Feds fumbling

The federal government is fumbling potential opportunities to improve business practices and services to Canadians, according to a critical report of IT project management by Auditor General Sheila Fraser.

The report notes the Feds continue to experience problems managing large IT projects — despite a framework of best practices being in place since 1998.

“We found several of the same problems we have reported in the past,” says Fraser. And the persistence of these long-standing problems is extremely troubling, she adds, because they involve large public investments.

“These projects involve a lot of money, and it’s important that the rules and processes in place for managing them be rigorously followed,” says Fraser.

According to the report, the federal government has approved funding of $8.7 billion over the past three years for new business projects with significant use of IT.

Skill sets and procedures for project management, organizational capacity, processes of governance and business transformation were all found wanting by varying degrees.

Fraser’s November report found only two of the seven large IT projects examined met all the criteria for well-managed projects. Canada Revenue Agency and Statistics Canada can take a bow, respectively for “My Account, My Business Account” and “2006 Census Online.”

Treasury Board Secretariat, home to the federal CIO office, failed to adequately oversee two high-profile portfolios. “Secure Channel,” jointly managed by Public Works and Government Services Canada and often held up as its paragon, failed. And, perhaps more ironically, “Expenditure Management Information System” — designed to improve reporting and transparency, budget decision-making and management of horizontal initiatives — failed.

In fact, Expenditure Management Information System was labeled as the worst-case scenario by audit lead director Greg Boyd. “It didn’t meet most of the criteria we were looking for,” he says. Projects were graded on governance, business case, organizational capacity and project management.

Boyd says the Office of the Auditor General assessed each department for its ability to deliver an IT project and each project’s ability to ignite business transformation.

The audit also reports that four of the seven projects were undertaken by departments that lacked the appropriate skills and experience to manage the projects. “We also looked at the type of people they were using and the skill sets,” says Boyd.

“In most cases, there was no indication they’d gone through an assessment and decided they could do what was called for, or perhaps not to the extent that we felt was necessary.”

With the Expenditure Management Information System project, for example, Boyd describes an unusually high turnover of project leaders and sponsors. “You just wonder if they had taken on more than they could possibly handle.”

While individual departments are responsible for their projects, Treasury Board Secretariat plays a central role in ensuring that IT projects fit the government’s priorities and follow sound management principles, adds Boyd.

Pointing fingers isn’t easy, adds Bernard Courtois, president and CEO of the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC). There is seldom a single culprit when a project goes awry, he notes.

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

Boyd asserts the failure is primarily that of the individual departments. He says departmental responsibility takes off once Treasury Board has issued its approval of the project. “Departments would have to come back for further approval or monitoring only if they’re directed to do so as part of the approval process.”

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

Without good governance, Treasury Board will continue to fail at ensuring consistency in outcomes, he adds. “Treasury Board has to have processes in place that control how projects are going once they’re approved.” As well, effective governance is a two-way street, says Courtois, because if the departments aren’t good at running things themselves, the governance process is not going to work.

“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,” he explains. “You may have to evolve the ‘how’ to ensure you deliver the ‘what.’”

Jim Alexander, deputy CIO at Treasury Board, describes its management role as 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 says.

For the most complex and riskiest projects, this means Treasury Board’s ongoing oversight through to the project’s completion, adds Alexander. He says Treasury Board will be working with other private- and public-sector organizations around the world to improve its guidance on project management disciplines, to meet the Auditor General’s recommendations.

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