IT prioritization aids IRAS project selection

Singapore's tax office deploys IT prioritization framework to identify high-value projects, instead of allocating resources to IT demands only as they sprout, explain government officials.

SINGAPORE--The implementation of an IT prioritization framework has helped the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (IRAS) systematically select the most suitable IT projects, say officials who add that the government agency allocates a separate budget for innovative ideas.

Speaking at the IDC CIO Summit 2011 here Thursday, IRAS CIO Tang Wai Yee said the framework, implemented in 2008, allowed the IT department to identify high-value projects instead of treating each IT demand on a first-in, first-out basis.

According to Tang, the demand for IT projects in IRAS' 2011 financial year was more than five times over the available resource. Through the prioritization process, she said the tax office was able to narrow down the projects to the top 22 percent.

She explained that the framework was established due to several reasons, including the tightening of IT budget which meant the organization had to do more with less and ensure the projects are "value for money". She added that the increase demand for IT projects within the government agency also meant that there was a need for a transparent and systematic process to allocate IT resources.

Tang said the framework also helped reduce project overlaps by looking at demand across all divisions. For instance, last year, one division wanted to implement an e-learning system. Through the IT prioritization framework, it was discovered that another division had made the same request so the IT department was able to group the projects together, she said.

Robin Ng, director of ICT planning at IRAS, explained how the framework works. In September and October each year, the IT team first engages users to identify IT projects they want for the coming year. The requests are then consolidated, evaluated and scored. IT projects are then plotted on a chart based on the scores, based on risk adjusted returns and strategic alignment to company goals, to simplify the review process.

Based on the information, the IT steering committee will decide which projects to approve, Ng explained. Once approved, project owners will need to present their business case and seek funding to implement their projects.

Tang noted that project owners need to have specific value proposition as well as metrics to measure if the project is successful after implementation.

While the prioritization exercise happens once a year, Ng added that a review will be carried out mid-year so there is flexibility for new and urgent projects to be included. If a new project is added at this point, the IT team will have to slow down ongoing projects and direct resources to it, he said.

The IT prioritization framework also includes project prioritization tools and templates, he added. These tools help project managers' thought process when coming up with value propositions, while the templates also form a basis for project owners to track their projects from the beginning until post-implementation, Ng added.

Incentive for innovative projects
According to Tang, IRAS also allocates a separate budget to spur innovative projects.

Ng explained that IT projects at the government agency are divided into three core focus areas: innovation, enhancements and foundational. Enhancement projects look at improving existing applications, while foundational projects are implementations that cannot be avoidable such as regulatory changes or replacing technology that have become obsolete.

To encourage innovative thinking, IRAS does not deploy budget set aside for such projects to the other categories, even if there are no suitable proposals, Ng said.

The government official advised organizations keen to encourage innovation in their own workplace to "start small", with IRAS' ring-fenced budget--the agency started with 10 percent of its IT budget--and to monitor how well the budget is utilized.

Tang highlighted Singapore's electronic tourist tax refund system as an example of an innovative project. Implemented since May, the system allows tourists to claim tax refunds on their purchases without physically filling out any forms. Information of the purchases are recorded electronically and linked to a token such as a credit card which the tourist can use to claim tax refunds at the airport.

In the backend, the data is sent from the retailer to the Central Refund Agency, which will then send the data to the Central Clearing House for processing.

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