Don't be an IT snake oil salesman

Summary:IT often promises the government much with the big pull being productivity gains and cost savings, but does the governmentthink about IT in the terms of something that will cure its ills or something which could backfire and give it process diarrhea for a decade?

IT often promises the government much — with the big pull being productivity gains and cost savings — but does the government think about IT in the terms of something that will cure its ills or something which could backfire and give it process diarrhea for a decade?

Contractors dealing with the government have to make sure that they don't promise the world when they know they can't deliver it.

If government did think the latter, could anyone blame them? There has been a trail of broken projects lying in a pile of debris over the last decade which has strengthened that view.

Think of the NSW government's Tcard project, which started in the hopes of having something running for the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games Games, but was cancelled last year by a disgruntled government with a running tab at almost $100 million. The Victorian equivalent Myki hasn't have an untroubled start either, running behind budget.

Aussat has been described as a piece of Space Junk by our former Prime Minister Paul Keating. And what about Sydney Water's IT failure earlier this decade, which had its budget reduced to a pittance because the government feared it would use it unwisely?

A report in 2007 by software testing company Planit found that large Australian organisations were losing an average of $84.7 million on software development projects each year.

Less than 42 per cent were completed on time and budget, according to that report. Six per cent were cancelled all together.

Last week at an Australian Internet Industry Association event, the head of the association's counterpart in the UK, John Higgins, spoke about his activities over the other side of the world. According to him, many UK Ministers said in the past that those from the IT industry were "no better than snake oil salesmen".

When I think of snake oil, I think of unreliability, of a cure which works because of a placebo effect if it doesn't make things worse. As pointed out above, IT does have the opportunity to do just that.

Yet AIIA CEO Ian Birks didn't think that the Australian government believed that and indeed some recent spending sprees make me believe he could be right; that IT has successfully been able to market itself as the medicine it should be, without the side effects. Indeed, such an image is essential since the world as we know it can't operate without it.

We have $11 billion of government money earmarked for spending on the National Broadband Network and just this week Defence said it would tip $700 million into IT so as to achieve savings of almost $2 billion. NSW is trying again on its Tcard and South Australia plans to enter the fray. $100 million is being thrown at Smart Grid technology.

Yet with such projects, their shine will only last so long as they progress on time and don't become bottomless pits where funds can be put. They need to show their requisite benefits.

The key to making sure that IT doesn't become a bad word, and believe me, there are pockets of society who equate it with the devil, is realism. Contractors dealing with the government have to make sure that they don't promise the world when they know they can't deliver it.

It means telling the government when something they are asking is expensive/unrealistic/complicated. (I'm looking at you, ERG). It means asking for help when something is going wrong. It means working to a project goal not a money pot.

We know government is a tempting morsel with its large deals, and a little white lie could be the way in. But is it worth turning the industry back into its snake salesmen?

Topics: Government, Government : AU, Outsourcing

About

Suzanne Tindal cut her teeth at ZDNet.com.au as the site's telecommunications reporter, a role that saw her break some of the biggest stories associated with the National Broadband Network process. She then turned her attention to all matters in government and corporate ICT circles. Now she's taking on the whole gamut as news editor for t... Full Bio

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