Keep your eye on the ball

Keep your eye on the ball

To avoid costly IT failures, make key people regularly justify their game plan, at the risk of being sent off or having the project cancelled.

Having worked within the public sector ICT machine I usually take exception to the popular media pastime of gloating over government ICT project failures. “Sure, there have been a few projects that have gone a bit wobbly lately, but no more so than in any large organisation, right?” Hmmm ... this argument seems to have worn a bit thin of late as a convincing explanation for what seems to be continual string of bad government ICT project news stories. Indeed, the dip in funding commitment to ICT projects in this year’s Victorian State Budget relative to prior years seems to reflect a view that caution has now become the better part of ICT valor in Victoria. A series of troubled ICT projects – notably transport ticketing and police records - has dented the Government’s confidence in its ability to successfully deliver big ICT enabled change projects.

Victoria is not alone of course with such angst, with the recent Queensland Auditor General’s report into some major ICT project issues in that State highlighting many inadequacies in project governance and management practices. Other states have their own war stories, and the Tax Office’s humiliation with its major systems renewal illustrate that the federal government is also not immune.

What is going on here? It is not as if there is any real lack of information about how to manage large ICT projects. The Victorian Auditor-General’s Office published a great book in 2008 called ‘Investing Smarter in Public Sector ICT: Turning principles into practice’ and there are many excellent governance and project management publications available. Most governments run Gateway Review processes and deploy PRINCE2 and PMBOK project management principles. So what’s the deal?

It is all about focus and accountability

My take on this is that the root issue behind many of the project failures is a lack of executive accountability and focus on the decisions that drive project success.

Projects that go on for any length of time often outlast many ministers, agency heads, executive sponsors, project directors, project board members and key project officers – and assume a ‘life of their own’. Who is ‘accountable’? The revolving door of key project personalities means that everyone has a sense that the project’s problems are somebody else’s doing and therefore the best thing is just to carry on and hope that they work themselves out or blow up on somebody else’s watch.

No amount of gateway reviews, QA reviews, governance frameworks, project boards, project management methodologies etc. etc. can compensate for a lack of clarity and acknowledgement of ‘where the buck stops’. Who is the most senior executive lying awake at night worrying about the project? Process acts to diffuse accountability so that everyone, and no-one, is accountable.

When charged with change:

1. There must be a clear line of accountability between the agency head and the senior responsible business owner (SRO) for the quality of the investment concept and its scoping, mobilization and delivery. There should be no question in anybody's mind that badly conceived, badly scoped, badly mobilized, badly implemented projects will reflect badly on career prospects in a very direct way. This would oblige the agency head to pay attention to all the other factors that create project risks.

2. The project director needs to have the leadership skills and managerial competence for the task. The bottom line is that the director needs to have the ability and in-for-the-whole-journey-motivation necessary to call the shots on the project and drive the program of activity towards the core goals of the agency head and SRO ... come hell or high water. Critically, the project director needs to have the experience and credibility needed to effectively escalate and resolve issues to manage the project’s scope.

3. The ‘Accountability Triumvirate’ - the agency head, SRO and project director should be periodically carpeted by the funder (the Treasurer or a minister-level review committee) to defend/justify the fact that the Government should trust them with the project. This should not be a rubber stamp review - there should be a real risk that the approach is deemed unsatisfactory and sent back for reworking ... or the project stopped. This would have the merit of elevating accountability, and the fear-factor, to the highest level.

4. When any of the executives in the Accountability Triumvirate change it should be compulsory for the project to be resubmitted for re-approval by its funder. This would oblige a new Triumvirate executive to fully review what he or she has inherited – and avoid the dreaded ‘all care no responsibility ... it wasn’t my fault’ lack of accountability.

If an agency head had to periodically look the Treasurer in the eye, or front up to a minister-level committee, and assure them that a project was on track, they would actually need to know that it was, in fact, on track.

Dr Steve Hodgkinson ( is research director, public sector, at Ovum.

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Tags CIO roleovumopinionanalystproject failuresteve hodgkinsongovernment CIO

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