Government IT failures: "Room for improvement" [interview and podcast]

Given the size, scope and frequency of Government IT failures, it's important to understand the dynamics underlying these projects. To learn more about federal IT, I interviewed two federal systems experts from CA, developer of the Clarity project portfolio management (PPM) solution.
Written by Michael Krigsman, Contributor
Government IT failures: “Room for improvement” [interview and podcast]

Given the size, scope and frequency of government IT failures, it's important to understand the dynamics underlying these projects. To learn more about federal IT, I interviewed two federal systems experts from CA, developer of the Clarity project portfolio management (PPM) solution.

Gil Digioia is Vice President of Federal Project Portfolio Management Sales for CA Clarity, and possesses over 15 years working delivering software solutions tailored to the specific needs of federal agencies and solution integrators. Jose Mora is Sr. Director for Product Marketing for CA Clarity Project and Portfolio Management solution, where he is responsible for all IT governance and public sector-related marketing activities including product strategy and positioning.

The OMB publishes a quarterly list of high-risk IT projects as part of its investment oversight function. Why is this list important?

It's an extremely important means for the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to provide visibility and transparency regarding IT projects to the agencies. In addition, citizens want to know how agencies allocate and invest funds, and whether they are achieving their deliverables. Having a list of projects in the red zone is also critical to making decisions.

Do government agencies pay attention to the list?

Absolutely. The most important thing about this list is bringing attention, and drawing focus, to where agencies will direct their spend and plans over the year. A lot of attention is placed on bringing these high-risk projects into the green.

In addition, when an agency has a change, such as new CIO or director wanting to make an impact, the list is often used to bring about quick success.

Why do so many government projects fail?

There is room for execution improvement regarding the triple constraints of scope, time, and budget. The big reason is lack of "critical corrective action" from high-level decision makers within the organization. This can result from either lack of decision-making or leaders who don't have the proper information to make decisions that ultimately impact the project.

Requirements also tend to change after projects have been awarded, and are often different at project conclusion from what was specified in the original proposal. These changes tend to disrupt project workflow and collaboration. Such challenges pose particular difficulties for organizations that don't have a repeatable governance process in place or lack the proper technology to react easily to those changes.

Problems can arise at the project management level, the executive decision-making level, and with technology. For example, problems are sometimes caused by legacy systems that can't adapt to the rapid changes in information these organizations face.

Are there differences between public sector and private sector projects?

The biggest difference is profitability on the finance side. In the private sector, cost reduction is important but they're also looking to drive profitability.

From the perspective of project management and program management behavior, however, the federal government is definitely ahead of the private sector. Various mandates on government projects, such as OMB and enterprise architecture requirements, are much further ahead than what is typical in the private sector. For example, "earned value" is still a novelty in the private sector but it's important in the government.

How can federal organizations evaluate IT projects to prevent failure?

Earned value management, which the OMB mandates, is a solid and rigorous project management technique. It captures the fundamentals for evaluating a portfolio, including analysis of baseline costs, performance data, schedules, resources and skill sets, outcome measurement, and examining reporting requirements. All these provide a solid foundation for evaluating one project versus another.

Aside from systematic upfront evaluation, what steps can federal managers take to ensure successful projects?

Selecting the right governance structure is important, which means examining how an agency makes decisions on its program portfolio and ensuring this process is repeatable and established throughout the organization. This process component is fundamental.

It's also important to define comprehensive criteria for evaluating projects and to ensure that criteria includes all critical areas or details that could impact earned value reporting back to the OMB. The earned value requirement established by the OMB is a step in the right direction.

Accurately capturing and reporting project data is another key area. Although this sounds simple, we often see complicated, homegrown legacy applications for project management, resource management, and tracking time or cost. All these disparate systems create confusion and complexity, making it difficult to track accurate data.

Project improvements also mean mobilizing and empowering the proper infrastructure of people needed to make and communicate decisions throughout the organization. Leadership is required to make difficult decisions such as killing a project, delaying a project, or simply not funding a project.

To be successful, start with sound processes, as opposed to throwing a tool or solution at the problem. Get your processes in place, understand your risks, and then create a platform where you can organize the people who need to execute, in a manner that's repeatable, process-driven, and has visibility from executive management. Take on smaller wins that deliver value quickly instead of attempting a big bang.

[Thanks to Joan Levy from Blanc & Otus Public Relations for arranging this interview.]

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