Can the government solve its IT woes?

Whatever happens in the election, government departments at both state and federal levels are facing major changes to how they build and manage their IT infrastructure. Is the answer shared services, an increased focus on SOA, enhanced Web delivery -- or just telling everyone in your department to get a clue?

Whatever happens in the election, government departments at both state and federal levels are facing major changes to how they build and manage their IT infrastructure. Is the answer shared services, an increased focus on SOA, enhanced Web delivery -- or just telling everyone in your department to get a clue?

Although how government sets up its IT infrastructure hasn't attracted anywhere as many headlines as broadband policy, it potentially could have an even greater impact on Australia's economic development.

"Governments around Australia spend northwards of AU$10 billion on ICT," Ovum public sector research director Steve Hodgkinson pointed out at the recent Government Technology World conference in Canberra.

"ICT is now an indivisible part of the fabric of the operations and policy of government. Everywhere you look the projects are getting more complex and more intertwined in business processes."

As presenters at the conference made clear, however, attempts to ensure that IT projects are matched to business needs often fall short, even if there's supposed to be a well-defined process for making sure projects are relevant.

Indeed, a slavish addiction to process can in itself become problematic. "Are we making better investment decisions than 40 years ago?" asked Terry Wright, principal analyst in the commercial division of the Department of Treasury and Finance in Victoria.

The answer, Wright suggested, was no: "You can get away with anything today if you follow the process."

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Reporting and tracking processes needed to be more sophisticated and recognise changing circumstances, he said. "The problem with status reporting is we report if it's on time or on budget, but what the investor wants to know is 'is it still worth doing'?"

Planning problems
Improved collaboration between IT managers and other department or agency workers is the ultimate goal for many projects, but getting such collaboration can be difficult if management itself has unclear goals.

"A lot of the senior people in my organisation don't know what they want when it comes to technology," said Richard Host, director of business systems and information technology for NSW Fire Brigades.

Panic-mode planning is still a major issue. "The process which tends to have been around more or less for a long time with IT is that you've got to wait until there's a crisis and then you come up with some big huge proposal to fix it," said John Wadeson, deputy chief executive officer information technology at Centrelink. "I would love to have a system that was more progressive."

The attitude that IT needs to be driven by government rather than the other way around remains prevalent.

"It is a business function and it needs to be governed and led by the business, not by ICT staff," said Andrew Mills, director of the Future ICT Service for the South Australian state government.

"From an industry perspective, the biggest danger is government is complex, it's not single focus as most companies are."

However, some departments see IT taking a more central role.

"ICT is mission critical -- it is not a 'nice to have' area," said Jim Varghese, director-general of the Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries in Queensland. "I always said to my senior executives, make it your business to get to know your CIO."

Communication let me down
A common failing is not communicating the reasoning behind changes in IT infrastructure to staff who are affected.

"People are constantly surprised when they find the usage of an application is not widely accepted or there's downright resistance," said Amy Ng, director HR management and advisory services for Businesslink, which provides shared services to NSW government departments.

"People's understanding of why ...

... the change has occurred is extremely important. People like to have clearly articulated objectives so that they know what is expected of their performance going forward."

Such failures to communicate can have a long-term impact on future projects. "People very quickly forget what you say but will remember what you do and how you treat people," said Jo Bryson, executive director of the Office of e-government in Department of the Premier and Cabinet in Western Australia.

Outsourcing woes and shared services
When the Howard government first came to power in 1996, whole-of-government outsourcing for IT quickly become the order of the day. A decade on, such projects are widely viewed as a failure, but the push to use outsourcing in both federal and state government remains strong.

One common approach is shared services, where commonly required functions such as payroll or disaster recovery are outsourced to a single agency for use by multiple departments as needed.

If there's an ongoing challenge in developing a shared services environment, it's in recognising the complexities involved.

"It takes a long time -- don't think you can leave it until the last minute," said Jo Hein, national manager IT shared services Australian Customs Service.

"It's 99 percent boredom and 1 percent sheer terror -- it's a long hard process," said Future ICT's Mills. "You can't outsource the outsourcing -- it's part of the core business."

Delivery challenges
One ongoing focus within government is to make services available through a variety of channels, including face-to-face, telephony and online.

"There's a sort of recognition that the future of service delivery is bound up with what's going to happen with ICT," said Centrelink's Wadeson.

"The real issue as much as anything else is holding things back and getting the timeframes, getting the structure right and being able to do things in some sort of ordered and sensible manner."

IT managers naturally tend to focus on Internet-based methods of service delivery, but this can cause problems.

"Agencies tend to become channel-centric in their approach, and that's a big mistake," said Trevor Smallwood, branch manager capability building projects at the Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO). Agencies should instead focus on individual customer needs, he suggests.

SOA with a smile
Service oriented architectures (SOA) are also an increasing topic of discussion within government circles. "I don't think we can have the ability to deliver services across multiple channels and across multiple service delivery channels without having some kind of central SOA capability," said Smallwood.

While government might seem a natural to adopt the SOA approach, uptake to date has been mixed. Even in projects that embrace the concept , using SOA terminology too soon may be risky.

"We started from the premise of being sick of having a great big bowl of spaghetti," said Bob Correll, chief information officer for the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.

"We wanted systems that would be more agile and more responsive to the changing needs of the business. The way we started it was to have it demand-driven on a project by project basis."

Surprisingly, adoption of relevant technologies such as ITIL can be held back by vendors keen to promote their own wares.

"We used ITIL as the base of our communication tools," said Mills. "The smaller companies were happy because they were already using it, but we got a lot of kickback from the larger companies because they'd invested a lot in their own systems."