Back to basics?

‘Can anyone then give me a successful example of any on-time, on-budget, large-scale government technology project?’ asked Simon Moores at a recent conference. Unsurprisingly no-one ventured to raise their hand. I’d say the odds were good that he’d get the same response if he’d left out the word “government”. Scope moves, costs change, things get put in, taken out and shaken about. That’s life in the world of project delivery. For something to come in on time, to the original requirement is indeed rare.

Simon goes on to ponder whether the big picture is too big, whether there is insufficient money to deliver (slightly mixing his topics by referring to the ability of the economy to stay solid) and whether the right foundations are in place. Certainly, the big picture is plenty big. Surely it would be no fun otherwise. Visions are supposed to be way up there – after all, as I’ve said many times on stage, Kennedy did not ask that we send a dog somewhere near the moon, bring it back dead or alive and not to bother about when we did it. Some of the local authority people Simon talked to noted that many previously accepted specific targets are now “aspirations”, doubtless a code for the dog near the moon. So, do we go back to basics?

He quotes one public sector manager who says “There are foundations and there are applications. Foundations should come first but they’re invisible and don’t give central government the results that it’s looking for. Applications are sexy but they are expensive and what we have to do isn’t found in any one box in the eGovernment section of PC World. The problem is that you can’t have both without asking for more money, which you aren’t going to get. So the effort goes into the applications and you hope the foundations, like authentication, will be resolved somewhere else”.

I’ve heard pretty similar views as I wander through the maze of government. It’s a naive and useless view. In essence, it repeats the old arguments – you have to give us money to deliver, it’s all so hard, we have to do it ourselves because noone else will do it and what does it matter if we build a few things that don’t work too well – we can blame other people for non-delivery. That’s about it I guess.

The real problem is that government (and I’m not singling out any one country here) is fragmented, not given to working in cross-functional, let alone cross-departmental, teams. Government is composed not of silos anymore but of well-defended, heavily reinforced forts. Ever since Cromwell signed away the power of the monarchy in 16 hundred and whatever has this been the case. Breaking down the walls of these forts requires a few hundred cannons and a big stack of balls – not just of the cannon variety either.


If the mechanisms to conform to common practices, to leverage off team projects and to work towards common architectures were there, then at least the technology would underpin the business. But today, that impetus is not there where I look – it may be there in the countries that have truly succeeded in e-government initiatives and, if it is, then they will truly have transformed.

Projects will always fail. The “intelligent customer” role is seriously lacking in government. There are few “intelligent suppliers” and a good number who field the Z team when dealing with government. Governments need to maximise their intelligence by concentrating on small numbers of initiatives that can be delivered in short, sharp, modular fashion delivering incremental benefit with each phase. The days of the large-scale, big budget project ought to be over. That game was one noone ever won – the customers certainly lost and, ultimately, it didn’t do the suppliers much good.

But let’s be clear. It is in the power of all of the decision makers at every level in government to make this happen – the “public sector managers” cannot say it is someone else’s problem, or that they need someone to solve authentication for them. Much of the foundations that are needed are in place, much of the technology is there – in several places no doubt, as there are many exemplars of good e-government (and indeed, of good government). A better questions is perhaps, is the business ready to adopt what someone else has done? To leverage off others? To avoid making the errors that, oh so many of us, have made?

It’s time to change. And, although change must come from within, I fear that there is not yet enough incentive “within” for that to happen. But, as a wise chinese proverb says, “If we do not change our direction we are likely to end up where we are headed for”. And that’s a place we’ll deserve to be.

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