowning in documents.

The WA Government’s GovNext ICT plan has the potential to be great. However, to ensure it is successful, the risk must be taken out of introducing the new system… and this requires a deviation from traditional ICT upgrade strategies.

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