A management failure for govt IT

The failures highlighted in the Queensland auditor-general's most recent report are interesting, but it's part of a broader problem that sees too many IT projects fail to meet expectations. Since 2008, it seems little has changed in government IT.

In recent years there have been a number of high-profile failures in government IT projects. Big projects cost big money, but the potential damage from project failure goes much deeper, particularly when there are delays in delivering key government outcomes. At a time of tight fiscal constraint, there is little public forgiveness for delays and overspends. A 2011 Queensland auditor-general’s report looking across government agencies contains some interesting insights. The report raises very similar issues to the earlier federal government’s Gershon report. Perhaps it is time to heed these messages.

It’s time for cool heads and realistic assessments

When projects fail, it is inevitable that some sort of review will be undertaken into what went wrong. Such reviews are important, but they frequently take a narrow view aimed only at the particular project in question. However, there is growing concern that the issues run much deeper than just the job at hand, and a broader inspection is needed.

In Australia, two government reviews have taken this approach. In June 2011, the Queensland auditor-general tabled his most recent report to parliament that covered information systems governance and security. In the report, the auditor-general turned his attention to IT management trends across 14 public sector entities “to see whether there were systems and frameworks in place to enable effective management of IT at an agency level”.

The findings of the report were remarkably similar to those in Sir Peter Gershon’s 2008 report into federal government IT.

A common theme flowing through both of the documents is the concern that too many IT projects are failing to meet expectations.

In 2008, Gershon reported that only 23 per cent of the 193 projects examined were delivered under budget, and only 5 per cent could provide measurable evidence of anticipated benefits being realised.

Three years later the situation had changed very little. In his report, the Queensland auditor-general noted that performance measures were defined for only six of the 58 initiatives surveyed. He concluded that the overall governance framework was not effective and could be strengthened.

These are sobering findings. Clear objectives are crucial for any project. After all, if a project’s destination can’t be defined, how will you know if you get there?

Government IT projects can be surprisingly difficult

Government IT has its own special challenges, and the complexity of projects is frequently underestimated.

In government, policy objectives can change as legislation is debated on its way through parliament. One of the great skills of a government CIO is to anticipate likely policy outcomes and manage any risks in IT development schedules. Some system development projects can appear to move at glacial pace, which can make it difficult to maintain business interest and support over the lifecycle of long-running projects.

The Queensland auditor-general found this was indeed the case. He reported that too often, the “focus is on information technology strategies, policies, and budgets…not recognising that without good management these actions are unlikely to be translated into the desired results”. CIOs might have many friends during the “inspiration” period at the beginning of the project, but too little support during the long periods of “perspiration” needed to get the job done.

It’s all about care and attention

Both Gershon and the Queensland auditor-general recommended that stronger business owner attention should be directed to IT projects. Both argued that benefits are unlikely to be realised if business and IT leaders are not partners in the journey.

Perhaps it is time to challenge some long-held beliefs about IT projects. There is a saying: “managing change is hard, but IT is the easy part”. However, if information technology is truly easy, then there should not be so many failed projects or critical audit reports.

The time has come to heed the message of these reviews. IT management is not easy. Without adequate care and attention, IT projects will inevitably fail. There is a need to refocus on IT fundamentals and good governance. In the end the buck stops with the person who owns the outcome.

Kevin Noonan is a Research Director in Ovum's Australian government practice. 

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