Opinion: Don't forget to remember me

Co-chair of NZ Paul Ramsay discusses the lessons learned from high profile IT failures

Since it was first published in November 1986, Computerworld New Zealand has covered a myriad of government IT projects from the singular successes to the spectacular failures. To be fair, the private sector is no better: they are simply not subject to the same political scrutiny and public disclosure as the public sector. The skeletons are there, they are just better hidden.

Unfortunately, this kind of scrutiny has resulted in a highly risk-adverse culture within the public sector.

As Clint Van Marrewijk of ThunderMaps noted when the government ceased its ‘Open Door to Innovation’ programme at the end of last year, “Innovation and government don’t go that well together. You can see it in their eyes, they want the right things but a businessman looks for opportunity and mitigates the risk; bureaucrats by nature look for the risks and then mitigate the opportunity.”

Over the years, the Office of the Auditor-General (OAG) has released a number of significant and well-considered reports that have been largely overlooked by all concerned.

Take for example ‘The Governance and Oversight of Large Information Technology Projects’ published in April 2000. It notes that “Difficulties with IT projects are not new, or confined to the public sector or (indeed) to New Zealand. Much has been written about the need for sound project management, and the principles of effective project management are well known. Yet the difficulties continue. Lessons learned are not shared, and the same mistakes recur from project to project and from entity to entity.”

In this context, the issues encountered with Novopay were neither surprising nor unexpected. Look back to the last two iterations of the ‘Teachers’ Payroll’ (which went live in 1989 and 1996 respectively) and you will discover that they both experienced a number of similarly significant issues. These were, of course, eventually overcome, but at a significant personal and financial cost to all concerned – not least to this country’s teachers.

The latest ministerial review reads like a Dan Brown novel: the plot is formulaic; we have encountered many of the protagonists before; and the outcome is predictable.

What is it about us all that we seem to suffer from some sort of ‘collective amnesia’ and to have the memory span of a goldfish as we flit from one fad to the next?

Other factors that conspire against the success of these large-scale projects include the sheer scale and timeframes involved, as they struggle to keep up with the rate and nature of organisational and technical change. The increasing pressure to deliver has the potential to compromise the outcome, as projects begin to lose sight of what they are there to do and who they are there to serve.

Go back further to July 1980, when the OAG first reported on ‘The Use of Computers in the Public Sector’, and it is interesting to note how many of the recommendations made then still apply today. These include:

“When developing a computer system it is important for management to ensure:

• A project manager is made responsible for the planning and control of the project.

• The problem definition is documented and agreed, to provide an objective for the project.

• Potential users define their requirements in ordinary language. Management should review the completeness and feasibility of these requirements.

• The project has a detailed cost/benefit study. This should be reviewed at critical stages in development.

• Consideration should be given to the alternative of obtaining similar or packaged systems unless management is satisfied that it is desirable to develop a system using resources available within the organisation.

• The necessary investigations are conducted to determine the size and complexity of projects. In some situations this may entail obtaining independent technical advice.

• Design, programming, documentation, and other procedural standards are formally recorded for all installations.

• Users are fully involved in testing, that is, supplying test data and formally approving the results.”

The report also noted that “Large computer projects should be authorised and monitored in discrete phases of time and cost. Approval to proceed to a succeeding phase should be dependent on the successful completion of the previous one.”

So where is this oversight and accountability today? In many cases, it is simply missing-in-action.

The latest OAG report from June 2012 – ‘Realising Benefits from Six Public Sector Technology Projects’ – offers the prospect of and a pathway to success.

The report highlights a number of factors that have been key to the success of the six projects in question – which ranged from a few hundred thousand dollars to tens of millions of dollars – not the least being “the need to manage benefits realisation dynamically” including beyond the formal life of the project itself.

Other significant factors include:

• Understand the environment and make the most of circumstances

• Be business-led, flexible and agile

• Have strong leadership and senior support

• Work effectively with the right people including end users

• Use the right technology tools

• Monitor and understand the benefits.

Government agencies tend to manage risk by becoming harder and more litigious with suppliers rather than seeking a more agile and adaptive approach. Agencies should be actively encouraged and supported to adopt the many examples of good practice that the Auditor-General has already thoroughly canvassed.

If this is a case of “Physician, heal thyself”, then we already have the prescription. We just need to follow it.

*This opinion piece is part of a series looking back at major issues covered by Computerworld to mark the final print edition, published Monday July 1, 2013.

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