Cabinet has approved an interim overview process for government department information technology projects.
Communications Minister Maurice Williamson was given the task earlier this year by Prime Minister Jim Bolger of finding a way to oversee the projects, several of which appear to have gone off the rails.
“There are some awful horror stories,” Williamson says. “They’ve put the fear of God into the Prime Minister. He’s hardly aware of any project that has come in on time and budget and that works. There needs to be a parallel, no-surprises whistle-blowing process.”
It’s been decided that the IT unit at the Ministry of Commerce will be kept appraised of all government projects. If at any stage they have reservations, they’ll raise them with Williamson. A paper will be prepared for the relevant minister and the Cabinet, and the department will then have to answer questions from the Cabinet.
“We want some say in putting hooks into contracts,” Williamson says. These come-back “hooks” will begin with the chief executive of each department and will also apply to contracts with vendors.
One “very large” department has already had its first detailed briefing —Williamson won’t name it — and is about to go to request for proposal. “My officials did a couple of days’ in-depth briefing with the department and said the project looks good.”
He says a more formal process will be set up within a few months. That is likely to involve representatives of the private sector being seconded to the overview team, perhaps for a year, but certainly no longer.
“I don’t think you can every get anyone to work in a government department who is qualified enough,” Williamson says. “They rapidly lose their skills and become bureaucrats.
“The solution is to bring in expertise where there is no conflict of interest.”
He says it hasn’t been decided where the advisory unit will be housed, but most likely it will be under the aegis of the State Services Commission.
The commission may also have a surprise in store for chief executives, whose overall IT literacy is a matter of concern for Williamson.
“I believe to be a chief executive in the modern world one of the bare core competencies is that you can use a browser properly. You have to be able to surf the Net, to be able to look at what’s happening in other countries in your business area. Some of our chief executives can’t even hold a mouse in their hand.”
And in an aside referring to the recent controversial welfare conference in Auckland: “You don’t need to spend $1700 a head at welfare conferences to find out what Wisconsin has done.”
Williamson says he and State Services Commissioner Don Hunn will be taking a close look at those issues over the next few months and that chief executives could find a requirement in their contracts to be able to use a browser.
That will certainly be a wake-up call for one who doesn’t even have a PC in the office.
The often fraught area of RFIs and RFPs will also be addressed. Williamson says more specificity needs to go into the process earlier.
“If you go on a fishing trip tying vendors up for weeks -— there ain’t no free lunch — it goes to their bottom line. You or someone else will pay.”
He stresses that their is no intention of taking autonomy away from departments. “If they lose ownership, you can almost bet they will see it die.”
Fundamentally, there are no figures available on how much government departments spend on computing. That’s something Williamson hopes to address. He’s got his IT unit working to gather that information.
Are government projects worse performers than in the private sector? Williamson doesn’t know but he says he has a gut feel that they are marginally worse. “The better record in the private sector is nothing more simple than a lot of people putting their own money at risk.”
Out of all this change, he hopes government will perform at least to the level of the private sector and, hopefully, better.