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Large IT Projects in Government

How to Ensure That Government Digital Transformation Succeeds

This blog is the 3rd in a 5 part series:

The previous post described the organizational change management challenges of large IT projects. This situation is even worse in the public sector organizations. There seem to be so many ERP disasters in government, even in countries with high human capacity. 

Special Characteristics of Government IT

Governments are not immune to the usual large IT project problems and they have additional challenges:

  • Yearly budgets: Although governments plan across many years, the fiscal focus is always on the yearly budget. This creates more short-term thinking of saving money within single fiscal years at the expense of long-term returns. This creates increasing technical debt in governments.
  • Legacy systems: Short-term thinking often leads to lowering investments in new technology leading to more investment in “keeping the lights on” and the need for “big bang” projects to yank systems into the modern world.
  • Multiple stakeholders: Due to the complex and inter-connected nature of the government, even small projects have multiple stakeholders across different agencies.(1) This generates competing incentives and muddles project governance.
  • Waterfall design: Nature of government procurement generates the expectation of well-planned milestones and deliverables. This means the project can be way down the road to development before people realize it should have been done differently.(2)
  • Focus on old processes: Change resistance in government creates situations where new systems are expected to work like legacy systems, even though these old systems have proven ineffective.
  • Lack of business incentives: The nature of public sector employment means that project performance often has little to do with career performance. Political consideration may play a more salient role when making a decision to start a project or prevent early termination of unsuccessful projects.(1)
  • Devil’s triangle on steroids: Systems integration firms win large turnkey IT projects. Manufacturers or hardware and software products used in the project are rarely part of the governance structure. This creates an environment where systems integrators have incentives to improve revenue through scope increases and manufacturers begin the view integrators as main customers. Time and material projects will almost always be over budget and off schedule as contractors have clear incentives to bill the government as much they can.(1)

Organizational Change Management in Government

Companies with effective change management and communications plans are 3.5 times more likely to outperform industry peers. In the public sector, this number is even higher. A change management plan includes taking the time to establish organizational readiness, conduct business process mapping, prepare workforce transition and training strategy documents, conduct change agent training, and prepare a change impact analysis.(3)

Elements of organizational change management in government include:

Stakeholder Communication

There needs to be massive and persistent outreach communications using e-mail, newsletters, events, meetings, webinars that provides insight to why the project is good for the government and for public servants. IT must include feedback loops that identifies problems and opportunities early.

Define Success

Provide a clear definition of what success will look like and build it into the governance structure. “Make sure that there is a clear set of rules for who is in charge, what results are desired, and how decision-making is going to take place.(4)

Acknowledge Change

There will be resistance not only from the expected areas but also from unexpected and maybe even unknown areas. Be honest about this fact and address the naysayers by having a plan in place.(5)

Dedicated Team Members

Implementation and management team members need to be dedicated to the project. Otherwise, team members are distracted by other operational concerns, with project priorities become implicitly lower. There must also be planned transitions for staff once the project is completed to reduce concerns.

Eliminate Perverse Incentives

There should not be incentives for civil servants to accept delivery of incomplete projects, nor should civil servants feel that any sign-offs or acceptance is personally risky.

Quick Wins

Projects should be broken into many small deliverables beginning with prototypes. The demonstration of progress and the acceptance of user feedback goes a long way to overcoming change resistance. Plan projects as a series of additional functionalities, so that people don’t feel they have to get their feature in the first release.

Eliminate Scope Creep

Provide an iterative delivery structure that provides planned functionality at milestones. Rather than add scope prior to the iteration, based on older systems, plan feature enhancements in context of the latest version. 

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