Hard Truths About Public Sector IT

Despite the major changes to Information Communications Technology (ICT) strategy in the NSW public sector, everywhere I turn lately I’ve been hit with the great unstated barrier: lousy execution.

Changes to strategy are great: common platforms, sensible IT architecture planning, decent systems to eliminate duplicated projects and so on are an absolute must.

But a single phone call from a friend with 30 years experience in IT, now contracting to the public sector, puts all that in perspective. Working as a business analyst (a step back for the lifestyle), he recounts:

I was asked to create requirements for the system we are building. So I went and spoke to users.

“Don’t do that!” I was told. When I pointed out getting user input was important to a system working properly, the answer was simple:

“Don’t talk to the users. We don’t want them to know what we’re doing”.

And there, in a nutshell, is the execution problem. The single most important predictor of IT project success – engaged users and requirements that actually meet user needs and ways of working – is ignored for bureaucratic reasons.

This predictor applies whether or not you accept the 1995 or 2009 Standish Reports or not, or not.

I see it all the time. A shared services provider that completely revamps the system without telling a single user, ostensibly to improve user experience. Head Office hiring a consultant to build an automated spreadsheet to build costings from the bottom up, only to find the finance staff in regions pick a headline number out of the air and then build down – because the system uses the wrong cost drivers.

And these aren’t big projects, yet the lack of user engagement dooms them to never realise the benefits desired, and frequently to reduce productivity by creating the need for workarounds or parallel systems.

Throw in the short-term budget  short-cut and you reduce the front end of requirements and planning, and ignore the back end of building usable reports and accessible data, and actually realising benefits. Which can easily result in all that IT cost and drama delivering no improvement in productivity.

It goes on. Seconding non-IT staff into IT roles. Poor project control. Tickbox delivery that ignores benefits. Rollout without change management.

But all of it is driven by a culture that lacks customer focus; in this case, the customer being that poor, put-upon public servant who never gets asked what they need or use, and who gets lumbered with something that looks great in an annual report but that, at best, makes their life no worse.

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