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Victorian ombudsman fires an ICT distress flare

By GovTechReview Staff
Thursday, 13 December, 2012

The Victorian Ombudsman released a damning report on government ICT project performance late last year. When ICT project delivery performance becomes a matter for the Ombudsman, we know something is badly broken. The report echoes earlier reports from other jurisdictions and is further evidence of a growing crisis of confidence in government ICT. This is a real problem because governments need good ICT more than ever in 2012 to boost productivity in the face of declining budgets and to meet citizen expectations for service innovation. 
More than just another ‘ICT project beat up’. It is often fashionable to criticise ICT projects, particularly in the public sector. This provides a tidy way to ensure that the blame for failure rests with technical staff and with easy scapegoats such as contractors, consultants and IT companies. The Ombudsman’s report, however, correctly frames the projects it reviewed as “ICT enabled” projects — business transformation projects with a significant ICT element. The poor performance of these projects is a symptom of the inability of the most senior executives in departments and agencies to successfully plan and execute modernisation and transformation of the business processes for which they are responsible. This should be deeply concerning to any government because ICT is now core to the delivery of virtually all public services. The Ombudsman’s report could equally be renamed ‘Own motion investigation into the ability of senior executives to run public services in the 21st century’.
ICT-enabled projects are a core executive accountability. The Ombudsman made a laundry list of 58 recommendations, but we have seen many such lists before. The problem is not any lack of ideas about how project performance can be improved; it is a lack of will to put them into practice. The key to solving this problem is to address complexity and in ad hoc decisions to use accountability more directly. This needs to be done by a cabinet sub-committee focused on holding senior executives to account for being in control of ICT-enabled projects. Such a committee need only ask simple questions of a Secretary or CEO: “Is the project on track? Yes or No?” A track record of “No” answers should be very damaging for bonus and career prospects.
Additional project and risk management frameworks and review processes will be nugatory unless the culture of revolving door steering committee membership (“It wasn’t me!”) and hoping for the best (“It’s the best we can do!”) can be fixed by sheeting home accountability more firmly at department secretary, deputy secretary and agency CEO levels. Focus and accountability would lead to fewer, more successful, projects. If accountability is a firm expectation then executives will think twice before launching or accepting responsibility for a poorly planned, badly scoped, underfunded, under resourced project expected to be delivered in unrealistic timeframes. 
Stop looking in the rear view mirror and think ‘outside your boxes’. The perspective bought by the Ombudsman’s report was also too backward looking. A more forward looking approach to this problem is necessary. Governments need to consider how to better prepare themselves to live in a world where innovation is driven by mobility, social networking, cloud computing and advanced analytics. While the ability to implement major ICT- enabled projects needs to be fixed, a smarter approach is to also see beyond the need for such large and high risk projects at all. The solution to poor project delivery performance is not to simply overlay ever increasing layers of hyper-conservative governance checks and balances. Beyond accountability, the dominant causes of project risk lie in the perils of project duration and complexity and in ad hoc decisions to use poorly integrated technologies and infrastructure. The solutions, therefore, lie in shorter more agile projects, addressing simpler requirements using proven software already running on trusted platforms.

Cloud computing is maturing to the point where it now offers an increasingly viable alternative to traditional ICT project approaches for infrastructure and applications. Leadership is now required to see that cloud computing is all about making practical tradeoffs between the benefits and risks of, on the one hand, innovative new ICT sourcing models and, on the other, well known - but failing - traditional models.

Some Victorian departments already have hands-on experience with the use of public cloud computing services, for example, which have proven to be highly effective as a better, faster and less expensive alternative to more traditional ICT project approaches.

Using a service which is already operational and which iteratively evolves is a much less risky way to meet many business needs than trying to build or customise and support an in-house system. Such innovative approaches, however, require a new mindset and new skills on the part of both agency executives and ICT professionals.

An important element of looking to the future is to develop the capacity of department and agency executives to see beyond the current problems, and to appreciate the opportunities and possibilities for more innovative approaches to meeting business needs.

As the proverb goes, when you have a hammer everything looks like a nail. The Ombudsman’s report has highlighted that the hammer of major ICT-enabled projects is failing. While the faulty hammer needs to be mended we also need to accept that there are many alternative ways to meet business needs that don’t necessarily require the hammer at all. – Dr Steve Hodgkinson, Ovum

This opinion piece originally appeared in the February/March 2012 issue of Government Technology Review.

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