Government faces ‘big IT’ fatigue

The list of “big IT” project failures in government is long, with negative consequences that have proven detrimental to service delivery and building citizen trust. A common, systematic cause of failure is oversized projects. This is leading to greater project fatigue and pressure on government organisations to seek more modern, nimble approaches, writes Arthur Mickoleit

It is also leading to greater scrutiny. An inquiry examining the Australian Government’s attempts to privatise the visa processing system and deliver new IT systems in Home Affairs was recently expanded to examine public sector IT projects more broadly.

Governments are increasingly scaling down large technology initiatives in favour of smaller incremental digital investments that are generally easier to manage and control. A Gartner survey highlighted this, with 46 per cent of government respondents periodically or regularly conducting small technology projects to ensure success and business value, while only 44 per cent report similar investment in major technology projects.

Why projects are failing

So how can government IT leaders set up digital initiatives for success? Understanding the main causes of failure is a good starting point.

Project failures can often be attributed to an unwillingness or inability of senior government executives to engage in effective decision making. The “chief executive” is the person in the position of controlling all resources associated with the project, and often they aren’t as engaged as would be ideal. More often than not, the business or mission units aren’t either during the development process.

Typically, this results in the project’s success not being adequately or reasonably defined, largely due to a lack of understanding of the project roadmap or what needs to occur for the release of a new product or feature to validate stakeholder needs and demands.

Often, poor IT investment decision-making processes get in the way. It could be that schedules or cost estimates haven’t been developed in a collaborative fashion or well understood by all stakeholders. These need to be accepted and managed by a project team that includes both the business units and the IT organisation.

In many cases, failure is a result of projects that are just overly large or ambitious. With massive change that is planned to be introduced via a “big bang” delivery, there is no incremental delivery. Success or failure is dependent on a classic boom and bust cycle.

In preparation for a project going live, the failure of government executives to take responsibility for change management is a real issue. This means stakeholders, whether internal or citizens, aren’t well prepared and can lead to push back on using government services. It also leads to business processes that are not examined properly or reworked in advance of applying technology.

Inadequate governance is another frequent cause of failure. The decision-making processes associated with the project are either too slow, not well informed or not authoritative. No project happens without having to make decisions and changes along the way and, although not particularly exciting, governance is critical to success.

The final significant risk area for projects relates to a lack of in-house talent. It can be a case of the tail wagging the dog where the technology vendors or service providers are the only people with adequate depth of knowledge to really understand what’s happening.

Taking a new approach

To reduce the costs and political risks associated with large technology project failures, governments are adopting proven practices from other industries. This includes agile and incremental delivery, product management, as well as improved governance and change management.

Incremental delivery is a way to break a large project into smaller deliverables. Government organisations are looking to innovate mission capabilities through more iterative and collaborative ways. Failure might occur for an increment, but it’s found sooner and at a lower cost.

An essential aspect of change management is business process reengineering. Business processes have to be closely examined for bottlenecks, waste and inefficiencies, as there is little to no benefit in automating poor processes, and it may even do some harm.

Executive-level guidance is also critical to success, with a chief executive who knows the objectives and plan. It’s important they provide project management oversight with increased monitoring and scrutiny of larger digital investments. This also includes looking to innovate acquisition methods through smaller or incremental contract sizes.

Finally, disruptive technologies, such as generative AI, often have uncertain impacts on complex policy challenges. Governments should take new digital investment approaches by investing in smaller pilots, hypothesis testing and co-development engagements with vendors before committing to large production rollouts.

Arthur Mickoleit is a director analyst at Gartner, advising public sector CIOs and technology leaders on digital transformation, public sector innovation, citizen services delivery and citizen experience.

The latest technology trends in government will be discussed during the Gartner IT Synposium/Xpo on the Gold Coast, on September.

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