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Getting IT Right From the Start

Nov. 30, 2017
Global Knowledge

Without a foundation of upgraded skills, government IT initiatives will continue to fail

Government executives don’t typically crave the spotlight. Their focus is on delivering excellent service. It’s not easy. Almost by definition, government projects are carried out in an environment of significant constraints and risks. Government executives understand these risks, and they work tirelessly to mitigate them.

And so, for these committed professionals, there’s probably no activity more depressing or demoralizing these days than a close reading of the Ottawa Citizen. There, in almost every edition, we see a merciless dissection of everything that’s gone wrong with the government’s current IT projects.

Last November, the paper listed ten Shared Services initiatives that were classified as “red,” meaning they were either late, over budget or not delivering the promised results. Another 19 were in enough trouble to be described as “yellow.” And, to make matters worse, the list covered only those projects under Shared Services’ purview, meaning that it didn’t include hugely embarrassing debacles like Phoenix Pay.

In the era of deliverology, the outrage is not surprising. Today’s citizenry is clamoring for a government that delivers as reliably as Amazon and Netflix. Thus, success stories get almost no publicity, but delays and setbacks are subject to microscopic inspection. Taxpayers have been promised efficiency and accountability in their dealings with government, and they have little patience for stories about expensive failure. In a time of such clear expectations, how can so much be going so wrong?

To start, let’s be fair. These stories of failure do not properly consider the enormous complexity of any major IT initiative. And, contrary to popular opinion, the private sector is every bit as vulnerable to IT problems as the public sector. For evidence of that, we can look to the Standish Group, the Boston-based consultancy that has been rating the success of public- and private-sector IT projects around the world since the 1990s. Of the 50,000 projects evaluated by Standish, only about 30% came in on time, on budget and with satisfactory results. As for the rest, about half ran into difficulty, and nearly 20% were complete flops. Moreover, the greatest likelihood of failure was seen in the most ambitious and complex projects — in other words, in projects like those on the Shared Services “red” list.

The government’s struggling projects have been faced with the kinds of challenges that are seldom seen in the private sector. It is no coincidence that the most troubled of these initiatives happen to have been executed under the most daunting circumstances: They were carried out with arbitrary mid-project budget cuts, aging hardware, outdated software and game-changing complexities that were discovered only after work began (such as the inventory of government data centres, a list that ballooned from 200 to nearly 500 at last count).

And that’s not all. In addition to working with challenges that are peculiar to the public sector, every government initiative must also be planned and carried out in the wider world, one that is aptly described by the acronym VUCA: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. Today, the relentless upheavals of the digital world threaten to make any new product or service obsolete even before it launches.

Fortunately, strategies exist for dealing with these chaotic realities, and for mitigating their risks. But there’s a catch: These strategies have to be incorporated into project planning at the very earliest stages. Applying them only when the need becomes inescapable will almost certainly be too little, too late. In the words of the legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.”

The most necessary strategies are becoming increasingly obvious. A recent report from BC Auditor General Carol Bellringer cites three main reasons for government IT failures: inadequate in-house skills, “overly ambitious” goals and “incomplete” business cases. All three factors point to a foundation of knowledge that is not up to supporting the initiatives that must be built on top of it. And in so many of these recent disasters, the lack of knowledge or skill was recognized only in hindsight, only after internal problems became public humiliations.

Successful IT projects begin with the critical skills necessary for achieving objectives while anticipating and avoiding risk. But it’s clear that not all government departments have those skills at the ready. Indeed, media coverage of the problems in Shared Services has pointed to decision makers who had little or no experience with IT project management. So, if skills gaps aren’t clear or obvious, how is a government executive supposed to plan for training? The good news is that my team at Global Knowledge offers deep experience in government training, as well as expertise in proactively identifying the upgraded skills necessary for any IT-based initiative.

In working to bring Canadians the Government 2.0 they’re demanding, government decision makers are dealing with some tough realities. Budget restrictions mean that the most-needed tech and project management skills probably can’t be recruited from outside. To be blunt, today’s government executives have to get more talent out of the talent they already have.

Developing that talent requires precisely focused training, and precisely focused training requires planning — not in the midst of the project, but in the earliest stages of scoping. It should be noted that the needed skills go well beyond IT. Recent events have demonstrated that development is also needed in project management, as well as in the so-called soft skills of leadership and communication. Furthermore, the realities of today’s world mean that new expertise is also needed in cybersecurity, data protection, privacy, accountability and governance.

Workplace training has traditionally been given in reaction to a need. When a need arose, people were sent on a course. Unfortunately, that after-the-fact approach to learning won’t help anyone stay off the “red” list. Workplace learning in general (and government learning in particular) requires a long-term approach that is part of the organization’s foundational principles. At Global Knowledge, we recommend starting with a skills-gap analysis. As the name implies, it is an assessment of whatever shortfalls exist in the capabilities of a group or individual, and it is accompanied by a detailed learning plan to provide the missing skills. Ideally, the skills-gap analysis will be part of an overall learning strategy, one that aligns all learning plans with the strategic aims and priorities of the organization. (It bears repeating: Unless training is explicitly linked to a larger organizational strategy, it is likely to be a poor use of your scarce resources.) Finally, as the government’s recent problems with IT implementation have shown, there is a need for software training, a need that applies whether the product is off-the-shelf or customized for government use. Once again, success depends on having a training plan identified, procured and implemented well before the software itself goes live.

Budget constraints are a fact of government life, as are tight timelines. And it is true that training for measurable outcomes takes time and money. Together, these realities present training as one of the more expendable line items in an IT project. But delaying skills development or eliminating it altogether represents the worst kind of false economy. As history has shown us repeatedly, governments will never be praised for the money they save on a failure.

Budget restrictions mean that the most-needed skills probably can’t be recruited from outside. To be blunt, today’s government executives have to get more talent out of the talent they already have.