Big IT projects fumbled by feds, says Auditor General

When it comes to the management of large IT projects the federal government is failing, according to Auditor General Sheila Fraser’s November report that found only two of the seven large IT projects examined met all the criteria for well-managed projects.

The report concluded that of those seven projects the two that were up to snuff were My Account, My Business Account (Canada Revenue Agency) and 2006 Census Online (Statistics Canada).

Projects that did not meet all criteria included: Secure Channel (Public Works and Government Services Canada and Treasury Board Secretariat) and the Expenditure Management Information System (Treasury Board Secretariat).

According to audit lead director Greg Boyd, the four areas examined were: governance, business case, organizational capacity and project management.

“Basically if I take the worse case scenario, the Expenditure Management Information System, they didn’t meet most of the criteria we were looking for,” said Boyd.

There also appears to be a human resource issue as well as it’s stated in Chapter 3 of the report that “…four of the projects were undertaken by departments that lacked the appropriate skills and experience to manage the projects.”

Boyd said what the Office of the Auditor General (OAG) hoped to find in each project assessed included the ability to deliver an IT project and the ability to perform business transformation.

“We also looked at the type of people they were using and the skill sets,” said Boyd. “Some sort of indicators that they’ve gone through an assessment and decided they could do what was called for.

“I think in most cases that was either not done at all or perhaps not done to the extent that we felt was necessary.”

With respect to organizational capacity, the Expenditure Management Information System project was “perhaps the worst case scenario of what we saw,” he said.

“We’re talking about major turnover in project leaders and project sponsors on the business side. There are times where there (position) vacancies for long periods and you just wonder if they had taken on more than they could possibly handle.”


Boyd confirmed the OAG had stated that while individual departments are responsible for their projects the Treasury Board Secretariat “plays a central role in ensuring that IT projects fit the government’s priorities and follow sound management principles.”

When it comes to pointing the finger, Bernard Courtois, president and CEO of ITAC, said there is no single cause.

“You need the client departments to be good at figuring out what they really want and how they’re going to manage that,” said Courtois. “Treasury Board can’t do it for them.”

Boyd said it was not a failure on the part of the Treasury Board, but primarily a failure of the individual departments themselves.

“It’s necessary to understand the overall governance projects for what we call large projects,” said Boyd. “Because of the (financial) cut-off used to determine when a project goes to Treasury Board — it’s actually quite a low threshold and I think we mentioned in Chapter 3 the fault level is $1,000,000.”

“Departmental responsibility really takes off after they’ve got approval from the Treasury Board ministers and they would only have to come back for further approval or monitoring if they’re directed to do so as part of the approval process.”

Courtois noted that Treasury Board has to do more than just provide approval up front “and then let the thing go.”

“It has to have processes in place that control how projects are going once they’re approved,” said Courtois. “They need a very effective governance process and that’s a two-way street because if the departments aren’t good at running things themselves the governance process is not going to work.”

If there isn’t good governance the Treasury Board isn’t playing its role ensuring consistency in outcomes, he said.

“You’ve got to keep focused on the correct part of a project which is what you’re trying to achieve in the first place but not necessarily every detail of how you’re trying to achieve it,” Courtois said. “You may have to evolve the how to ensure you deliver the what.”

Deputy CIO Jim Alexander of the Treasury Board Secretariat said their role as it applies to the management of what he refers to as large “IT-enabled” projects is really that of a continuum.

“If you look at this oversight continuum, it states what the expectations are through policy, through to doing a challenge and due diligence process for a lot of the projects on their way to approval by Treasury Board ministers,” he said.

For the most complex and highest risk projects it means the involvement of Treasury Board in ongoing oversight through to the projects completion, according to Alexander.

As for next steps to address the problems cited in Fraser’s report, Alexander said Treasury Board along with other organizations around the world, both private and public sector, are continuing to gain experience in managing IT-enabled business projects.

“We’re going to be improving the guidance we have around project management disciplines,” said Alexander. “We can learn a lot from each other, both within the federal government, those who are running projects and also continuing to connect with the project management community abroad or outside the federal government.”

Alexander added that Treasury Board agreed with the recommendations outlined by the OAG in its report.

Need for flexibility

Courtois also noted the need for flexibility because Treasury Board established a framework of best practices in 1998 following a previous audit; it may not be applicable in today’s world of more complex and much larger-scale IT projects.

“It is true that part of best practice in managing complex projects is that you may have to adjust as you go along,” said Courtois. “You may not have figured out how the users will react or something else will change, so flexibility is part of proper management of complex projects.”

He added that they have to support Treasury Board going ahead with a good governance process.

“The supplier community has to be prepared to live with that and be supportive. My sense is that Treasury Board understands what needs to be done and we need to encourage them to go ahead and do it.”

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