Features: July 16th, 2010

By Julian Holmes

The savage budget cuts make it imperative to look at the track record of monumental failures for government IT projects. The author examines where projects are going wrong. He also looks at what realistically could and should change and what impact this would have on those who work in IT for the Government.

What is going wrong?

The government has established an approach to procuring IT solutions that only permits large scale consulting firms to have the opportunity to bid for their contracts. These procurements also typically request wholesale change and re-engineering of business processes and IT solutions. This is opposed to identifying step-change needs that can be delivered within shorter timeframes and deliver value earlier, for less financial exposure.

What obstacles do government IT project managers come up against?

Examples of obstacles include:

• There is a lack of ‘business’ involvement, where civil service has not got the time to engage directly with the projects to ensure that they define their needs accurately. This can sometimes result in the civil service providing a ‘proxy’ to represent their needs on their behalf. This is often somebody who knows too little about the department or has no authority to make a decision and has to keep referring back to the real customer, therefore becoming a bottle neck to decision making.

• There can be an almost dogmatic demand for excessive documentation, where the civil service demands an approach to delivery where documentation is key, and the true demonstration of system delivery progress is overlooked, in favour of documentary paralysis.

• A misinterpretation of governance gateways can be a problem, where the need to demonstrate progress at major project milestones is interpreted as a requirement for documentation, that needs to be completed in accordance with a lengthy template. This could be without necessarily checking for the quality of the content or described solution.

• An overbearing change management process is all too common, where a lack of recognition for the natural need for change as a system is developed. This leads to the delivery and business teams wasting time and money executing a change management process, rather than spending time working on the system to be delivered.

How can they work towards removing any bureaucracy associated with IT projects?

Establishing a greater collaborative approach to working with suppliers can help remove any red tape associated with the project. An approach that encourages early results and doesn’t lock the government or the supplier into multi-year development projects can help speed up the process.

What policy changes would help?

By establishing shorter contracts with smaller objectives, which are opened up to a wider range of suppliers able to demonstrate value early will certainly help. However, for projects to stand a chance of being delivered successfully, the Government still need to ensure they commit their own resources to projects and not bury them in bureaucracy.

Is there another solution that could possibly help?

Many large scale delivery organisations feel they can’t take a different approach to delivery, because the government departments they work with are not open to change. If this working relationship could be altered to encourage greater collaboration, with recognition that change is always required during the life of a project, and a constant re-prioritisation of needs to ensure the project delivers the greatest value for the least investment as early as possible, then iterative and agile practices can significantly help to improve delivery success.

A desire to make this change for government projects does need to come from the supplier community, but also needs a similar desire and determination from within government. With current cost-cutting initiatives, it is this kind of smarter working practice that will enable both the Government and IT suppliers to deliver value to the tax-payer.

Julian Holmes is co-founder of UPMentors.