Making your ICT projects work

One of the most frightening statistics in public sector ICT is to look at the number of failed ICT projects. According to some sources over 70 per cent of ICT projects fail.
One of the reasons always given for this is poor project governance. One of the other, less touted reasons is that very often these projects aren’t ICT projects at all, they are change projects. Even more often, they aren’t change projects all, they are transformation projects that have at their heart what Professor Peter Kawalek from Manchester Business School refers to as “destructive technology.” I want to look at how we are identifying  opportunities for transformation through technology and the importance of governance to allow this to happen safely.

Destructive technology
Tameside has lots of experiences of destructive technology. In common with many Northern towns and cities we have ancient pack horse trails running close to canals, railways and motorways. We have seen up close what happens when people make the decision to use the canal rather than a pack horse road and then the railway rather than the canal.
Government in the 21st Century is facing some of those destructive technology choices. The public sector is good at refining and improving services. We can do longer opening hours and drop in sessions for people in hard to reach areas. We use our resources as effectively as possible to achieve the maximum amount of what we do for the money that we have. We are creative about the work that individual staff are asked to do, training our front line teams to become “problem noticers” so that information is passed more effectively to our specialist officers. The success of local government in achieving efficiency targets is a clear indication that this is something that we do well, effectively and more importantly as a matter of course.

Challenges ahead
One of the big challenges that face us all is how do we stop refining the work that we do and change it dramatically so that the services that we provide become truly fit for the age in which we live. This is the area that is so difficult because by definition it is about voluntarily giving up control of things that you do well and working with others to create something else, the vision for which may well be driven by people who need and use your services rather than those who traditionally commission and provide them.
This is the point at which we stop sending goods by canal and start to look seriously at railways. For us the destructive technology of the moment is ICT enabled and particularly that found by taking the opportunities presented by the creation of a secure community of trust between local authorities and between local authorities and central government.

It is important to make sure that in anything where a key feature is innovation, there is a strong focus on governance. Strong governance stops projects from running away with themselves. It stops the scope creep that can be so destructive and allows projects to limp along increasing the number of things that they want to do but not delivering on the areas where they can already add value.
There has been a dramatic explosion of project management tools in the public sector and one of the successes of the e-Government programme has been to embed these techniques in the ordinary operations of local authorities.
Local government is good at governance. We have evolved in an environment of committees and of scrutiny where it is normal to have decisions reviewed and questioned. What we are now doing is to apply those rules to the wider planning for transformation and change. What that means in reality is the need to make sure that strong governance has a real meaning in these shared ventures. This is particularly true where the ventures involve ICT.
In private sector projects, there have been some notable cases, such as Sarbanes-Oxley in the United States, that highlight the importance of governance and risk management. It is also true that IT projects can easily get out of control and have the capacity to dramatically affect organisational performance.

ICT programmes in tameside
Tameside Council has been recognised for its strong corporate core and for the effectiveness of its use of resources. It has taken a robust approach to involvement in ICT programmes and really looks to use them as a key part of the transformational change agenda. This runs through all aspects of ICT as an enabler of transformation in the Borough.
Through the e-Tameside awards, we recognise and support innovation and effort at all levels through Schools and local businesses. Our involvement in the digital challenge work with Manchester is part of that approach as is our role as Chair of the North West e-Government Group and the work that we are doing with the department of Communities and Local Government to lead the the Government Connect programme.

Who are the experts?
For Tameside, one of the key issues for governance of ICT projects is that ICT capability does not belong to any one technical group. It is too easy to defer decisions to ICT “experts” because of the complexity of decisions and the limited technical approach of senior management.
The system that we advocate is one in which all stakeholders, including politicians, officers, customers, suppliers and finance have a clear mandate to be involved in decision making. This is important for a number of reasons, it prevents single stakeholders – typically technical people - from being blamed for errors and problems. It also stops customers or end users from saying at the end of an ICT implementation that the product is not what they wanted or had asked for.

Structured approach
What that means in practice is that it is essential to have a much more structured approach to these sorts of projects. We must be clear at the outset what is being attempted and we need robust processes for dealing with inevitable change.
ICT projects fall into lots of different categories and the governance needed to implement a new housing benefits system is not the same as that needed for complex multi-partner programmes. In local government, the role of elected members is crucial. It is their endorsement of the vision of citizen focussed services designed to make a real difference to real lives which is the starting point for these projects and for the decision to transform rather than just to improve existing services.

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