Government IT's biggest challenge still ahead

New review shows governemnt IT projects are actually being managed quite effectively overall

High-profile IT project failures may have given government departments a certain degree of notoriety, but a recent review of around 150 major projects has shown that they're actually being managed quite effectively overall, a government advisor told a project management conference in Canberra this week.

Speaking to attendees at the myPrimavera06 project management conference, Isi Unkowski, a senior advisor to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPC), said the adoption of project portfolio management (PPM) strategies -- which look at the allocation of staff and computing resources across the complete portfolio of projects, rather than at one project in isolation -- had given the PM and his staff unprecedented understanding of the status of ongoing IT initiatives.

Status is updated after regular "gateway" reviews in which project status is discussed among all stakeholders over three or four days of meetings. A Microsoft Excel spreadsheet is used to catalogue the most high-profile projects -- "the projects that will be in front of the PM's eyes when he opens the pages on Monday morning," said Unkowski -- with any major issues described and each project's current condition rated by colour using a "stoplight" system.

In the most recent review, said Unkowski, just 24 of 142 government IT projects had an amber light and there were no red lights at all. Furthermore, most of the amber lights were deemed to be due to factors outside the departments' direct control. "The majority of government initiatives are delivered well and broadly on time," he said, "and most of the initiatives that are selected for high-level visibility start off as green lights and stay that way."

That's encouraging news for a government that has had to wear criticism after several high-profile project failures -- most recently, Customs' AU$250 million Integrated Cargo System fiasco, which log-jammed Australia's major ports and briefly pushed IT project management to the top of the government's priorities.

Improving project management has become a major focus for many government agencies, where increasingly large and complex IT projects present considerable opportunity for catastrophic failure. To improve management of this risk, government overseers are helping departments transition from a silo-based, competitive model for project proposals to one in which priorities are continually assessed and resources distributed according to project priorities.

PPM, which combines flexible project management skills with the tools to juggle many resource-consuming projects simultaneously, has become a major driver for this change.

"It's about ensuring that our organisations can change to be able to deliver change," said Unkowski. "This is a process for those who are on the front lines and developing policies. It can be difficult for departments and government to see over the horizon of uncertainty, and to make the right decisions about that environment. Information about their policy context needs to go back to policy developers so those policies can be adjusted, or at least properly evaluated."

In many departments, funding of IT projects is hampered by political infighting and a lack of give-and-take. By providing an overall picture of project resources, PPM can help government bodies identify truly mission-critical projects and set more appropriate strategies for delivering them, Gartner research director Steve Bittinger told the conference.

Bittinger referred to the experience of the US state of North Carolina, where a review grouped 940 current IT projects into a two-by-two matrix comparing technical soundness and business value. Of these, just 40 per cent were considered critical for the department's strategy, with 17 per cent relevant across the entire state. Eleven per cent required action within the next two years, 35 per cent required action in the two-to-four year timeframe, and fully 54 per cent of projects required action five or more years down the track.

By making a more realistic assessment of project importance, PPM allows government departments to better prioritise their investments -- but such soul-baring assessment can be hard to deliver in practice. By 2008, gateway-based reviews will become mandatory for all high-risk projects in government, and eventually the discipline will extend to medium-risk projects as well.

To help departments meet this requirement, the Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO) is gearing up to release a standard ICT business case guide -- whose use will become mandatory in the 2007-8 budget cycle -- that will clarify the process for business case creation and, in theory at least, improve governance around IT project planning and execution.

"We expect departments to be able to have information to hand when they need it, and have consistent information across external boundaries," said Unkowski. "Departments need to be able to produce their business and architectural strategies for reviewers, and show how they were developed. I know within my own experience that if we were to go to most agencies and ask to see that kind of documentation, they wouldn't be able to produce it."

AGIMO is also encouraging the development of project management centres of excellence within government departments -- something that many departments have so far resisted due to a belief that IT project management should rightfully be managed by the CIO and not involve the rest of the organisation.

"We are concerned that many agencies are still reluctant to commit to their establishment," Unkowski explained. "In many offices, the scope and mandate for such offices is often very hazy. Project management is often stuck under the CIO and seen as being project management of the Gantt-chart type [narrowly project focused], and is often seen as being for a particular outcome rather than for the whole department."

Changing project philosophy will likely prove the most difficult part of the endeavour, with political infighting and antiquated project management philosophies making many departments resistant to PPM's focus on increasing managerial responsibility and project visibility.

"Many of these are by-products of inadequate leadership for project management, and inadequate identification of barriers to delivery," he conceded. "But ICT is the lifeblood of the public sector, and drives new options in policy; we have to improve the way we go about making decisions on ICT investment. This is one of the areas where it is most important for us to lift our game."

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