Sweating the details at Shared Services: What it will take to reset it

Good article capturing some of the major differences between the public and private sector, and why large-scale IT projects are so hard to do well in the former:

It’s not just that its top mandarins lack knowledge and interest in IT. It’s that the entire procurement system and its political overseers suffocate rather than expedite the rollout of large IT projects.

This is messy stuff — software underpinning data centres and telecommunications networks evolves constantly. Upgrading applications across dozens of federal departments inevitably produces conflicts. Programmers and their managers must be free to resolve them — and to drop approaches that aren’t working. The job demands constant testing and feedback at a very micro level.

Shared Services’ first chief operating officer, Grant Westcott, had nearly four decades of experience in government and the private sector — where he was instrumental in consolidating IT systems at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. But at Shared Services, nearly every move he made was constrained.

At CIBC, Westcott would have been given a budget, a mandate and left alone to get on with it. Had his projects been late and run over budget, it’s unlikely he would have lasted there nearly a decade. In the event, Westcott and his team streamlined the bank’s telecommunications systems and collapsed 22 data centres into just two, trimming CIBC operating costs significantly.

However, the federal government doesn’t allow for this sort of flexibility. Procurement documents contain page after page of technical requirements for programmers and IT consultants. The projects are over-engineered, in other words, in a usually forlorn effort to mitigate most conceivable risks.

Budgets and timelines are spelled out in meticulous detail — even though relatively little is known during the earliest stages about how projects will actually progress. And, of course, there is often extensive cabinet oversight of projects that are costly, late or affect government websites. Which is to say, most of them.

According to experts hired to do these projects, what is needed are wins — IT projects that succeed. And the best way to make these happen is to start with small steps — manageable projects or parts of projects that work. The more of these that Shared Services can string together, the more other federal departments will be willing to let it handle.

This would also make things much easier for Shared Services president Ron Parker — instead of continually revising deadlines for his agency’s main projects, he would be able to point to services actually being performed. Far more satisfying — assuming his people can get things done.

Source: Sweating the details at Shared Services: What it will take to reset it | Ottawa Citizen

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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