Rewriting the rules for IT applications

By GovTechReview Staff
Tuesday, 16 April, 2013

While tools and methodologies may have changed over time, the essential rules of engagement have emained largely unchanged. Today, however, a growing number of agencies are seriously questioning that proposition – and are achieving impressive results.

Many agencies are moving from bespoke to packaged solutions. At the moment this approach is limited mainly to Customizable Off the Shelf Software (COTS) solutions, but it is clear that cloud based software as a service (SaaS) will also come in scope. SaaS is clearly on the planning horizon for many agencies, but at the moment is one step too far for many others. Many are taking a wait and see approach, and are waiting for local case studies in the government sector before making specific commitments to SaaS.

However, the move to packaged solutions is clear. Bespoke development requires long, expensive and risky development projects, as well as a long commitment to expensive software maintenance regimes. Recent government audit reports in Australia have shown just how expensive, difficult and risky bespoke developments can be. Some agencies have already made formal policy commitments to a preference for packaged solutions. Others have not yet moved to a formal commitment.Ovum-KevinNoonan

This will be a big change for business managers who are accustomed to being asked for detailed specifications and enjoying the luxury of tailor-made solutions. Any move to packaged solutions will require a lot of flexibility from business managers, and a good measure of pragmatic commitment.

A change to a preference for packaged solutions will also require some commitment from enterprise architects, particularly when integrating old legacy systems and applications.

Business requirements should be contestable. The traditional model of IT development starts analysis more or less with a blank sheet of paper. It assumes IT solutions are contestable but business requirements are locked in. A number of agencies are in the process of moving away from this thinking, and are now questioning whether business requirements themselves should be contestable.

A focus on business requirements is being replaced by a focus on business outcomes. This means the precise way of getting to a business outcome should be open to contestable discussion. If there happens to be a more efficient and effective way of achieving the same business outcome, then surely this is a good solution for government.

Still, old habits die hard. Some agencies are finding that a change of thinking brings into question some long held beliefs about accepted approaches to government administration. Government administration needs to be provided with the flexibility to change and evolve.

The federal government’s report The Way Ahead is clear in its assessment that community expectations are changing, and that government administration must move to meet the needs of a changing world. However, bespoke IT development tends to lock agencies into cul-de-sacs of administrative thinking, and is fast becoming out of step with contemporary thinking. ‘Best Practice’ is beginning to make way for ‘Most Common Practice’.

Best Practice is built on the flawed premise that it is possible to predefine the best way of achieving a particular government outcome. When applied to IT system development, Best Practice creates the added difficulty of hard coding a particular approach, and subjecting any deviation to an expensive regime of system changes and redevelopment.

For some time, many agencies been moving away from the notion of Best Practice to a set of terminology built around Better Practice, recognising that performance improvement is a journey not a destination. But Better Practice provides little comfort to long suffering IT staff who are still faced with the prospect of a string of system changes stretching out into the future.

The notion of Most Common Practice addresses the problem in a very different way. It bypasses all subjective argument that one solution is better than another. It simply looks for a good quality common solution, and locks onto it.

From an IT perspective, Most Common Practice provides a neat fit to packaged solutions such as COTS or SaaS. It also opens new options for competitive tendering and contracting. It puts the emphasis back to inviting the market to solve a business problem or meet a particular outcome, rather than an assessment based on a locked in set of business requirements.

Most Common Practice will create challenges and opportunities for IT vendors. Vendors accustomed to feature/function based commodity sales will find these changes most challenging. Vendors will need to step up to a much bigger agenda built around business solutions and long term engagement, rather than the features and functions of their existing software range. – Kevin Noonan, Ovum

Kevin Noonan is a Research Director in Ovum’s Australian government practice. Based in Canberra, Kevin specialises in IT strategy, policy, and supplier engagement.  This opinion piece originally appeared in the February-March 2012 issue of GTR.
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