The government is a different country …

… They do things differently there. Interesting comment on my post below about integration:

“The challenge you have not tackled is how to spend the money wisely – given the government’s dismal track record of successful IT delivery, especially in the eGov space, how do you think they can successfully spend that amount of money and still deliver benefit/value? If you think it is possible, just look at the mess over in the Dept of Health – give them £10bn and they still can’t get GPs to use the technology!”

You’re right, I didn’t tackle it. It’s not an easy topic to tackle in a few lines, but that’s no reason to duck it. Here’s a few points to provoke a debate:

– IT projects on a large scale are fraught with difficulty and risk, whether public or private. For instance, Sainsbury’s supply chain system (half a billion wasted?), the FBI’s Virtual Case File project ($200 million wasted?) and so on. I could list a few dozen. If I tried to list the most successful IT projects over £100 million in cost, I think I would struggle to find more than a handful. So perhaps lesson one is, don’t try to do anything that huge – you will get it wrong, it will cost more than you thought and it will be ugly. But how then do you build systems that cater for 60 million customers. That’s lesson two:

– If you are going to build something huge, then put the very best people you have on it and run a portfolio that only has a couple of these at any one time – because you can’t resource more than that effectively. Departments in government don’t have the kind of people in the numbers needed to pull this off, which argues strongly for departments actually not having any of them. Delivery of complex IT is a specialist skill and should be seen that way. An in-house government IT SWAT team (it’s been argued for before, more than a few times) may be the answer although no entry from such a team is likely to be silent, surgical or short-term.

– Whatever you are delivering, make it incremental rather than all out. This has been one of the central tenets of IT delivery in government since the SPRITE report by Ian McCartney, is listed as one of the 7 (8?) reasons why projects fail by the NAO and is assessed whenever an OGC gate review is being carried out. Easier said than done – if you’re bringing in a new tax credits regime for the very first time, how do you roll it out incrementally? Well, perhaps for one thing, you don’t turn off all of the old systems overnight. Legislation is a difficult thing to bring in a piece at a time, but the risk of no fallback needs to be included if there’s going to be an all out approach.

– Do things together, not apart. By having a portfolio of projects across government or an organisation, aligned to business process and overall goals, you can see where you’re doubling up or where you’re not putting in any effort. This would show up, say, just how many portals are being built or how many CRM efforts are underway. Aligning business processes across an organisation – even a small one – is challenging, doing it across multiple organisations (i.e. government departments) is enormously hard. But if you don’t start, you’re never going to show it can be done. So a Department for Receiving Money would be an obvious place to start as would a Department for Paying Money. HR, Finance, Payroll type systems are usually the first place to start with shared services – they’re identified as low risk but, actually, are probably harder to do than external systems. The internal blocking is likely to be much greater with,e.g. an expenses system – believe it or not there are people who believe having the name of the person claiming in the top left instead of the top right is a meaningful differentiator between systems and deployments (just like where the search bar goes on a website – people get very wedded to it).

– Finally, the stakeholders need to be right there. The assertion that the DoH have spent £10 billion and haven’t even got the GPs to use it perhaps illustrates that. The NHS is absolutely huge – no organisation touches its scale in a single geography. People talk about Walmart (geographically spread, local systems), the Red Army (no longer with us) or the Indian Railway (look at their safety record) as being equivlent and, of the 3, Walmart is probably the only comparator – but it has a CEO, a board and a line of control. The NHS has none of these. Whilst I think the NHS IT programme could be singled out for many failings, coming up with a trite “I’d have done it this way and it would have been fine” is not easy. The level of integration is enormous – of process and technology, but particuarly the process change that comes with the new technology. Maybe GPs are not fans of change nor of technology. The NHS is littered with pilot after pilot that has never been rolled out – arguing that incremental delivery has been tried 1001 times but has never been shown to work. So an approach similar to big bang was adopted … and, so far, is hasn’t worked (at least as far as the press is concerned – I suspect that there have been many victories along the way).

Like I said – all to provoke a debate. Responses welcome, agreeing or disagreeing, as long as they’re accompanied by proposed approaches that could be tried.

8 thoughts on “The government is a different country …

  1. Very simply – success is directly proportional to how well risk is managed, regardless of the scale or ambition of the project. Many organisations, both private and public sector just lack the skills and discipline to implement risk management properly, hence the high number of visible failures.Ever thought why the NHS can\’t make anything work – well (1) they lack a project oriented culture and (2) they treat IT projects in isolation forgetting to do the \’hearts and minds\’ thing at the same time – where\’s the supporting people change programme !!?Many e-gov projects are falling into the same trap – they may have delivered in terms of their implementation but they are commercial failures due to the low levels of utilisation – to date I have never used a single on-line service – why, I don\’t see the value – it\’s probably out there somewhere but the government has never taken me on a journey to find it ! To illustrate, just look at DirectGov – rather than being a content replication site it should be the Google of local/central government – it should help me find very quickly what I need to know and then take me there – SEARCH is the killer application of e-Gov – until the boys in the eGov unit latch on this then eGov in the UK will continue to fail the public at large

  2. Did you know your comment counter on your main page does not work – I post a comment, but the counter stay at zero !!

  3. maybe a silly question, but did you refresh the page? it says 2 comments now, and when i add this, it should say 3. if it doesn\’t, i\’ll get it fixed. agree that risk management is a necessary skill – but it\’s not all there is too it. the banks manage risk pretty well, but it doesn\’t stop them losing money when they\’re on the wrong side of a trade. Long Term Capital Management anyone? egovernment projects and takeup aren\’t, I think, a function of poor or good risk management but of supply-led services versus demand-led.

  4. LTCM failed due to very poor risk management – they built very sophisticated computer models to take highly leveraged positions in high risk markets – when Russia devalued the Rouble investors bailed out to safer markets.What LTCM failed to account for is that a substantial portion of its balance sheet was exposed to a general change in the price of liquidity. If liquidity became more valuable (as it did following the crisis) its short positions would increase in price relative to its long positions. This was essentially a massive, unhedged exposure to a single risk factor. Basically, LTCM never took liquidity as a risk into account. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but LTCM\’s risk strategy never took into account parameter stress testing when the computer models were built. LTCM naively assumed that since its positions in the market were low risk, they had nothing to worry about !!!The same goes for Barings and every rogue trader that has followed ! China even lost a bundle recently in unauthorised positions in the copper market – all down to a failure to manage risk properly.So are you telling us that when you built Gov Gateway you never took into account the risk that nobody might ever use and put together strategies to mitigate – or did you believe that if you built it then people would use it -you are arguing that egov is just the enabler and that either as consumers we should be shouting from the rooftops the services we need or that gov depts need to build better services that we might actually want to use (the problem is that if they do build great services nobody tells us or we don\’t know how to find them) – egov is missing a trick – we are still in the early days of egov – the vast majority of the public are not yet ready for services, but do have a real thirst for information – simple case, it took me 30mins yesterday to trawl my local council websites to find out what time my local tip would be open tonight – I want to use a real world services but want to use egov to help me access it – egov should be helping us find the nuggets of information we need to better use the services gov currently provides – you should have build a search engine rather than Gateway

  5. Probably worthwhile hightlighting that top of the agenda after we got the Gateway embedded was a take-up and adoption strategy. Probably one of the best kept secrets until now that the Gateway authenticates access to 100 government services across the entire public sector. It is absolutely right that hearts and minds help to make a \’project\’ successful. But it is belief and the people that make a project successful ontop of a strong business case and standard project management practice (which includes risk management). The reason most projects fail, in my experience, is that key people move on and teh new people are not as good or the knowledge transfer has been inappropriate and key stakeholders have not been consulted or involved. People make the project if they believe – if you think you can or if you think you can\’t you are probably right.

  6. Steve – interesting but very false – you have \”risk\” of losing key staff – mitigation is to have good retention and motivation strategies – if you endup losing good staff then you must have poor recruitment strategies if you can\’t bring in equally good or better people – your arguement is based on the premise that the original people on a project, the ones with the drive and the vision are irreplaceable – if you lose them then the project will never succeed – this thinking is why companies and projects fail, and why turnaround experts who come into failing projects/companies can always bring the ship back on course – there are always better, more brilliant people out there who can help you deliver your vision – you just need to be an expert in talent management to find, attract and retain them within your project – as a programme mgr that is one of your primary roles

  7. IMHO, government computer projects go wrong because they want the company to employ millions of ancillary people who would be otherwise on the dole. The CSA is a case in point. Outlook, and Excel could handle it, yet it was farmed out because the outsourcer would employ thousands of people to do the job.As for the doctors being upset, when I worked for you, they were upset too. The reason for this is simple. They all think they know what they need.Curiously if you said, \”If I got you and ten colleagues to define your requirements, could you do it?\” they\’d all say \”Yes.\” Yet, tell them that you\’ve asked ten other doctors, and the all want to stick their oar in. Go figure.

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